Redefine Culture By Leaving The Jerk Zone

Would you tell your other half, your housemate or your child not to tell you what they think? Or to rearrange their day for you without telling them why? Or order them out to buy you a sandwich?

Those might sound like stupid examples, but they’re real cases of ways people behave in the workplace, and they raise questions about the power of corporate culture.

A colleague of mine was once sent out to buy a sandwich by an executive in her organization. This colleague wasn’t his PA or an administrative assistant. It wasn’t her job to smooth out his day. She was a trained project leader, a change manager and responsible for training hundreds of colleagues in technical skills. But this executive expected that, because he was more senior, the needs of others should come second to his need to avoid a three-minute walk to the shops.

Where do these attitudes come from, and how can we free ourselves of them?

Welcome to the Jerk Zone

Why are attitudes like this allowed to flourish in the workplace? Why is entitlement, selfishness and ego allowed, even encouraged, in some of the leading workplaces of the modern world?

Some slither of it probably comes from the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was idealized in the 1980s. Triumphal egoists were idolized as value makers and we were told that greed would build a better world. But anyone who’s worked in reality knows that this is not the case. Cooperation, collaboration, and humility – these are the ways to build lasting working relationships, to get the real work done. That ‘80s template of macho management should have died with the financial disasters that followed in its wake, taking traditional unthinking deference to seniority in its wake.

But much of that behavior remains, discredited as it has become, and for much the same reasons it was allowed to rise. Because the rest of us are too timid to say no.

Part of this comes from humility. Uncertain of our own value we accept the assumed value of others, even when it becomes over-inflated with their egos. We feel insecure in our own value, and so lack the confidence to challenge the more confident. We accede to this culture, which can turn a workplace into a Jerk Zone, a place where it is acceptable to behave with unchecked selfishness.

But worse than this, if we’re not careful we help build the Jerk Zone. We worry about being seen as perfect in our roles, even though perfection itself is an impossible dream. This feeds our anxieties and insecurities, leading us to put on an over-compensating front. We inflate our own egos, like birds puffing up their chest feathers in an act of display. We too start to act the role the Jerk Zone creates for us.

Would you act like that at home?

We’ve all heard it at some point in our lives, the eternal cry of teachers faced with unacceptable behavior – ‘would you do that at home?’

If we want to get rid of the Jerk Zone, to change the corporate culture that can drive us mad, then we should ask that question again – of ourselves and of the people around us.

Our work and our lives aren’t separate. The same set of values that we hold up at home and in the public sphere should hold in the workplace. After all, do honesty or consideration stop mattering when we step through the office doors? Of course not. If we act lie they do then we are building a toxic space that can do no good for anyone within it. That’s the Jerk Zone, that takes decent people and turns them into objectionable egoists.

Would that executive have got away with ordering someone at home to go out and buy his sandwich? At home we expect respect, consideration, explanations. We can expect the same at work. To do any less is to treat ourselves and those around us with less dignity than we deserve.

I want to break free

How can we liberate ourselves from this toxic culture? How can we leave the Jerk Zone far behind?

Part of it, as with any management challenge, is asking ‘why?’ It’s a question so simple and so powerful that it crops up again and again in leadership thinking, from the Toyota Production System to the work of Simon Sinek. Look at where selfish behavior is strongest in your organization, ask why it is happening there and then work to root out the causes, whether it’s unhealthy processes, inappropriate measures or simply unchecked bad behavior.

Empower your workers to speak their views, and stand up for them when they challenge the big egos, even when they challenge you. Believing you are too important to be wrong is a step deep into the Zone. Empowering everyone to constructively challenge each other is a way to battle it, to keep the egos in check and show everyone that they don’t need to over-assert their personalities to be heard.

Above all listen. If you listen to others’ views and treat them with as much weight as your own then they will learn to do the same. A culture of receptiveness, humility and cooperation will start to spread, banishing that Jerk Zone to the past where it belongs.

You can leave the Jerk Zone, and take your whole organization with you. All you have to lose is your ego.

(About the Author: Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20 plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including healthcare, education, government, and people and potential (aka HR). In addition, Mark currently serves as Chairman of the Board for Behavioral Health Service North, a large behavioral health services provider in New York. He also actively serves on the faculty of the State University of New York (SUNY) and teaches in the School of Business and Economics; Department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship and the Department of Management, International Business and Information Systems. Mark holds an MBA and is highly recognized in the technology and healthcare space with credentials including MCSE and Paramedic. Most of Mark’s writing involves theoretical considerations and practical application, academics, change leadership, and other topics at the intersection of business, society, and humanity. Mark resides in New York with his wife Lynn, two children, and two Labradors. The greatest pursuit; “To be more in the Service of Others.”)

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