The Jerk Shall Inherit the Earth?

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Bandalier,NM-ladderWellcrap.  I’ve spent the last fifteen years reckoning the importance of kindness in my life, and the last five months deeply immersed in an exploration of kindness.  And I have become convinced that despite local, national, and world current events to the contrary, people are growing kinder; we are on the verge of a kindness Renaissance.

Turns out I was wrong.

At least that’s one interpretation from an article that appeared in the June issue of Atlantic magazine.  Entitled “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” author Jerry Useem asserts that—consistent with the old adage—nice guys generally do finish last.  He further claims that some of the most successful people in business are also some of the biggest jerks—think Steve Jobs—and that their jerkiness is exactly what led to their success.

Useem does caution that being a jerk can also backfire and lead to abject failure, but bad behavior done right in certain circumstances is often the path to the top.

For example, stealing supplies or provisions just to benefit oneself doesn’t advance you in the eyes of colleagues, but stealing and sharing the bounty with others puts you at the head of the team.

And someone who aggressively claims to have the answers, even when they don’t, is seen as a leader and often elevated to the leadership position.  Further, it seems that the more unaware one is of how unfounded and even deluded one’s self-confidence is, the more swift and direct is the narcissist’s propulsion to the top.  UC Berkeley Research Psychologist Cameron Anderson explained, “By all indications, when these people say they believe they’re in the 95th percentile when they’re actually in the 30th percentile, they fully believe it.” And somehow they make others believe it, too.

I think this explains so much about our political system, or “jerkocracy,” as I am moved to call it. It would seem that some politicians think they’re a lot smarter than they really are and we’ve bought into their delusion.  Okay, I know that’s a totally unkind thing to say, but really—do a quick run-down of presidential contenders—doesn’t it explain a lot?

Another distressing example in the article showed that people who are treated rudely and condescended to by salespeople in upscale brand stores (e.g. Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton) tend to spend more money than they do when treated well by another salesperson in the same store.  There were some qualifications to this: the shoppers needed to value the brand, the salesperson must convey the image of the brand, and such tactics by the salesperson generally only work once with the same buyer (of course, if you’re selling Rolexes, one sale is probably sufficient).  It also completely backfired if it wasn’t a truly upscale store, i.e., don’t try this if you work at Kohl’s or Target.

Givers and Takers

If anything’s clear from the article, it’s that the whole subject is murky.  Useem cites research by Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our SuccessGrant depicts “givers,” those whom we would generally describe as kind and generous, and “takers,” who are often labeled narcissists and jerks, noting that both givers and takers occupy the top—and the bottom—of the success spectrum.

The conclusion seems to be that you can be successful if you are kind and a giver as long as you are perceived as strong and are consistent in your behavior.  And you can be successful if you are an overconfident, narcissistic jerk as long as you are convincing and seen as someone whose success will have a spillover effect on those around him.  For both giver and taker, if you don’t convey your understanding of and ability to bring others along on your success journey, you can expect to make a nose-dive to the bottom.

So, it appears we have a choice if we want to be successful: we can be kind or we can be jerks—we just have to do either effectively.  While I have undoubtedly been a jerk at one time or another, I hope those episodes have been rare.  I choose kindness.  Being a jerk to achieve success would be soul-crushing.

Perhaps the choice between the kindness route and the jerk route depends upon how you define success.  I’ve never viewed it as either wealth or power.  Increasingly, I do define success as spreading kindness and helping others.  As long as power, intimidation, and obscene wealth constitute success for some, it looks like jerks will continue to lead.

So, the Atlantic article is discouraging.  There does not appear to be a straight path to a kinder and more respectful world.  Jerks are still reaping the rewards of their bad behavior.  There’s still a long way to go to reach the kindness tipping point.

Nobody ever claimed it would be easy.  But, we’re in this together and each time we choose kindness we move that much closer.

“Our lives are made of these moments.  Simple words and actions, taken together, weave a single day, and our days become our life.  Every gesture is a seed, and the seed determines the harvest.” (Wayne Muller)

Kindness in the Workplace

“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.”  (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Cloudy Sunrise at Storm LakeOver the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of books about business, management, and leadership.  A lot.  Probably enough to fill a good-sized bookcase.  Many I purchased; many were given to me by authors who wanted to introduce me to their ideas in hopes that I would hire them to speak at a client conference.  I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read quite a few, and I’ve started many more but never gotten past the first few chapters.

I’ve been leafing through them over the last few weeks and have been disappointed—though though not surprised—to see that words like kindness and compassion are mostly absent.  Even the books that approach leadership in refreshing and enlightened ways: The Art of Supportive Leadership, Love and Profit—The Art of Caring Leadership, Leadership Jazz, Leading Change, Leading with Soul….  They’re all good books with good ideas, and good intentions, but the authors don’t seem to see kindness as an important element of leadership.  It baffles me.

It’s as if kindness is too weak and nebulous a concept to be put forth in a serious book about business.  There were a few exceptions and those books happened to be not only the ones that I read all the way through, but often they were the ones that I have read several times and highlighted extensively.  Notable among these were Lance Secretan’s excellent books, Reclaiming Higher Ground and Inspirational Leadership.

I can’t think of many places more in need of kindness than the business world and the American workplace.  Or many places where kindness would make such a difference.  I have to assume that there are business books that address the importance of kindness in the workplace, and I just haven’t come across them yet.  I hope someone will point them out to me.

Several years ago, one of our company’s long-time employees retired.  At the retirement party we held for her, she said the word she would use to describe the company if she were asked was “kind.” I remember thinking at the time that I could think of no word I would rather hear used to describe our company.

Oh, sure, I want us to be daringly innovative and wildly profitable, but even above these qualities, I want us to be kind.  Since that day when Margaret labeled our company’s defining trait, I think we have been more conscious of that value and more committed to it.  Kindness was always modeled by our company’s founder, Lynn Melby, and as each subsequent partner joined the ownership team, we implicitly accepted kindness as one of our personal values, and we continued to cultivate kindness along the way.  That’s not to say we haven’t slipped occasionally.  We’re human, after all, and the business world can, at times, challenge the kindest intentions.

It isn’t easy to always be kind in business, and there may be times when kindness is well-disguised, but if the underlying culture is kind, the intention generally shines through.  Whether we are interviewing, training, correcting, or even terminating an employee, we do our utmost to approach it kindly—using empathy and compassion.  In client or vendor situations, likewise, when problems arise we look for solutions that are fair and respectful to all.  Where we have perhaps failed is in keeping clients too long that don’t share our values.  Clients who don’t practice kindness themselves.  Clients that don’t want to pay for the services they receive, or who put the blame on others for mistakes they make, or who ask us to bend our integrity on their behalf.

Choosing Integrity

A few years ago, after a large conference, a couple of our staff noticed that the hotel had missed a sizable food and beverage charge on the bill.  The client’s convention chair directed them to pay the bill quickly and not point out the error.  Our staff followed their consciences rather than his instructions.  They pointed out the error to the hotel and asked for a corrected bill.  The chairman was not happy.

In doing this, our team not only did the right thing, but also modeled our values to our client and to their office colleagues.  The longer I am in business, the more certain I am that success lies in working with people—employees, clients, suppliers, business partners—who share our values.

Unkind people can learn to be kind, just as dishonest people can learn to be honest.  But if they choose not to value those traits it is probably because beneath it all they believe that others are just as unkind or dishonest as they are.  Our job, then, is to decide whether to work with such people.  If they are likely to change, we should give them that chance, but if they are unlikely to, we should seek our business partners elsewhere.

There’s so much more to be said about kindness in business and in the workplace.  What has been your experience of kindness (or its absence) in business?  Please share your thoughts below.  Maybe we can start a dialogue.

“We live under the illusion that organizations are ‘them’ when, in reality, they are ‘us.’  If we wish to work in evolved organizations, we must each be the first to start the journey.” (Lance Secretan)