Friday, May 23, 2008

The Best is the Enemy of the Good

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the expression, “The best is the enemy of the good.” Just exactly what does it mean? I think it describes the tendency of some jerks to criticize any new or innovative idea that is not perfect. It is like saying, “Sure we are dealing with a crappy situation but your solution isn’t perfect and I don’t think we should settle for anything less than perfect.”

This allows the critic to take a position of moral superiority and yet not offer anything of value. I am often amazed how often people put up with this sort of jerkdom. Someone offers a good solution and our jerk takes the opportunity to raise their eyebrow, dip their chin and say, “It’s not perfect and I can’t agree.” Most often we as an audience say “Gee, I guess you could be right.”

This is a subtle form of jerkiness, and I think it may hide an inferiority complex. I suppose I should be more sympathetic but I choose a tranquil workplace over psychological tolerance. I am reminded of an episode of “MASH” where psychiatrist Sidney Freedman described Frank Burns and his problems by saying, “He is such a walking sack of fertilizer that it is hard to care.” Now I’m not totally unsympathetic. For example I would probably chastise the wag who said of someone with an inferiority complex, “It’s not a complex.”

Each of us must decide to what extent jerk behavior should be tolerated, but all of it has its cost. See

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Fork in the Road

There is a parable about an old gent who lived near a fork in the road. Let’s give him a long white beard and assume that he was very wise. I’ll call him Oscar. Oscar would sit near the road smoking his meerschaum pipe filled with happy-go-lucky brand tobacco and passers-by would ask him about what it was like in the next town. Well, granting that Oscar sat near a fork in the road, there were two towns ahead but it didn’t really matter because the conversation was always pretty much the same. When someone would ask, “What are the people like in the next town?” Oscar would ask them “What were the people like in the last town?” They would say, “They were mean and unpleasant, that’s why I am moving on,” or they would say, “I loved those people and I hated to move.” Oscar would reply, often in a cloud of smoke, “Well, I think you’ll find the folks in the next town pretty much the same.”

I called Oscar wise because he was always right. I think it had something to do with understanding the importance of attitude. See:

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Identifying Jerks With De-merits

In previous blog entries I suggested that jerks and abusive people shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace. Some have noted that it is difficult to define jerk behavior. Even if we could define jerk behavior should we be permitted to ban it?

In terms of definition, I suggest that jerk behavior involves the abuse of other people, particularly subordinates. But why not throw this open to people in their workplaces and let them provide definitions? Workers are perfectly able to define behavior that should not be tolerated. I suggest jerk-defining focus groups.

Now, how about the libertarian argument that we shouldn’t regulate behavior? Well we do regulate behavior. Duels such as the one between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are quite effectively banned these days. Also, there are very few gun fights like in the old west. We reframed the issue and said that consensual duels and six-gun face-offs are not self-defense or a matter of honor. We decided to call it murder.

However, even if we define jerk behavior to specific work environments, one major problem remains. How do we identify jerk behavior when it occurs? I suggest anonymous jerk de-merits.

For example, let’s give every employee 100 anonymous de-merit points each month to spend on anyone who has acted like a jerk. Each employee would make a list of people that they interact with and they could assign de-merits in any amount to anyone on that list. Totals would come in at the end of each month.

Should the cumulative list be public? I’m not sure. Should you take action against those who get consistently high scores? Good question. All I am saying here is that it is possible to define jerk behavior and it is possible to identify it.

It is best not to hire jerks in the first place, but if you have them in the workplace you need to decide what you can do about it. See:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Why Won’t People Tell You How Good You Are?

I decided that my Workplace Attitudes website needed some client recommendations. I sent out some emails to elicit recommendations. Nada. Then a few came in but I had sent out dozens of emails. Reluctantly, I decided to make some phone calls. Jackpot. Turns out that clients love the product. In fact they were effusive. Still few people offered this information on their own. Many people said we thought you knew we liked it. Someone else said, “Well, we wouldn’t re-order it if we didn’t like it.”

This is very similar to the premise of the Workplace Attitudes Test (WAT)--if you want specific information you have to ask specific questions. The WAT seeks information about bad attitudes in the workplace. Then I asked clients, “What do you like about the Workplace Attitudes Test?” “What problems has it solved for you?” and “What changes would you like to see?” Here are some of the answers:

“I used the WAT on about ten new hires because I decided that I didn’t need it. I hired the next ten on my own. After a sexual harassment suit that was settled out of court, I’m back to using the WAT. Would this have made a difference? Probably. You see, I tested my hires after they were on the job. Two of them showed high warning signals. I don’t know why Dr. Paulson lowered he price.”

Manager, Lawn Service

“We promoted a clean freak perfectionist for our fabric and sewing store, thinking that this was a good thing. There are no fabric remnants on the floor but some of our best sales clerks have quit and customer complaints are rampant. From now on I’ll be using the Workplace Attitudes test for promoting supervisors as well as new hires.”

Fabric Store Manager

“Given the (Often hidden) cost of jerks why wouldn’t you use a pre-employment bad-attitude screener?”

Manager, Fast Food Franchise

“With a money back guarantee, it’s a no-brainer”

Restaurant Manager

“If you think that this test is better than just an interview, you’re a better interviewer that me.”

Locksmith Store Owner

“I my opinion, HR keep a lot of good people from getting the job; the WAT keeps bad-attitude people from getting the job.”

Department Store Manager

“If you don’t want to ask someone “Are you an asshole,” you should use this test."

Honcho at a Motor Scooter Store

“Some people are proud to be jerks; others hid it during the interview. Now you can catch them in the act.”

Restaurant Manager

“This (the WAT) is not a psychological test, it simply tells you if the person you are considering can get along with others. You need this information.”

Association Executive

“If you could send your candidate to boot camp like the military, you wouldn’t need this test. But then again maybe you would because some recruits wash out.”

A Retired Army Sergeant

“Dr. Paulson, why would you lower the price when you save someone so much money by helping your clients avoid turkeys?”

Association VP

"We wanted someone who would enforce the rules and yet would get along with people. The WAT help us find the right person."

Manager, at a Marina

“You can’t believe the number of jerks out there. I interview a lot of kids. Some pampered and spoiled. The WAT screener makes my job much easier. At an amusement park you want patient and polite employees. Believe me this separates the wheat from shaft.”

Manager at an Amusement Park

“Wow, this thing (the WAT) couldn’t be easier, one score and a bar graph. No warning signals, no problem.”

VP, Department Store

“One less thing to worry about.”

Hardware Store Manager

“$49 bucks, you’re kidding me? (I mean this in a good way.)"

Supervisor, Boat Supply Store

“I haven’t tried other tests and probably won’t. This works. Thanks.”

Tour Company Director

“By keeping it simple and concentrating on bad attitudes, this thing really works.”

Admissions Director, Community College

“Believe me, there are bad apples out there and this test keeps them out of your barrel.”

Owner, Auto Shop

Now to be honest, two people didn’t like the Workplace Attitudes Test but I didn’t include their comments because these two turkeys are jerks. See

Monday, May 12, 2008

So High Self-Esteem is a Good Thing Right?

During the interview the job candidate has a great deal of self-confidence and obviously has high self-esteem and you’re thinking this is going well. But it turns out that researcher, Michael Kernis, Ph.D, Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia says, “There are many kinds of high self-esteem, and in this study we found that for those in which it is fragile and shallow it’s no better than having low self-esteem.”

Now there is good self-esteem and bad self-esteem. The self-esteem goodnicks were less likely to be verbally defensive by blaming others or providing excuses when discussing past transgressions or threatening experiences. The baddies were more verbally defensive. The professor sums up, “These findings support the view that (high self-esteem involving) heightened defensiveness reflects insecurity, fragility and less-than-optimal functioning rather than a healthy psychological outlook”

My conclusion, self-esteem probably is not a great predictor of job performance and HR professionals should probably stay out of the psychoanalytic business. I think that this is true of pre-employment tests as well. A good pre-employment test should be related to the job environment and not one’s personality.

The Workplace Attitudes Test makes the following assumptions: 1) the workplace is a social environment; 2) people should get along with each other; 3) people with bad attitudes don’t play well with others; 4) certain work-related attitudes pre-dispose people to act in certain ways; 5) workplace attitudes can be measured; 6) disruptive people, often described as jerks, have problem workplace attitudes; and 7) jerks, identified by behavior or consensus, are happy to reveal all of their workplace attitudes because they are proud of those attitudes.

The Workplace Attitudes Test works not because it is psychoanalytic, but because it looks at attitudes related to social aspects of the workplace. See,

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Silly Me, I Thought It Was Obvious

Recently, I started a discussion session on the HR website called ERE and the address is The topic was “Should HR be Pro-Actively Anti-Jerk?” I even cited the book, “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” by Robert I. Sutton. This book describes the high costs of jerks in the workplace. It goes on to describe how jerks are personally abusive and that they tend to treat subordinates with derision and superiors with some respect.

About eighty percent of the comments tended to agree that jerks are costly and that HR should do its part to bring tranquility to the workplace. However, about twenty percent of the comments demonstrated a fair amount of tolerance for jerks.

One comment asked (in Latin) who is going to watch the watchers. My Latin is non-existent so to add insult to injury, I had to look up the quote on Wikipedia. Another person said that “One man’s victim is another man’s whiner.” Someone else said “The purpose of HR is to serve as a protective device. Make sure everything is legal, fair and compliant and quash anything likely to result in litigation. When you are done with all that then by all means, you may devote a few minutes per day to your Utopian ideals on human potential.”

Others have suggested that jerks are necessary to shake things up and to keep people on their toes and that if someone is really good at their job then jerkiness should be tolerated.

There you have it, some justifications for tolerating jerks in the workplace: (1) who has the right to judge; (2) their victims may just be whiners; (3) the anti-jerk idea is utopian; (4) people need jerks to motivate them; and (5) and some jerks are so important that we need to tolerate them.

This is an old debate, but I agree with James Madison’s sentiments when he said, “If men were angels, government wouldn’t be necessary.” In other words, certain actions should be taken to guard against the worst instincts of some people. Even gun rights advocates tend to agree that hand-grenades and bazookas should be regulated. I’ll grant that some people would disagree, but they are jerks. See