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The jerk Factor

By Patrick Lencioni - January 2015

I had the opportunity to work with a college baseball team recently, and came to a realization that helps explain why accountability is one of the biggest challenges for team members and leaders alike. I call it “The jerk Factor,” and yes, the “j” is not capitalized for a reason.

I was doing an exercise with a group of about ten team leaders, in which I asked each of them to identify their key strength and weakness as a leader. After a few players admitted that their weakness is their reluctance to confront teammates who aren’t living up to the team’s standards, another of the leaders reported that his weakness is being too confrontational. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here because college guys don’t talk the same way that executives do: “I felt like a jerk the other day when I called out the team and said they were wimps for not doing enough reps in the weight room.” One of his peers replied, “yeah, I heard a few of the guys say they thought you were being a jerk, but they also said you were right.”

This didn’t seem to make the leader feel any better. I advised him to go back to his teammates and admit that even though what he said may have sounded harsh, he was doing it for their good, and the good of the team. And that’s when I realized that part of being a leader and team player is the willingness to be a “jerk” from time to time.

Now, when I spell jerk with a small letter “j”, I’m referring to someone who is willing to say or do something that pushes a peer or subordinate far out of their comfort zones in order to make them or the team better. This often comes in the form of a pointed comment during a meeting, or a dose of tough love delivered one-on-one. For a few minutes, hours or even days, jerks may be unappreciated, even resented by the people who are on the receiving end of their input, until those people come to the realization that what the jerk said or did was exactly what was needed.

Jerks with a capital “J” are different animals. They are the ones who consistently demonstrate harshness and attitude, with no apparent reason, certainly not for the good of the team and its members. They almost seem to enjoy treating others roughly, and rarely, if ever, acknowledge that their attitude may have been inappropriate or uncalled for. Of course, these Jerks don’t earn the respect of their team members, rarely sustain any meaningful level of success over time, and should be avoided whenever possible.

But let’s just focus here on “small j” jerks, because failing to appreciate them can hurt an organization in a big way. To understand how, it’s necessary to realize that they aren’t the only jerks on the team.

Remember that exercise with the college baseball team? And remember the first leaders in the group who said that their weakness was that they often hold back their input when they see people behaving in a way that isn’t good for the team? Well, it’s time to recognize that they’re being jerks too. Passive ones, perhaps, but jerks nonetheless. When they withhold information or feedback out of fear that they might be temporarily disliked, they’re depriving the team of the opportunity to improve. Essentially, they’re putting themselves and their feelings ahead of the good of the team. But since no one knows it, they don’t feel the sting of having been a jerk.

Think about the implications of this. Passive jerks hurt the team but experience almost no discomfort or pain. Active ones help the team but suffer for it. The logical result of this is clear: more people will choose to be passive jerks than active ones. I see it all the time and it is a recipe for mediocrity as important issues remain unaddressed and unproductive behaviors are not confronted.

So, what can we do to avoid this? First, we need to be clear that there is a big difference between a jerk and a Jerk. As long as we allow jerks to be labeled as Jerks, we’ll have far too few of them. Second, we need to be equally clear that there are active and passive jerks, and that active ones are the helpful ones. Finally, when someone acts like a jerk, call them out and reward them for it, and dispel any concerns they may have that they’ve done something wrong.

If we can do those things, we’ll create a culture in which people will have the courage to speak up and endure the pain of being temporarily unpopular. That may be the most selfless thing a leader or team member can do.

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