Making it Work
Bauer Research Focuses on Curbing the "Office Jerk"
BAUER COLLEGE RESEARCHERS DEJUN “TONY” KONG AND BETSY GELB ARE COLLABORATING FOR A STUDY ABOUT SO-CALLED “JERK” BEHAVIOR IN THE WORKPLACE AND FOSTERING HEALTHY WORKING ENVIRONMENTS.
Dysfunctional workplaces are everywhere in literature and pop culture.
From television’s “The Office,” to the ‘80s movie, “Nine to Five,” and a recent roundup of “worst workplaces in contemporary literature,” – it’s just not hard to come up with examples of people in business behaving badly.
Exaggerated though they may be, such depictions reveal a side of business those in academia have mostly explained as individual, aberrant behaviors that exist somewhere outside the norm.
However, an ongoing research project from Bauer College faculty indicates that “jerk” behaviors are more common than once thought, prevalent enough to call for a wholesale reinvention of existing workplace culture.
Dejun “Tony” Kong, Assistant Professor of Management, and Betsy Gelb, Marvin Hurley Professor of Marketing & Entrepreneurship, began their collaboration after Gelb shared that she had several years’ worth of papers from (unidentified) MBA students detailing interpersonal challenges at work. She realized the work could prove valuable as research collateral.
Morale is going to be decreased, the culture is going to be more toxic, and productivity in the long run is going to be less. It may be very enticing to get results in the short run. But promoting jerks will ruin you in the long term.”
Assistant Professor of Management
Dejun “Tony” Kong
To dig deeper, Kong and Gelb designed and administered a survey of more than 700 alumni from a well-known business school. Participants were asked about their personal experience engaging in civil and uncivil behavior at work during the previous three years. Had they ever yelled, put down a colleague, interrupted, or shifted the blame to make themselves look better? The researchers also asked about their place in the organizational hierarchy, the number of promotions they had had during the three-year time period and other measures of success in the workplace.
Previous research showed nearly 100 percent of those surveyed admitting to jerk behavior. In the data collected by Kong and Gelb, more than 40 percent admitted to not listening, or putting down a co-worker’s suggestion by interrupting with “no,” “but” or “however,” at some point during the previous three years.
Even more concerning, the data indicated a conclusion that echoes what graduate students have been telling business school faculty for years: Being nice doesn’t pay; it’s often those who engage in incivility the most who get ahead.
“It is not what we expected,” Kong said. “It may be that the people who are jerks are seen as powerful, and when they get away with it, other people want to promote them to a position.”
But the data, which will be published by Rutgers Business Review in the article titled, “Curbing, Not Rewarding, Jerk Behavior on the Job,” shows any such gains are short-lived.
“The jerks rise when they are at the lower part of the ladder,” Kong said. “But they plateau. We did not see more of them promoted at the higher level.”
Gelb has a theory about that.
“There is a basic idea that people sometimes have, which is that drive and confidence is what got them where they are, so more drive and confidence will get them further. And, in fact, at some point, the fact that they are annoying … will make that not so true.”
She adds, “Possibly when you’re lower down, people will put up with more. When you represent the company visibly, because you’re higher up — maybe you’re interacting with the board — (there will be a recognition that) he or she is not going to be a good match for this job. It provides a ceiling for how far you can get promoted if you’re a jerk.”
To be clear, sustained civil behavior trumps jerk behavior, Kong said.
“Otherwise, morale is going to be decreased, the culture is going to be more toxic, and productivity in the long run is going to be less. It may be very enticing to get results in the short run. But promoting jerks will ruin you in the long term.”
Both researchers hope their study can serve as a platform to elevate the need for creating and cultivating a more collaborative, less competitive workplace culture. They suggest community-building activities, such as employee book clubs, and taking a fresh look at how employees are rewarded.
“You might restructure things so that there are team performance reviews rather than individual incentives, so people are not competing against each other,” Kong said. “Redesign jobs to be more relational, encouraging interpersonal contact and collaboration, rather than just focused on task completion.”
An emphasis on the value of civil behaviors benefits everyone in the organization, Gelb said. It may also go a long way toward countering the prevailing notion that business, and business schools, are more interested in profit-making than in fostering healthy working environments.