Just don't be a jerk

do good work

We have a saying in our house: “Just don’t be a jerk.” This is sort of like an modernized version of the Wiccan morale code, “An’ ye harm none, do what ye will.” You’re in charge of your own happiness, but it can’t come at others’ expense. Most people don’t actively try to harm people, but they can still be jerks and cause havoc. Jerkitude is on a spectrum. Where do you land?

  • Intentionally cause harm (major jerk)
  • Inadvertently cause harm (minor jerk)
  • Let people go their own way, neither helping nor hurting (neutral)
  • Help if you are in a position to help (do-gooder)
  • Go out of your way to help others (do-greater)

The reason I’m exploring the degrees of jerkitude here is because it has enormous implications at work. On the negative end of the continuum you have people who ruin lives and make people miserable and cost companies millions of dollars each year. Major jerks are the people embezzling money, sabotaging other people’s work, threatening and coercing people into doing their bidding. Minor jerks at work just don’t do their fair share so other people have to pick up the slack, or they are constantly negatively emoting and bringing people down. Their infractions may be minor, but the effects accumulate and ripple out. Neutral guys are “nice enough” but generally invisible and ineffective. They don’t like conflict so avoid it even when it’s necessary. Do-gooders are the quintessential team player. They not only do their own tasks very well, but will also help other people when asked without complaint. Do-greaters though, these people take initiative, offer suggestions for improvement, and go out of their ways to help others and the company. Do-greaters care about the company and care about their colleagues.

Who do you think is more engaged? Who will be more enjoyable to work with? Who is going to get the biggest results for the organization? Who is going to have the higher-performing teams? Not the jerks, not the zeroes, but the heroes. Doing good work involves doing good.

We have plenty of data on the bottom-line impact of major and minor jerks. The costs of workplace incivility are very real and include decreased effort, quality, productivity, performance, creativity, teamwork, and commitment. Moreover, those who can’t tolerate it leave; and those who can, well, unfortunately stay and incivility becomes part of the culture. Jerkitude is a contagious attitude.

But it’s not enough to “do no harm.” I’ve worked with countless people over the years and have come to believe there is no one management or leadership philosophy that works. But one thing all true leaders have in common is that they are do-greaters. They weren’t just out ot make a lot of cash (though they did). They didn’t just avoid causing problems (they were too busy solving them). They went out of their way to do good, and in so doing, became great.


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