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Leading Beyond ‘The Jerk at Work’

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Phyllis Korkki, business columnist at the NYT, recently wrote a piece inspired by the work of management professor Gretchen Spreitzer and her colleagues on “de-energizing relationships” and their effects on individual performance in the workplace. For many of us (perhaps reading this from our office chairs) it will come as no surprise to discover that, according to the research, “de-energizers” tend to spread around their negativity and drag others down. As Korkki translates with her typical candor, “In non-academic parlance, these people are known as jerks.”

New Research shows that one negative team member can reduce the productivity of everyone on in the office – but good leadership can help.

Dealing with the ‘jerks at work’ is a challenge for all of us, but leaders and managers play a key role in determining how a negative employee impacts the workplace – they have both more responsibility and more institutional power to do so. This post is about applying leadership strategies to effectively mitigate “de-energizers,” and cultivate workplace relationships that enhance, not diminish, performance.

One plus one equals nothing

One of the most important take-aways from this research is that workplace energy levels are not a zero-sum game, in which de-energizing behaviors and energizing behaviors can be simply observed and balanced out. A jerk’s negative behavior can “spread a dark cloud” that has ripple effects in the workplace, and ongoing interactions with de-energizers appears to have a cumulative effect which, according to Spreitzer and her colleagues, directly manifests in reductions of individual performance. But just adding a positive soul to the room might not unseat the undesirable trend: the researchers didn’t find that the presence of energizers necessarily reverses those reductions. Instead, dealing with a jerk might require some more intentional leadership.

Walking the leadership line

When it comes to negative de-energizing behavior, however, leaders can feel caught in the middle. As both Korkki and Nicole Torres, in her piece in the Harvard Business Review, point out, it’s often the super-star employees who feel like they can get away with undercutting co-workers or other kinds of unsavory habits. It can be tempting to value high performance over good-energy and look the other way. However, if one employee is steadily reducing everyone else’s productivity with his or her bad behavior, the gains start to look a little thin.

Conversely, trying to eliminate negativity through a disciplinary approach might be impossible because, writes Korkki, “so often it is ambiguous. Outright bullying or abusive behavior — easier to identify and take steps to prevent — is less common than behaviors like ignoring or belittling someone or excluding someone from a conversation or a meeting. Often this lower-level bad behavior is not even intentional…and when the intent is ambiguous, it is hard to know how to respond.”

In light of this, leading beyond the jerk at work is not likely to be about counting your energizers and de-energizers, or trying discipline away negative behaviors, but about cultivating a workplace culture that defines what is valued and acceptable. Your message as a leader about what gets rewarded is important: set a standard by which employees are expected to be seen and treated as whole people, not just competing progress reports, and then be the living example of that standard. By directly counteracting small but insidious acts of exclusion or denigration, you can communicate to your employees that it is simply not valued to behave in this way – whether you are a super star or not. People should feel embarrassed if they are caught being disrespectful, and that’s a culture that you as a leader can make explicit.

Additionally, if you are going to see the ‘dark clouds’ of de-energizing behavior on the horizon before they arrive and have too much impact, it will be important to be in touch with the dynamics between your employees, and to nip any overtly negative or abusive behaviors in the bud. And if a storm does settle in and brings down your team, remember that meaning is an important way to galvanize good energy. It’s much harder for negative commentary to bring down people who feel they are doing what they are doing for a reason – something greater than profit. So if you find yourself trying to gain back positive ground from a jerk at work, maybe gather your team for a creative exercise that helps them remember why they do what they do, and why they are all there doing it together.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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1 Comment

  • It is definitely important to try and address those with a negative attitude/behaviors before it spreads and has a negative impact throughout the rest of your team members. Great insight, thanks for sharing!