by Linda Cureton, CIO of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Someone gave me this wonderful book to look at called, The No Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton. And I tell you, I struggled with whether or not I should even blog about this topic because I would hate the fact that if you put in search keywords “Linda Cureton” and “asshole” that you would get a hit. But lately, I’ve been dealing with more than my fair share of jerks and it seemed appropriate to perhaps spend some time thinking about this fascinating workplace challenge.
My husband and I used to work together before he retired. He always noted that I have this amazing ability to work well with jerks (ok, I’m not using the a-word anymore). As I reflect on this topic, it seems that somehow, I would always draw the short straw and have to deal with the jerks. Though we don’t work together anymore, he still says that this is true. I asked him why he thought that was true. He gave me three reasons:
I find ways to get what I want and am able to see how they can contribute to the organization.
I have a close friend who is proud of being a jerk. He actually refers to himself as a bastard – and swears he keeps a copy of his birth certificate in his pocket for proof. Everyone avoided him because he was a real bastard. But, this amazing man was critical to my success in the organization. He was adept at working through adversity and punching through barriers. If it were not for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I am adaptable and find ways to achieve objectives in spite of jerks.
There’s a particular jerk I have in mind, who is an amazing talent perhaps even a genius. I announced to him publically that I was taking advantage of Microsoft Outlook and filtering all e-mail from him into my trash can. That was a happy moment for me. You gotta love that feature in Outlook. But, I never met the guy up to that point. Then, I had what I thought would be the misfortune of actually meeting him. He wasn’t so bad. He was extremely passionate. Deployed in the right direction, this guy is remarkable. Nevertheless, his rants still merit going into the trash can.
I use the strength of jerks in the workplace and minimize their harm.
My husband always said that I was “too soft” and “for the people”. I started to tell him to go to hell, but then I would be a jerk. But he was right. And this affinity sometimes keeps me from being results oriented. So, I learned to “subcontract” my need for being a jerk. In other words, I need at least one jerk on my team in order to compensate for this “strength” that I have. Whether you call this “good cop/bad cop”, the balance that this offers to my style is critical for my success.
I guess I understand the point that Sutton makes in his book. The toxicity in the workplace may not be worth it. But, I do think that there is a place for everyone in the workplace, even jerks. Their strengths and weaknesses must be managed, including their inclinations for acting like the a-word. I like his notion of the need to be a temporary jerk.
I had a dicey workforce situation with a few jerks and decided that I needed to cuss them out. I had to practice … in front of a mirror. It worked. And the effects still linger today, nearly 8 years later.
So, yes, we must have civility in the workplace. But, as my grandmother often said, it takes all kinds to make the world – even jerks.