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Competent jerks have a shelf life in the office

People who progress with little regard for colleagues are likely to hit a ceiling

Everyone knows at least one. The office jerk who is such a high performer they get away with being horrible to their colleagues. They are gossiped about and resented by their peers but seem to be on an ever upward trajectory.

Why? Because these so-called “competent jerks” are good at managing up. They get results for their bosses and don’t mind putting a few noses out of joint to get there.

There are endless examples in a typical workplace. At one point pharmaceutical company Pfizer even set out a “no jerks” policy.

I’m talking about colleagues who can be cruel, rude and small-minded rather than those who might be annoying but try to do the right thing, such as know-it-alls on Zoom calls. It could be the worker who diminishes others’ achievements to further their own career; the manager who lauds their status over junior team members, or the employee who wants things done their way and is vocal when it doesn’t work out.


The problem for many of these individuals is that they are likely to hit a ceiling.

They may have progressed through their organisation with little clue about their effect on others. Some even see themselves as mavericks, Elon Musk types, who believe those around them have to embrace negative workplace behaviour and the consequences.

But when many of these competent jerks reach a certain level their poor relationships and reputation of being impossible to challenge or confront finally catch up with them.

“They don’t realise they are not explaining themselves or taking people along with them,” says Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill, one of the world’s top experts on leadership.

Their ability to succeed alone, when combined with excessive ambition, “blinds them”, she adds. As they don’t question themselves they don’t develop empathy skills as fast and are less self-aware. “If you’ve been a star and rarely failed you probably haven’t done the work on yourself.”

At some point relationships with peers begin to count in a more meaningful way. Jean-François Manzoni, president of the International Institute for Management Development, says entry into the executive committee is usually when tensions are most starkly revealed.

This is when these (usually alpha) personalities have to leave the comfort of their loyal individual fiefdoms and work with colleagues who have also risen up the ranks.

One chief people officer for an industrial company recalls an individual who had progressed to the executive committee but, when they were evaluated by headhunters and HR for the role of CEO, it became clear they were seen as a bully. “Until that point the higher-ups just didn’t know. At that point they were automatically ruled out,” he says.

Ultimately such individuals’ behaviour will affect how top teams function, how they think about strategy and how well – or not – they work with the board. At some point they are likely to become a problem for those in charge.

“How do you create a team with this set of individuals who meet relatively infrequently, and you’re meeting to discuss complex issues by definition, often all with competing priorities, in a limited amount of time,” says Manzoni.

Of course there are examples of people disliked by staff who have risen to the top. Oddi Aasheim, a partner at FirstHuman, a leadership coaching company, says some corporate sectors value traits such as ruthlessness and selfishness more than others. There are numerous examples across banking, law and market traders. But in most industries, he believes competent jerks will reach a point of being “unpromotable”. Fundamentally people want to work with people they not only respect but like.

There has also been a shift towards publicly-listed companies realising the benefits of a more empathetic leader. People are drawn to those who are not just out for themselves but do things for others. In fact these individuals often create greater value for themselves and their organisations.

Adam Grant, a professor of organisational psychology, explores this theme in his book Give and Take. He says the common narrative is that outperformers reach the top through their own hard work, talent and luck. But success ultimately depends on how they interact with others.

“When takers win there is usually someone else who loses.” For givers, when they succeed this “spreads and cascades”.

Anyone who has felt miserable at the hands of a competent jerk in the office fear not, they will probably get their comeuppance. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024