Don’t be a jerk!

20 February, 2017

Watch out for these red flags – they signal rude, bullying leadership behaviour

A friend was recently commenting about a colleague who demanded that one of his team members cancel a planned vacation for just an internal review. Unfortunately, this kind of insensitive behaviour is not uncommon in organisations. How about a boss who enjoys creating fake deadlines? Or someone who holds impromptu meetings with your team, while conveniently forgetting to invite you? Or someone who instantly puts the blame on another team member when things blow up? Or a boss who relishes berating team members in a meeting or talking behind their back?

All of us have experienced such jerk-like behaviour.

Many leaders still resonate with the Machiavellian approach that as a leader that you need to be feared and not loved. And that “nice guys finish last”. After all, it is a cut-throat world. A leader has to be ruthless and get people to toe the line.

And whether you would like to admit it or not, my guess is that you have had moments being a jerk with your teams or colleagues. 

However, do think hard. Does being a jerk pay off in the long run? Does this behaviour make you a better and a more effective leader?

My message this week is about not becoming a jerk leader.

You probably may say that there are plenty of examples of successful leaders who were legendary jerks. In her New York Times article, No Time to Be Nice at Work, Christine Porath examines this idea:

‘What about the jerks who seem to succeed despite being rude and thoughtless? Those people have succeeded despite their incivility, not because of it. Studies…have shown that the No. 1 characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style. Power can force compliance. But insensitivity or disrespect often sabotages support in crucial situations. Employees may fail to share important information and withhold efforts or resources.’

The reality is that despite the occasional exception, the vast majority of rude and bullying bosses are bound to fail. And that’s because no team will genuinely rally behind a leader who relies on fear and manipulation as their main motivators.

Being tough yet fair is one thing (that’s a valid leadership style), but being mean and obnoxious is a whole other story. What’s more, keep in mind that people tend to follow their leaders. In a study on workplace incivility, 25% of workers said they were rude because their leaders acted the same way. If your team sees you being inconsiderate and selfish, they are all the more likely to display those traits, leading to a less-than-optimum work environment.

What are the tell-tale signs? How do you know whether you are crossing the line between being an emphatic, effective leader and a jerk?

Be honest with yourself. If you recognise any of these leadership behaviours in yourself, consider it a red alert that needs to be addressed right away.

1. It’s all about you

Do you stay in the forefront and keep everyone else in the background? Do you think of yourself as indispensable and the rest of your team as easily replaceable? Do you think that your team works ‘for’ you? Managers who want everything to revolve around them, expect everyone to be grateful for their amazing leadership, and refuse to share the platform with others inevitably become the target of dislike and mockery. As a leader, you must diffuse the focus so that each member feels included and valued. Without this, your self-centred approach will probably create a culture of “every individual for herself”, which is a sure-shot sign of a weak team.

2. You either make no decisions or all decisions

This is tricky. On one hand, you should worry if you’re the kind of leader who just can’t be decisive. You’re concerned about taking a call and so, you procrastinate and in the end, everyone suffers. And on the other hand, you may be the kind who doesn’t trust your team to do their jobs. You take a “my way or the highway” approach, micro-managing their everyday tasks and refusing to let them take any calls. And you explain this by saying it’s more efficient.

Make it a point to hire people you trust—and then demonstrate that you believe in their judgment and abilities by empowering them to make decisions. In such an environment, motivation and productivity are sure to flourish. This is also an important part of grooming promising team members for future leadership roles and, by showing genuine concern for their career growth, you earn their loyalty.

3. You never answer why

One of the best ways of rallying support, is to simply explain why. You can’t expect your team to follow you blindly, when they don’t know what the larger picture is. Don’t look at questioning as something which undermines your authority. Instead, see it as an opportunity to excite and build involvement. David Cottrell, in his book, The First Two Rules of Leadership, explains this by saying:

‘Excellence and passionate performance is delivered by people who have an understanding of knowing why their work makes a difference. People have a basic need to understand why they need to do what they need to do and how they fit into a worthwhile cause. Answering why ignites passion, which exposes opportunities.’

4. You hog the credit, pass the blame

This is a classic jerk move—stepping into the spotlight for applause when things are going well and fleeing offstage if there is a crisis. Instead of standing up and owning the situation when things get tough, selfish bosses simply want to find someone else to blame. You must be able to demonstrate unwavering team loyalty in public and take one for the team—if necessary. Even if someone is at fault, discuss this later in private. And at times of success, acknowledge the vital role played by every person.

Can you recall the last time you said a sincere “thank you” to a team member? I don’t mean in a formal way, through an award nomination or an appraisal review; rather, just a simple acknowledgement that showed them you’ve been paying attention and value their hard work: Thank you for staying late to work on the presentation. Thank you for helping out our new team member. Thank you for going the extra mile on this project. If you’ve noticed someone doing a great job, don’t just make a mental note for the year-end review—tell them! (Here are some ideas to build a culture of appreciation in your team.)

5. You love the sound of your own voice

Self-absorbed leaders love to hear themselves speak; they see themselves as the ultimate source of knowledge. They rarely ask other people for their opinions, and have poor listening skills. So, people tune out.

Talk less, listen more. It’s that simple. Remember that you don’t always need to have all the answers. Instead, facilitate inclusive discussions that allow everyone to participate and contribute.

6. You bring uncertainty to the team

Research suggests that predictability makes us happy while unpredictability triggers a negative response. Our brains are constantly making predictions about the future; when these are disrupted, people get upset and anxious. Good leaders must strive to be predictable and accurate, in order to foster a safe and stable team environment. This becomes even more important in today’s VUCA world. Be transparent and objective. And try to cultivate a calm and even personal temperament: avoid swinging wildly between extreme behaviours because this makes you unpredictable for your team members.

As a leadership team, we need to think about what jerk leaders could do to the agile, high performing culture we want to foster at Godrej. Having jerk leaders will lead to us losing good team members. Like Cottrell points out, people don’t quit because their leader is incompetent:

‘People quit because they are exhausted. They are exhausted from implementing bad decisions. They are exhausted from redoing work when decisions were made before all the facts were considered. They are exhausted because they perceive that their leader’s ego is preventing the nourishment of a positive work environment. They are exhausted from trying to figure out why incredibly smart people keep asking them to implement decisions that appear to be really dumb. They are exhausted from working for leaders who they think really don’t care about them.

They are exhausted because their leaders are not empowering them or supporting them, and they are thus prevented from doing their best work. They lose trust in the person who is supposed to be leading them and they start looking for someone else who they can trust.’

So, if you find yourself writing a book or making a movie, by all means choose the jerk boss character—he is likely to fascinate and entertain the audience. As a leader in real life, however, stick to the behaviours that enable your team to trust you, respect you, and give you their best work. Be the kind of leader with whom you yourself would want to work. To borrow from Cottrell, the first two rules of leadership aren’t about a new leadership strategy. ‘Strategies come and go… It’s don’t be stupid and don’t be a jerk.’

I look forward to your thoughts.


  • Nagendra Rao, T. says:

    Thank you Mr. Vivek for sharing thought provoking and valuable views through this article!

  • Surendar says:

    Good one sir!

  • Vibhor says:

    Quite comprehensive.
    Our lifecycle makes us witness jerky professors/teachers in academic institutions, followed by similar personalities in the corporate world. I liked reading “Leaderships BS” by Jeffery Pfeffer.

    The problem, according to Pfeffer, is that after thousands of books and speeches by hundreds of consultants and other leadership experts, our leaders are not getting any better, and our employees are not getting any happier. Many leaders are still being fired after failing to achieve their goals. Many employees want nothing more than to get away from their bosses and supervisors.

  • Samantha says:

    This is one of those difficult “introspection” tasks that I find complicated.

    As someone under management, my knee-jerk response to this would be “Finally, someone who understands!” However, I’m sure the same could be said by managers as well.

    It reminds me of my teenage years, when my siblings and I would watch a particular parenting episode of Oprah that we found spoke for us and resonated to the point that we would make sure to strategically “catch” the reruns while WITH the parents in the hopes that they would “learn” a thing or two. Unfortunately for us, watching this same episode did not mean we all got the same message out of it. More often than not, the parent would get up and say “Finally, I hope you kids were listening…”

    My point being, both parties felt innocent or aggrieved, and neither could see that the other had valid points to be considered.

    I could say that the same could be said for this topic. “Don’t be a jerk” should apply to both manager and team. All parties should empathise and try to look at both sides of the coin… in a perfect world, of course.

  • Swati Verma says:

    The jerk type of leadership exists quite strongly with those who belong to the old school of thought. Under such a leadership style, team members give up and treat their jobs as punishment time and perform tasks that they just require to survive. They lack passion, enthusiasm and are not keen to employ any creative skills they possess in the interest of the organisation.

    However, the new leaders are changing that. They practise team work in the true spirit and are more result oriented than process oriented. This change is surely for the better.


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