Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why Jerks Kill Creativity

I suppose there are some jerks or turkeys working by themselves who are creative. But most endeavors, including creative endeavors, involve working with other people. As noted in earlier blog entries, jerks tend to demean other people, especially those working under them, and they generally pollute the work environment with caustic remarks.

Creativity may involve confrontation and the challenge of ideas but it cannot tolerate personal attack. Let’s look at the process of creativity to see why this is so. Some years ago I wrote a paper on creativity and group dynamics and I noted that there is a difference between renovation and innovation. Renovation involves the modification or improvement of something that already exists, whereas innovation involves the development of something new. I suggest that renovation can be strangled by jerks but innovation is stopped dead in its tracks.

Renovation is hampered by jerks because they tend to personalize critiques and this discourages suggestions. Innovation is stifled because this type of creativity requires some very special conditions that are antithetical to jerk behavior.

What are the conditions of creativity? I suggest the creativity requires: 1) persistent determination to solve the problem; 2) willingness to expand the boundaries of the problem; 3) willingness to consider multiple possibilities; and 4) respect for something I call the “gestalt.”

The persistent determination to solve the problem is somewhat self-explanatory. It involves a willingness to think about a problem and to learn as much as possible about things related to the problem. In short, it is strong curiosity. It is also lack of certitude, and jerks tend to be blessed by certitude. I am reminded of the quote by Bertrand Russell, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.”

A willingness to expand the boundaries of the problem is another form of
open-mindedness. If the problem is faster communication, then breeding faster horses for the pony express is not as good as working on the telegraph. In fact, sometimes creative innovation finds a solution to a problem that you didn’t know existed. The Walkman and the Ipod come to mind. Again jerks get in the way. Steve Jobs appears to be an exception because some people think he is a jerk ( “The No Asshole Rule” book written by Robert Sutton, Ph.D.), but a creative one. I contend that he is a genius first and a jerk second. He would probably do even better if he were less of a jerk.

Willingness to consider multiple possibilities is a process where ideas need to be evaluated without regard to status or personality. I recall a story of a group of executives trying to solve the problem of long wait times at elevators at a busy hotel. There were many complaints. They finally decided it was necessary to tear out several hotel rooms to make way for more elevators. The lady cleaning the room and emptying the ashtrays muttered that she thought that this was silly. One of the executives was smart enough to ask her why she thought it was silly. She said, “Well at the last place I worked they had the same problem. They installed mirrors on each side of the elevators and people were so busy looking at themselves that they forgot about the wait time. The complaints stopped.” If the executive was a jerk, I suspect that he would not have asked the advice of a mere “cleaning lady.”

Finally, respect for the gestalt. This is a little more difficult to explain but many scientists suggest that oftentimes their pre-occupation with a problem is rewarded with a sudden solution to their problem. It springs full-blown into their mind. Oftentimes in the shower or at night. These insights must be respected and they seem to be the result of patient
open-mindedness. Again, jerks seem to be excluded from this process. Maybe you want to make your workplace more creative, see

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Being a Jerk Once in a While Doesn’t Make You a Jerk

The Workplace Attitudes Test is designed to identify enduring jerks or turkeys, not people having a bad day or those people with lesser people skills. It is sort of like the difference between “mean stupid” and “benign stupid.”

Mean stupid is where, upon hearing that a kid was hit by a car in the street, someone says “Well if he didn’t want to be hit, he shouldn’t have been playing in the street.” Benign stupid is where, upon learning that Lou Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, someone says “Wow, what are the chances of that?”

This is similar to the distinction between “states” and “traits” drawn by Dr. Robert Sutton in his book, “The Asshole Rule.” He notes that psychologists indicate that “states” are fleeting feelings, thoughts, and actions whereas “traits” are enduring personality characteristics. States are often related to circumstances, and traits are related to beliefs and attitudes.

Beliefs and attitudes are the lenses through which a person sees and interprets their world. The Workplace Attitudes Test is based upon research linking identifiable beliefs and attitudes with the consistent behavior of jerks and turkeys in the workplace.

In short, jerks and turkeys act the way that they do because they have certain beliefs and attitudes that determine their behavior. They tend to see the world in a way that justifies their actions. We all have subjective lenses (beliefs and attitudes) through which we see our world -- as Bertrand Russell, British author, mathematician and philosopher, is reputed to have said “There is not one world, but as many worlds as there are people in it.”

My research related to the Workplace Attitudes Test shows that jerks and turkeys see their world as a place of hostility, a place of winners and losers, and a place where courtesy and consideration have little value. Jerks and turkeys are often able to “play-act” their way through a job interview but once they have the job their negative beliefs and attitudes usually direct their behavior.

Fortunately, the Workplace Attitudes Test lets us see the lens through which they see their world. See

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Jerk is a Jerk is a Jerk

Now that would seem obvious. Why isn’t it? In a world that claims that there are no absolutes, believe me, there are absolutes. Newtonian physics is not cancelled out by Einstein’s theory of relativity, especially if you hit a tree at one hundred miles an hour in your car.

When it comes to jerks, I am reminded of that cartoon about two guys standing in a pot surrounded by cannibals. The caption reads “It doesn’t help to add more salt once you’ve crapped in the soup.”

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’ve been reading some blogs lately that say that one jerk in the workplace may be a good thing. The argument goes that some people are indispensable, that it is impossible to find enough reasonable people, and that one jerk will help keep everyone else on their toes.

There is an interesting book called The "No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t," written by Robert Sutton a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and the founder and co-director of Stanford’s Center for work. He points out that there is a calculated “total cost of assholes” and it is surprisingly high, plus it is almost impossible to enforce a civility rule with one asshole (or jerk) in the workplace.

I have often wondered why there is such great tolerance for jerks. I think one of the reasons is that a lot of jerks have money and we have an almost irrational appreciation for conspicuous consumption. We tend to forgive people with wealth and give them credit for virtues that are conspicuously lacking. They also tend to like the attention and they get a lot of press. For every Warren Buffet, a reasonable man, there seems to be ten Donald Trumps. I like to refer to this as the jerk or asshole halo effect.

But let’s look a little closer at the behavior of the office jerk. Mark I. Schickman, in his review of the aforementioned book, says that jerks “take credit for other people’s work. They manage expectations by making employees feel bad about themselves. They have the laser-like ability to find the weakest, most insecure people and focus their aggression on them. The symptomatic behaviors include insults, threats, teasing, shaming and ostracizing.”

Do you want to have even one jerk in your workplace? Shouldn’t it be a primary function of bosses and HR to keep these people away from the rest of us? I am reminded of the Tylenol scare of a few years ago. Some nut was putting poison in Tylenol. It would have been unthinkable to say it was only a few poison capsules in millions and millions of bottles. Come on folks, end the suffering. Screen for jerks and assholes. See