Do People Really Want to Work for a Competent Jerk?

May 12, 2019
Mary Jo Asmus

A recent article about a study claiming that people would rather work for a competent jerk than a likable fool caught my eye and just a wee bit of my ire. In any part of the work world that I am aware of, jerks (even if they are competent) don’t attract talent and don’t inspire people to put their “all” to good work even if their compensation is at stake. There are just too many good leaders that people can choose to work for who aren’t jerks.

I know there are competent jerk-types like Steve Jobs out there (who by all accounts from those who knew or worked with him, was a jerk) who manage to make their organizations very successful. But at what cost?

Apple was highly successful under Mr. Jobs’ leadership. However, every negative reaction he heaped on employees also stifled many of them. He was a genius, but I can’t help but think about how much more successful Apple would have been if he had been kind, humble, and likeable as well as a competent genius.

In decades of work at companies including 16 years as an executive coach in companies and organizations of every size, I am clear that most of the time, leaders who bring success to their organizations are not jerks. They are competent and:

Relationship oriented: They put people first because they know that the work will get done when they do. Successful leaders are attuned to the needs of others, and treat every employee as an individual. They go out of their way to assure that employees are equipped with what they need to show up to work at their best. They welcome feedback from others on how they are doing in this area and don’t shy away from doing the tough things that involve people (stepping into conflict, managing poor performers out), and they do so with respect and kindness.

Caring: The fact that successful leaders truly care about others goes hand-in-hand with their ability to create and sustain solid and trusting relationships. This isn’t a put on - they have empathy in spades, are wise about people, and are always looking to see where they can help or guide others. They extend themselves to others whenever they need to.

Kind: Successful leaders are kind. This means they treat others with respect and kindness when needed, no matter that they may have done things in the past that are less than admirable. Kind leaders know that when you treat people with kindness and respect, they will return it many times with motivation, energy and loyalty.

Before you even consider that being a competent jerk will help you to become a great leader, think again. Instead consider what being a competent leader who puts relationships first, cares about others, and exhibits kindness might do to bring out the potential in others.

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Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small-sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.

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