You’ll never have a good work culture unless you stop promoting assholes

Stop promoting assholes

Emma Seppalla, a PhD over at Stanford (she’s the Director of their Compassion Center), is also the author of an upcoming book, The Happiness Track. Today, she took to Harvard Business Review to write another in the increasing line of “Hey, this is why all this culture stuff really matters!” articles that are flooding the Internet. She makes a ton of good points and has a ton of research to back it up throughout, so I’d definitely suggest reading it when you have some time. Here’s potentially the most interesting section, though:

Creating a positive and healthy culture for your team rests on a few major principles. Our own research (see here and here) on the qualities of a positive workplace culture boils down to six essential characteristics:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgive mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

Lot to digest here, but we can break it down into a couple of key aspects, I think.

Caring for / maintaining responsibility / colleagues as friends: There has been a lot of research around the power of friends at work and understanding social capital at work. In short? We’re social animals and work needs to reflect that. Managerial Problem: Most managers want a ‘heads-down,’ targets-focused culture.

Providing Support for one another: In some ways, the entire topic around “the future of work” is much less about compensation and much more about respecting others. Managerial Problem: “I don’t have time to respect people! I’ve got meetings and deadlines!”

Avoid blame, forgive mistakes: Failure is everywhere, especially at work. Let’s discuss it. And let’s stop assuming that success is always the result of positive actions, and failure is always the result of missteps. Success is often based on accidentsManagerial Problem: Most managers confuse ‘accountability’ with ‘scaring people.’

Inspiring one another at work: Again goes back to the power of friends and social capital, but also this question of “What’s the purpose of this work, aside from simply getting paid every two weeks?” Managerial Problem: Oftentimes, managers barely know what their priorities are — and barely know what everyone on their team does. How can you inspire around that?

Emphasizing the meaning of the work: See above.

Treating each other with respect: See above.

OK, so … we have six tenets that a positive culture needs, and in each case, there’s a significant managerial problem with each one actually happening.

How can we get a positive work culture, then?

Well, we need to start with two principles:

  1. Having a strong culture with purposed and defined roles is important, even if you can’t see it weekly on a balance sheet.
  2. Management, though, isn’t intuitive.

What I mean by No. 2: you get promoted — i.e. you become a manager — mostly as the result of following process, hitting targets, achieving goals, and being ‘productive’ in some sense of how that’s tracked. (If at all.) When you become a manager and have more money/responsibility, you assume you need to do the same things. That’s where it falls apart. That’s wrong. You don’t manage responsibilities, tasks, and targets; you manage the energy of the people who work for you.

This is where we hit a fork in the road, though.

Don't promote assholes

The way we hire, and promote, and move along people in most organizations is massively flawed. Hiring is based too much on technology and subjective measurements, for example. Promotions are often based on personal politics and not documented performance. Most people have no actual idea what their salary even represents. It’s all very fraught.

But it comes down to one thing, ultimately:

We promote and advance assholes

We value the hard-chargers, the Type-As, the sales target guys, the backslappers, the Hail Fellows. That’s what we’ve been taught to think is great — “Tom eats what he kills!” — and we reserve the nerds for coding/data, the introverts for cubicle jobs, the process jockeys for HR, the cute 20-something girls for PR and marketing, the millennials for social media, etc.

We put people in boxes, and we don’t allow them to get out of those boxes very easily.

But the people closest to the money and the existing hierarchy — the in-your-face social butterflies chasing every conceivable target — are the ones we promote and advance. That’s true of most organizations. The wallflowers don’t become C-Suiters. Big Swinging Dick Larry crushing his sales targets gets up there, though.

When we promote and advance assholes, you know what happens? The cycle above repeats itself. Because the asshole becomes a manager and assumes everyone has to hit targets like they did, and do it in the same way they did, and they can’t be bothered to meet with anyone — rushing to a meeting! — or have an organic convo about performance — got to hop on a call with Japan!

We promote and advance assholes because we assume their ‘results’ are what work is all about, and as a result, we can’t fix culture.

So what now?

Most of the business world has been about either execution or expertise since World War II. The hope is that the next great management trend/shift is empathy.

Because of 2008’s recession and Boomers hanging on, though, that might take a few more years than we all thought it would.

Here’s the bottom line: when you make someone a manager or a leader, you’re putting them in charge of other human beings. That goes way beyond daily tasks and targets. Someone can manage a spreadsheet or the parts of a project, sure — that doesn’t in any way mean they can manage people. Those are two entirely different skill sets, and honestly, very few people have both sets.

So stop promoting off of attributes we assume we need to like, and start promoting off a tangible series of measures: What has made leaders successful in your company? I don’t just mean financially, you fool. I mean — what managers have low turnover? Good ratings from employees? Low complaint levels? Maybe that manager is No. 4 on financial metrics, but you know what? Keeping him/her a manager means a lot more than keeping a No. 1 financial guy who everyone hates.

In short: stop promoting assholes. If you want to fix culture, don’t buy some consultant plan or some other bullshit. Start with thinking about your people and their logical fits as relates to other people.

Ted Bauer


  1. Easier said than done. People who get promoted often jockey to get there by being in their superior’s face, sometimes going so far as to co-opt the cubicle nerd’s work as their own, or as their idea. Heads of companies are too busy collecting their bonuses, stock options and increasing their net worth to really care. Do we know Lehman Brothers? Did Jack Fuld end on his ass? No, it was the trader who had to drive a cab to survive and move in with his parents. It is a good sentiment, but it will take several villages to make a change.

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