Debunking The Myth That Jerk Bosses Get Results

There are plenty of notoriously mean bosses out there that get results, but are their attitudes hurting the business in the long haul?

Over the years we’ve seen some shining examples of notorious brutes pretty much killing it. From examining their managerial style and their success, one might correlate the two and conclude that being a jerk is the best way to get stuff done.

Don’t fall for it.

The likes of Gordon Ramsay and Steve Jobs built their empires by bullying their employees. Ramsay’s entire career seems almost entirely centered around being a foul-mouthed bad boy on reality cooking shows like Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef. And while you could take his bullying tactics with a pinch of salt (no pun intended) and chalk it all up to the reality TV biz, the numerous high-profile feuds with family members, business partners, and fellow chefs go to show that in Ramsay’s case, art likely imitates life.

Famous Apple innovator Steve Jobs was also notorious for his not so touchy feely management style. As Google’s former chief of product Jonathan Rosenberg explained in a deposition earlier this year, "In our interactions with Steve, he generally exhibited an irate, difficult, ornery, and petulant behavior."

In his biography, Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson chronicled incidents of Jobs hurdling boorish insults at business partners during meetings, berating an aging Whole Foods employee for making his smoothie insufficiently, laying off numerous employees without severance or notice, and even firing a manager in front of his entire team.

“He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed,” Isaacson wrote.

While these entrepreneurs (and many other jerk bosses) achieved great success, it came in spite of their bad attitudes, not because of them.

"Even people who worked with Jobs told me that they'd seen him make people cry many times, but that 80% of the time he was right," author and management expert Robert Sutton told the Atlantic. "It is troubling that there's this notion in our culture that if you're a winner, it's okay to be an asshole."

Research suggests (unsurprisingly) that bossing people around breeds resistance, reticence, and retribution in a workforce. Additionally, shaming and bullying employees has been shown to kill creativity, productivity, engagement, and trust, among other things. Study after study shows that jerk bosses are bad for our physical and emotional well-being, and bad for business overall.

In The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking, Eli Broad writes, “When it comes to motivating people, fear is as overrated as praise.” Fear is a powerful motivator when it comes to primal things like learning not to touch hot objects, but it isn’t appropriate in the workplace--we're more evolved than that.

When you motivate with fear, you run the risk of completely paralyzing your workers, or worse scaring them away. And those that do choose to stick around are more likely to make mistakes.

What’s more, fear of failure is one of the greatest reasons people procrastinate. When people are afraid their work may bring about derision and retribution, they are more likely to delay completing it.

Life is too short to be miserable--and to work with miserable people--so if you’re behaving badly, it won’t be too long before your best employees take their brilliant ideas to a better work environment.

And if all this is still not convincing you to avoid leading with fear and bullying tactics, I leave you with some sage advice: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Well said, Yoda, well said.

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[Image: g-stockstudio via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • gcook

    Rachel, while I agree with your angst over jerk bosses, and there is empathetic logic to support your thinking, the difficulty is that there are some jerk bosses who are very, very successful, and there is in fact not one shred of evidence to suggest that they are successful in spite of there jerkiness.

    The real issue is that we need more hard-edged research to prove that the pain and suffering that jerk bosses cause significantly offsets any value their jerkiness may somehow create.

  • kmaxey_440

    Absolutely spot on! I had an early experience with a Jekyll and Hyde manager and, although his negative behavior was not directed at me, it made for a very uncomfortable working environment (particularly for a new college graduate). Later experiences motivated me to write "Civil Business: Civil Practice in Corporations and Society." In there, I defined civility as "Those actions and behaviors that support the dignity of another" and drew parallels between economic transactions and civility being a form of social (exchange) transactions. And, I referenced Mr. Sutton's work as I adopted the much the same position as he did in his book, The No Asshole Rule. My admonition was "Don't tolerate the jerks!" Also, I believe Mr. Stathis had a most excellent observation!

  • Excellent point of view. You've captured what I have experienced in my career. Moreover, obnoxious bosses often end up being the smartest guys in the room because everyone else has left.

  • Corey Rosen

    Great article. I am the founder of the National Center for Employee Ownership, and we have done a lot of research on this issue as well. The key lesson we have taken away is that the most effective leaders are humble. The reason is simple. The best companies in any industry are the ones that generate a lot of new ideas all the time, both large and small. It's not just the new killer product (soon to be copied), it's the clever idea to make customer service more efficient or create fewer mistake when packing t-shirts. Intimidating bosses who think they are always right (and even usually right) lead to employees who are afraid to share their ideas.

    Who knows how much greater Apple could have been if Steve Jobs had all his good ideas but truly believed other people did too--and that he would not always be right.