We Need Jerks in the Workplace

Why is it that mean people are often more successful than nice people? Do nice guys really finish last?

Steve Jobs cursed his employees and constantly criticized their ideas. Donald Trump seems poised to be the Republican nominee for the 2016 Presidency as his abrasive style now seems to be the norm for USA politics. John Lennon was abusive toward women. Dr. Seuss never liked children.

I have a friend who hates the legal profession. Yet, he says if he ever needs a lawyer, he wants the meanest one in the Yellow Pages.

Hockey teams rely on physical enforcers as designated brawlers to protect their best players from being hurt.

We have these love/hate relationships with jerks. We abhor them and we need them at the same time.

The fact of the matter is, jerks are essential in the workplace. Without them, our organizations would crumble under the weight of volatility, uncertainty, constant change and ambiguity.

Argumentative, egotistical, aggressive and headstrong people are required to push ideas forward and defend the core values of the organization. In other words, they get things done.

They are scrappers. They can take a punch and give one in return. They are amazingly resilient. They can handle feedback. Their memories are short. They can forgive and forget. They tell like it is. They will give you the unvarnished truth. They keep us accountable.

For those experienced in sales, you know the value of a jerk. Oftentimes the top sellers are highly driven, results oriented and brash performers.

Jerks are like pirates. They are the risk takers in our organizations. They throw caution to the wind. They prize freedom and trust their impulses. They are not talkers but doers. They don’t mind being associated with bad news because they tell it like it is. They chase out fear in our organizations

Unfortunately, we stereotype disagreeable people in the workplace. She is not a team player. She is so selfish. She is all about herself. She is not sensitive to other people’s feelings. She is too passionate. She takes herself too seriously.

Inclusive, creative and innovative workplaces need difficult people.

Christians celebrate a man named Jesus who had a bunch of jerks as his sidekicks called disciples. They were able to change the world. Imagine what we could do if we followed their example.

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Who needs permission to do the right thing?
Government rewards the quiet and safe, unlike corporate America. Why? Corporate America can fail – Governments can not.
Municipal governments least of all can shut down. When the feds come in – who do they help? Local government. Even FEMA is there to support local govies who have local knowledge, history and contacts.
Mean folks are not to be praised nor tolerated – those willing to take safe risks and do something new should be rewarded – much to the ire of those who do not.
Why change? Ask T-Rex. Good example of great power that did not adapt & died – just like the dodo bird.

Tammy Seleski

Not sure I agree totally–jerks are also insensitive, sometimes racist and bigoted, starter of fights when compromise is necessary (and better for morale)….jerks don’t seem to care about justice and seem to be out for themselves, not necessarily for the betterment of the company or organization. No, I’d rather have someone who is passionate and a game-changer, but who works for fairness and justice. There are such people and I’d much rather have them as co-workers and superiors.


This is probably the most ridiculous piece I’ve read yet on Govloop. It is nothing but meaningless, unsubstantiated generalization. It’s an April Fools joke — isn’t it?

Well, here’s a generalization for you, from my own experience of 14 years in federal government:

It’s often the jerks who are promoted in government, already.

They do not necessarily exhibit any of the positive (really?) attributes listed in the piece. Instead, they can be:

the most self-promoting
the least customer-centric
the first to deflect work requested of them
often, the most rude, brusque, or impolite
willing to do things that are unethical, or just dishonest
the most uncollegial, the least likely to help a colleague
the first to speak in meetings, even when it’s nothing more than word salad
the first to promote their own great ideas — ideas based in make-(unnecessary)-work FOR OTHERS, never for themselves

I’ve seen it time and time again, in four different agencies. Government does not need any encouragement to promote the ‘benefits’ of “jerks.” They’re doing just fine at it, already.

Mike Fitzgibbon

I agree with the article and all the comments. “Jerks” might have been an unfortunate term for people that stick their neck out once in a while to make things work right. Then, there are the toxic jerks. Then, there is the combination of the former and the latter; Steve Jobs. Maybe, the delineation is that one is self-promoting and the other is mission-promoting. Interesting posts. Thanks!

Mark Hammer

While those who exercise a “challenge function” CAN be interpreted as jerks by those who would rather not be challenged, I think we should distinguish between a viable and effective challenge function (which we need)…and jerkitude (which we don’t). It’s good to have a strong test now and then that one is doing the right thing. On the other hand, it is difficult to work collaboratively with those who dismiss everything…jerks.

I get Richard’s gist, and agree with it, but the selected term is probably in conflict with the intent.