201901.17
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About that “No-Jerks” Policy …

It has been called many names, from the “no-jerk” policy to the “no a-holes” rule. Companies like Uber and Netflix have committed to a warm, open corporate culture, so they have decided on a new approach to mean people: get rid of them. The trouble? So-called jerks can offer outstanding ideas and actually enrich those around them. Don’t they (and we) deserve a chance to do that?

While many companies are taking a stand against them, employers and employees could be missing out on huge opportunities by completely dismissing strong, brilliant people who do not always work well with others. Policies like these seem to indicate that jerks are not allowed—at any cost. What is the cost exactly? If we sanitize the workplace from jerks, are we also getting rid of geniuses and a range of diverse ideas and approaches? Entire teams, companies, perhaps even society, could be missing out.

Of course, there are many kinds of professional jerks. There are those who steal work, lie, backstab, “throw you under the bus,” and gossip. This conduct provides no value. But there are also those high-value “brilliant jerks” who can get a lot done and offer great ideas, and at the same time, are also prone exhibiting conduct perceived by others as “bullying.” These are the Steve Jobses of the world. They are undeniably jerks, and undeniably brilliant and capable of outstanding things. They even inspire others and help develop and improve colleagues, teams and a company’s products or service offerings. Those who can learn to bear these brilliant-jerks become tougher, better. They learn to work with these people (and all kinds of people) as a result and reap greater rewards. In fact, many of the greatest coaches in the world can be heard “yelling” at their star-athletes. Can a “jerk” supervisor simply be a variation of the “tough-love” coach?

I have personally benefited from many so-called “jerks” in my career. After all, law firms and lawyers have a reputation in this regard. But I cannot say I wish I did not work with those individuals. These colleagues and mentors sharpened my skills and helped me become a better attorney, a better professional. And, when a workplace is completely stripped of smart meanies, our workforce cannot benefit from them and employees will not have the tools to deal with jerks when they encounter them—and they will encounter them, and thosejerks will not be on the same team.

Simply firing someone because of “mean” behavior may not be the best approach. If we listen, we may find that despite their methods of expression, they could raise valid points and make substantial contributions. Their high expectations may push us to work harder and produce a much better work product. They challenge, motivate, and help others produce higher-quality work, but only those who can take the heat. We need honest and creative people in the workplace—should we be so quick to penalize those who are?

Perhaps we are unintentionally grooming a workforce that can only respond to nice personalities. Why not help employees learn to work with many personalities? If employees have the right tools for dealing with firmer people, they can become stronger themselves. We should be coaching leaders and the workforce on how to deal with different communicators.

I know what you might be thinking: why do they get to be jerks and we have to adapt to them? Certainly, some jerks ride a high horse. They know more (or think they do), they think they are smarter or more qualified than their peers, and they value their own ideas more than those of others. Narcissism, bullying, and flagrant callousness may not be valuable things to a corporate culture, but they can be changed with coaching—it may be that jerks simply require better tools for expressing themselves—having worked with many professionals branded as jerks, I have learned there may be more to their story than you realize.

With the right blend of understanding and coaching, a workforce can learn where and how to use a brilliant jerk rather than letting them find opportunities elsewhere or subjecting them to draconian punishment, and a jerk may improve. Instead of an enemy of corporate culture, so-called jerks can become indispensable assets. In most situations, employees can learn to deal with more difficult people and these brilliant jerks can learn to empathize with the rest. Not excluding them can actually lead to a much stronger workforce with a greater breadth of ideas and talent, ultimately leading to more success.

A company has a right to decide what kind of culture and environment it wants. In the end, “jerks” in the workplace are like bacteria and viruses. We need them. They keep our immune system sharp and make us stronger. They are necessary for us to function. Too virulent can kill us, but absolutely sanitized is not healthy either, and not practical—we would have to live in a bubble. As in all matters of health, there has to be a balance.