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Watch Out For The Rule Followers

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You probably have worked with people who are complete jerks. They take credit unfairly. They interrupt others and judge people. How can we avoid hiring them, and what do we do when we find them?

An article from the Washington Post describes this type of unsavory character:

These employees are the bane of American enterprise and they’re everywhere. Not only are they detrimental to a company’s morale, they are extremely costly to its bottom line and can do far more harm to an organization than outliers at the other extreme — the superstar employees — do good. But who are these people exactly? And how are they different from the rest of us?

Walk / Don't Walk Sign

© Flickr user caesararum

Disagreeable people at the office are a big problem, and one we’ve covered before here on The Methodology Blog. I wrote a post on what to do if your boss is a jerk and another one about how you might be driving your coworkers nuts. But as the Washington Post piece explains, a Harvard University study points out a multitude of characteristics of bad employees—many of which are surprising. When combined with some other elements from our own research, it’s easy to see why terrible, terrible people tend to survive and thrive in organizations.

Toxic Coworkers Aren’t Lazy—They Are Often Highly Productive

People who are a problem at work are like anyone else—-they fall somewhere on the spectrum of productivity. It turns out, however, that unpopular, difficult individuals also tend to be extremely effective at their work: getting more done, closing more deals, negotiating more quickly, and solving more problems. This makes them valuable, even if they are downright frustrating.

Annoying people who are incompetent don’t tend to stick around. Therefore, those that remain tend to be disgustingly good at their jobs. Plus, there’s the problem of insulation. If you’re a jerk, people around you know. But if you’re highly productive, people several layers removed will see your numbers. That keeps unwanted characters around.

Unethical Employees Have Longer Tenure

This statement is only in an aside from the Washington Post article, but it’s supported by past studies. People who are willing to commit fraud tend to last longer. That’s because—contrary to the expression—crime does pay. You’ve probably experienced this in your own career: coming across an old-timer who you don’t really like but has been around too long to be questioned. Or you may have even seen it in your community: a business that has been operating forever but doesn’t seem to be all that good at what they do.

Selfish People Excel Because They Put Themselves First

This may not be all that surprising, given how many maxims there are in our culture. We are told to be “career-minded” to “take care of ourselves first.” But that also means that we may end up “watching our back” and “thinking of others last.” From the article:

“All things equal, those that are less other-regarding should be more predisposed to toxicity as they do not fully internalize the cost that their behavior imposes on others,” the researchers wrote.

Jerks are Overconfident, But it Works in Their Favor

Here’s one we’ve covered before: people who talk first are perceived as leaders. If you’re willing to stand up and speak often, others will tend to think of you as the person who knows what’s happening. But irony is that people who are the real experts tend to be thinking rather than talking.

And in the same way that incompetent jerks tend to lose their jobs, leaving only the annoyingly productive jerks, people who take big risks that don’t pan out tend to lose their jobs as well—leaving the people who gamble and win.

(And: This may remind you of one of the most famous psychological findings in recent years.)

Problem People Are Obsessed With The Rules

This does not seem to make any sense. Don’t we want people who follow the rules all the time?

The reason is revealed by two statements. Consider “we should always follow the rules no matter what” versus “sometimes you have to break the rules to do a good job.” People who give the first answer are probably trying to impress the boss. People who give the second answer know that rules are a good idea, but they don’t work perfectly in every situation.

And interestingly, the study says that rule-followers are more likely to be fired for breaking the rules!

In Summary: Watch Out

The article explains that the costs are huge:

The consequences of employing such people can be enormous for a company. The researchers calculated that these workers can cost $12,489 due to the need to replace other workers who leave due to their behavior. That’s an almost two-to-one return as compared to their estimates for what a company gains from a superstar employee in the 1 percent of productivity — an increase in $5,303 in value.

But when you’re interviewing people, ask them questions. Find out how they feel about taking care of others and taking care of themselves. And ask them how they feel about rules. You may just discover they aren’t the kind of person you want in your organization. Or you may find out you want to give them a try.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 2 days ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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