Why You Don’t Have to Be a Jerk to Win at Work

4 Ways Kindness Can Give You an Edge in Business

We sometimes think we have to be jerks to win at work. Standout leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are famous for their tough approach. And we all know raging meaniacs set impossible standards and get amazing results, right?

I spent most of my professional life in the publishing business. While I was president and CEO of Thomas Nelson there were a couple of executives working for another major publisher. These two were like blowtorches with business cards, they sometimes clashed, and they were legendary across the industry for their egos and attitudes.

Like Jobs and Bezos, they were also successful.

If you were an up-and-comer looking for role models, it was easy to think being a meaniac was the secret to their success and then use their example to justify bad, unprofessional behavior. I saw it more than once. I bet we all have.

The Myth That Being a Jerk Pays Off

Every industry has its own examples of driven, demanding, ruthless, and rude bosses somehow rising to success and inspiring others to adopt their approach. Don’t fall for it.

Research only backs a few limited scenarios in which being meaniac is advantageous in business, none of which seem to have any real long-term benefit. It mostly boils down to bluffing about power, and after a while people can see through that.

Even in Silicon Valley, where you might expect the myth to dominate, only a quarter of people think you have to be a jerk to succeed.

Instead, research shows that leaders who score low on character are far less successful than bosses who score high. According to one study covered by Harvard Business Review:

CEOs whose employees gave them high marks for character had an average return on assets of 9.35% over a two-year period. That’s nearly five times as much as what those with low character ratings had; their ROA averaged only 1.93%.

4 Ways Kindness Wins

I’d put my money on a kind boss over a meaniac any day. There are several reasons. One is I just don’t like jerks very much. But there are legitimate business reasons for backing the kind boss.

Here are four ways kindness can give you an edge in business.

  1. Keep your ears and mind open. Today’s economy runs on great ideas. Whether we’re talking about massive corporations like Google or bedroom-closet startups, the magic ingredients for success are new insights and solutions.

    A jerk thinks all that depends on him. But that outsized role comes with an outsized ego. The truth is that whatever great idea one person has, a leader will go farther faster by hiring creative people and encouraging them to innovate. Instead of knowing all the answers, someone looking for an edge needs to open up their ears and minds and hear what their team can offer.

  2. Let your team shine. Jerks hog the spotlight and take all the credit. But when they do, they kill their team’s enthusiasm.

    Obviously, most of us work for money. But money is only part of the story. We also work for credit, praise, and the satisfaction we feel when we rise to a challenge and complete a difficult task. Letting your team shine by recognizing and highlighting their contribution is a simple but powerful way to keep them emotionally engaged.

  3. Treat people with respect. Jerks micromanage their people. They’re quick to catch mistakes and usually happy to point them out in public, sometimes while yelling. I’ve had bosses rip me and my team in public settings—it did not go well for anyone, including the boss.

    Quality team members need leadership, not micromanagement. If you give your people the respect they deserve, they’ll perform better, give their best, and stand by you. It comes down to treating people as we want to be treated.

  4. Set clear expectations and goals for your team. This may not sound like kindness per se, but clarity is a gift. One thing I’ve noticed about jerks in business—they claim to have high standards. But they’re always moving the goalposts, and no one on the team knows what it takes to win.

    A simple way to inspire your team is to give them clear expectations and goals. Stick to them, acknowledge people for doing their part, and celebrate the wins. That will keep your team strong and engaged.

Meaniacs might win for a moment, but they fail in the end. Both of those publishing executives I mentioned before are still around. But they also both lost high-profile jobs.

In his new book The Road to Character, David Brooks contrasts what he calls résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The first are about what it takes to win at work. The second are about what it takes to win at life.

But what if they’re really the same? When I’m gone, I’d like to be remembered as a successful entrepreneur—one who was kind, took time to listen, and was quick with encouragement. I’d also like people to know those traits helped me be successful.

Winning in business requires winning with people, and jerks need not apply for that.

Have you ever worked with any real jerks? Did their behavior help or hinder their success?

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