Fifty years ago, the Austrian-born organizational psychologist Fred Fiedler made a fascinating discovery. He administered a survey to employees asking them to describe their “least-preferred coworker” on a series of scales from “hostile” to “supportive” and “insincere” to “sincere,” for example. Some people derided their least-liked colleague with every harsh adjective they were offered — while others offered a more nuanced and tempered view. The surprise was that Fielder found that the magnitude of the criticism had more to say about the respondent than their coworker. To this day, the Least-Preferred Coworker instrument is a reliable way of inviting prickly professionals to unwittingly self-identify as those who are most difficult to get along with.
Trapped ’em. But also: a large problem with work as a whole.
How we structure work makes almost no sense
Here’s what I mean. Most companies, as they grow, come to resemble this:
- Lots of hierarchy
- Misaligned incentives
- A constant focus on “stakeholders” so those with power get their ass kissed all day
- Attempting to assume everything is logical and ignore the fact that people have lives they want/need to live
- A never-fading belief that “seat time” still matters in an era where WiFi and the cloud are dominant forces
- Declining salaries and benefits, except for the top dogs
An environment like the one I just described: there is going to be a lot of office politics. It’s nearly impossible to avoid. Everyone is jockeying for some position, or to get out, or to get up with the right people, or whatever. We try to reduce the politics by adding layers of process and having email etiquette trainings, but that doesn’t make it much better. We all know this. It’s been this way for years.
And then this unfortunate thing happens
People with more power and more money tend to become less empathetic (research galore on this). So up the chain at a big company, you’ve got largely Temple of Busy, revenue-hounding, soul-sucking assholes. (Not always, but often.) There’s a thing called homophily, whereby you want to hire and promote people similar to you. Assholes beget assholes, and soon most people running your show are, in fact, assholes.
This arc is actually completely common at many organizations. Tom is an asshole, but he plays golf with the right people. David is an asshole during the hiring process, but he reminds a SVP of himself at 25. Assholes beget assholes. The place is soon flooded with them.
Human self-awareness isn’t too good. You could drive a Mack Truck through some of our biases related to self.
Most dumb people, for example, think they are really smart. Why? Because intelligence is largely tied to curiosity. If you lack intelligence, you often lack curiosity — so when you learn the basics of a problem, you think you’ve mastered it. A truly intelligent person would go back and try to learn more, see more, understand more. An idiot doesn’t.
It works the same way with being an asshole. You usually think you’re making the trains run, driving revenue, or whatever. It often doesn’t occur to you that you’re driving turnover through the roof and making people plunge their heads into the toilet at 9:42am daily.
I’m often an asshole, but the difference with me is: I know that, and I don’t manage teams of people.
We know leaders and managers can often delude themselves around their real performance.
We also know most people aren’t high on self-awareness.
So… stands to make sense that many office assholes think they’re the belle of the niceness ball, doesn’t it?
The best path through
You need to actually care about the culture you’re building. If you mint an asshole as a SVP simply because he hits quotas, you’re saying that it’s OK — even preferred — to be an asshole in that culture. Ultimately, that nukes culture and makes it hard to retain legitimately good people.
But if that’s what you want, it’s what you want. Work is largely about self-worth anyway.
Funny how most workplace issues can get solved by a simple first step of “giving a shit about the issue,” yea?