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Attention Office Jerks: Back Off!

We tolerate jerks in the workplace because we value their creativity. Maybe it's time we stopped.
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(Photo: ter-burg/Flickr)

(Photo: ter-burg/Flickr)

We’ve all known the type: that manic, frustrated genius, whose creativity seems contingent on an even greater ability for being an absolute ass. In the office, they are the ones thinking outside the box—and they’ll berate and belittle you for failing to understand their genius. We allow these individuals to be ... well, jerks, because they are, after all, the workplace spark-plug. Capable of coming up with that next big idea, they can create the next great thing. We tolerate the jerkiness, because it’s accompanied by genius, which always benefits the workplace.

Maybe it's time we stopped.

In a recently published study in the Journal of Business and Psychology, professors Samuel Hunter, of Pennsylvania State University, and Lily Cushenbery, of Stony Brook University, determined that these creative bullies can actually harm their companies—by hurting their co-workers' feelings.

“It never made sense to me or Lily Cushenbery why being a jerk would be linked to actually coming up with original ideas,” Hunter says. “Instead, it made sense that being a bit pushy may help in getting your ideas heard and used by others.”

Being a jerk is good for pushing an idea, but not necessarily for creating a good one.

To test their theory, Hunter and Cushenbery applied a process view of creativity, looking not just at idea generation but also at idea testing, evaluation, and the ability to convince peers of an idea’s usefulness. In their first experiment, 201 students, having first taken a personality quiz, were asked to develop their own unique marketing plan for an online university. Afterwards, they were placed into groups of three and told to do the same thing. This, Hunter explains, allowed them to see how each individual’s idea was utilized within a group setting.

The results of this first test show that indeed the “jerk-ish” quality—indicated by lower levels of the agreeableness trait on the personality test—does result in idea utilization. The jerk quality is not, however, an indicator for innovative thinking. Being a jerk is good for pushing an idea, but not necessarily for creating a good one.

To determine whether this jerk quality was useful in all social contexts, Hunter and Cushenbery ran a second test—online—with 291 individual participants. Here, subjects were told to come up with a solution to a problem and propose it to two other members of a small chat room. The catch: Those two other chatters were actually actors following a script, either offering support for the participant’s idea, or being more confrontational. The results from this second test showed again that the jerk trait helps push through an idea in a more hostile environment, but proves to be harmful to creative thinking in milder settings.

So jerks aren’t necessarily all bad—if, that is, you’re in an office full of other bozos. In this case, Hunter says, “make sure there are 'jerks' on hand to push their ideas forward.”

But, Hunter cautions, in an office that really wants to push creative thinking, avoid the pompous windbags.