“Seriously, do you have to be a jerk to get ahead in this organization?”

The “jerk” question comes up fairly frequently in my travels coaching emerging leaders. Unfortunately, my inability to utter “Absolutely not!” surprises and frustrates some individuals.

In large part, the issue swings on your definition of that label. No one should be compelled to cross the lines of their values to engage in unethical or mean-spirited behavior to get ahead. However, if you work in a sharp-elbowed culture where people pursue power and position aggressively, and if you want to get ahead, you may need to adjust your behaviors. (See my article: 6 Skills Essential for Career Success)

How’s that for a precise answer?

The Reality of Living and Working in Some Environments

Some environments are tough.

I’ve worked in and served clients in environments where individuals aggressively vie for key roles on big projects and actively cultivate relationships with those who must decide to promote them.

There are only a few key projects and available promotions at any point in time.

Many interpret aggressive behavior to get ahead in the workplace as jerkish. In reality, it might just be aggressive behavior

You shouldn’t confuse naked aggressiveness with dysfunctional behavior unless it crosses organizational values or acceptable ethical boundaries.

If you choose to work in a harsh environment, you either need to compete or relegate yourself to being a role player with little opportunity for promotion. If the latter doesn’t suit you, it’s time to look for a new place to ply your trade.

There’s always a political environment

One of the more naïve thoughts you can harbor is, “I just don’t want to play the games.” That statement effectively says you are opting out of engaging in your firm’s political environment.

Unfortunately, everything inside an organization happens in the swirl of what you perceive as politics.
Anywhere humans gather someone has power, others desire power, and those with the power decide who does what and what gets done. They also determine who succeeds.

Opting out once again relegates you to role player and potential organizational road-kill victim.

Isn’t a better question, “How can I engage and maintain my integrity?

Some cultures and leaders reward results over methods and approach

Work in a results-focused environment and the spoils of power and promotion go to those perceived as best able to drive results. While we might not like it, the costs of producing the desired results are not on the critical performance indicators.

In my experience, “results at all costs” approaches breed a great deal of dysfunctional behavior and are often toxic. If you’ve opted to earn your daily bread in this results-only environment and you are not prepared to play, you will be watching the jerks get ahead from the back rows.

Your Choices in Difficult Environments

Vote yourself off the island

Many individuals stubbornly hang on in situations where dysfunction runs rampant. They are hoping for positive change, and they see just enough progress to keep this hope alive.

In reality, these challenging cultures evolve slowly if at all. You can burn a lifetime seizing upon the threads of change and rationalizing that things will get better. Mostly, they won’t and don’t.

You should evaluate realistic prospects for change and make a deliberate decision about your willingness to stay.

Do your job and keep your head down

I’ve observed individuals who survive by keeping a low profile and focus on doing their jobs regardless of who’s in power. They choose to remain neutral in the organizational reindeer games and willingly serve the most recent person to grab the reins of power.

Remaining neutral is a choice, and it can work if your career aspirations are focused on a consistent paycheck, and you enjoy what you do. Just beware that your neutrality can backfire when costs are cut or rewards shared. It’s easy to end up expendable in this situation.

Mimic the behaviors and go for it.

The formula for success in these difficult environments isn’t locked in a vault. Make noise, assert your value to those in charge, and strive to elbow competitors out of the way for plum assignments.

The biggest challenge I see with this approach is when individuals force themselves to operate outside of their value systems. They might rationalize their behaviors early in the process, but eventually, the dissonance between what they stand for and believe and what they are doing generates distress in their lives.

Rethink how you are going to engage and compete

I’m passionate about your need to compete in the workplace. I’m also biased because I lived this approach over twenty-five years in a variety of sharp-elbowed organizations. However, I competed on my terms and in alignment with my values. I never let the low water mark of poor behaviors determine my approach. It didn’t mean that I ignored or even let ethical or mean-spirited transgressions go unnoticed. Instead, I learned through trial and error and a relentless commitment to helping my organizations succeed, to blend my rules for behavior into the political environment of the organization.

4 Steps to Help You Get Ahead Without Being a Jerk (Most of the time)

1. Clarify your purpose in your role.

Instead of the squishy, feel-good terms that tend to gather around the topic of “purpose,” it’s imperative for you to tune into specifics. At various times, my purpose was to beat a particular competitor into submission, reshape a market, or turn a sleepy firm into a market leader in a new arena. All of those came to fruition based on the hard work of many. I brought purpose to life through others. The fact that I gathered support and ultimately what you would term “power” along the way was an outcome of a positive approach and laser focus.

Take time to think through what it is you truly want to achieve in your role. Ask the question, “At the end of my time here, what will others say I achieved?

My focus was external. Yours can be internal, people-centric, functionally focused. The primary issue is that you have, feel, live, and share your purpose and then work to bring it to life.

2. Grow your influence and power follows

Influence develops as others perceive your competence and trustworthiness.

Extreme competence in your role is table-stakes for career success. Marry your competence with your willingness to trust and offer constant proof that you are trustworthy, and you will grow your influence tremendously.

Influence begets power.

3. Use power to propel teams, team members, and your organization

The funny thing about power is that if people perceive you collect it for purely personal gain, you move straight into the “jerk” category.

The wonderful thing about power gained through influence built on competence and confidence is the ability you have to define strategy, choose and staff priority projects, and propel stars into new roles.

Some use power to build castles and then walls. Instead, opt to level the walls and throw open castle doors.

While you will have detractors, those who do the work will follow you willingly if they trust that you have their interests and the best interests of the organization pushing your agenda. They will trust you.

4. Throw the jerks off the bus

I may lose some popularity points here. So be it! I spend about 1.2 seconds contemplating throwing those that fit my definition of “jerk” off the bus. Those who spread toxicity, trample on the organization’s values and use, and then discard people as they strive to gain power find themselves outside wondering what happened.

What happened is they decided to play the game the wrong way. They lost my trust. If you can rewrite the rules of engagement in positive terms, do so.

There’s a risk with this work. The risk is you will be perceived as one of them merely pushing competition out of the way. I don’t have a cure for that other than focusing on the organization and the people first, and continually proving you are worthy of trust. Show you care and help others strive and succeed, and you’ll weather the tough spots.

You can’t rule out all the detractors, and you do have to make tough calls on people and projects.

Some will think you’re a jerk. Get over it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I would love to live and work in a world where great, quiet people ply their trade and achieve the level of success they desire and deserve. This world assumes that others will recognize you for your effort and competence. It should be that way, but it’s not. It’s a world filled with humans, aspirations, and egos. Work is competitive. If you want to get ahead, it’s time to rethink your approach. Just don’t opt to become a full-time jerk.

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