Author’s Note: I’m nominating this post as my ‘Article Most Likely to be Taken Personally by a Very Wide Range of People I Know.’ I believe that the terms in bold are most likely to offend, which is why I bolded them; I’d hate for those to get missed.  Please know that I’m not talking about any one organization in particular, but many, and yes, probably yours. I probably really like you as a person. I probably really like your organization. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write a word, but I do care, passionately, and that’s why I’ve written this.

I am, by most standards, a nice person. I’m polite, I’m talkative, I make eye contact, I’m entertaining in a way that sometimes skirts scandalous or shocking ideas but rarely dives right in. I smile a lot. I’m socially at ease.  And I rarely speak up when other people make me personally angry or uncomfortable or waste my time.

In my social circles, that’s not an issue; despite Peterborough being, essentially, a village, I find I can avoid a lot of people who behave badly towards me.  Sometimes that means avoiding a whole bar, or a whole crowd, and losing interactions with people I really enjoy, but I find that my overall quality of life improves so much that it’s worth it.

In work or volunteer situations, you can’t merely avoid crazy-makers and grief-causers. If I’m lucky enough to have some control over the situation, I choose to work with people who understand me, who share or support my vision, and who give me the space to get my work done in the way that works for me and, hopefully, for them. This isn’t merely selfish; when I’m good, I’m pretty good, and whatever organization I’m working for benefits from that.  But when made to work in environments that don’t suit me, my ability to succeed drops dramatically, no matter what I try.

A problem I’ve encountered across the spectrum of projects and places I’ve worked on that most people are too nice, and by too nice, I mean they are total fucking cowards.  When issues arise between a nice person or a group of nice people and a jerk, everyone is too nice (read too afraid of conflict and responsibility) to get rid of the jerk. They try to accommodate the jerk, try to appease the jerk, try to work around the jerk. They give the jerk a twentieth chance, and then a twenty-first. Soon enough, a lot of their working and non-working hours are spent thinking, talking about, or finding solutions for problems the jerk has caused, instead of working towards the mission of the organization.

On Being Nice to JerksIt’s total bullshit.

I’m not going to dive into why jerks are jerks; I don’t care. Sometimes they’ve got issues, or a mental illness, or an addiction, and again, I feel for them. Sometimes I am that jerk. But unless the mission of my organization is to provide a meaningful experience for people with issues,  I am not in fact here to support them through this difficult time. I have friends who are jerks of various flavours, and I love and help them to the best of my ability, but that’s different. They’re my friends. That’s a labour of love. And some of my jerk friends have no place in any of the organizations I work or volunteer for. Some are high-functioning jerks, who are mostly just jerky in private, and they do have a place.

I am not saying ‘do not employ difficult people.’ By all means, I think you should employ weirdos and people with strange or challenging perspectives or unusual work habits, especially if you want to succeed.  Those people are often a wellspring of innovation.

I have a mental illness; I’m not advocating for discrimination against unusual people. I’m advocating for getting rid of people who make dealing with them your job, when that’s clearly not what was outlined in your job description.

I’ve fired people; I’ve fired volunteers. It sucks, no doubt.  But the overall health of an organization improves almost immediately when a crazy-making jerk is told they can no longer use it as their stage. Yes, there is always drama, especially if the jerk is a jerk of long standing with the organization. And certainly, there’s the chance that it will reflect badly on you and your organization in the public eye. But you’ve got to get over that; your eventual success after ditching the jerks will outshine any negative press or gossip.

I’ve watched good organizations founder on a jerk, or many jerks; I’m watching it happen to several currently. And when that happens, good people, talented people, nice people get drained and sick and sad, and they lose their passion and inspiration. Work that was exciting and fun becomes a chore. A salary that was initially enough suddenly feels like a pittance. They may not leave, but their work will suffer.

It’s happened to me more than once, and when I fail, I tend to do so fairly dramatically. So I’ve become quite sensitive to the lessons being taught to me by jerks.  Where other people manage to muddle along, miserable but able, I stall entirely.  I’m the canary in the coal mine. It is not my best trait from a Protestant work-ethic perspective, but it has rescued me from a number of bad situations. As I learn more about the world, I realize that success doesn’t stand or fall on a person’s inherent abilities; it’s almost entirely being given a platform to succeed, an environment that enables success.  And succeeding often means recognizing that you don’t have that platform, and leaving that situation.

By being – and I’ll say this again, unless you’ve forgotten that I said it the first time – by being total fucking cowards about weeding the jerks out of your organization, you drain the potential for success out of your staff or volunteers.  But tolerating grief-causers, you cause grief. By bowing to the demands of people who sap time and energy, you become a jerk. You may coach kids’ soccer and help out at the homeless shelter and sing in the church choir and fill out your organ donor card, but you are a jerk.

If you’re the boss or part of the management team, it is your responsibility to weed your garden or support your staffers when they want to weed theirs.  If you let the weeds take over, draining resources and time, who’s to blame when the harvest isn’t very fruitful?

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One Response to On being nice to jerks.

  1. Marc Bilz says:

    Candace- what you have written is very interesting. I think you would get a lot of agreement from other leaders. There are those who will sap the energy of the organization with their dramas, and general jerk-like behaviour. There is a time to unload these people when their behaviour can’t be brought in line. But of course, the fall out can be nasty so I think the unloading should be the last resort. The discussion then becomes: when is the appropriate time to unload the person who seems to be more of a hindrance than a help to the organization. The next component I’d like to address is your thought that why do people not address the jerk sooner and that it is because they are “total fucking cowards”. Again, there is something in this idea that resonates. I’m sometimes shocked by the lack of courage of people. This has been commented on by so many and there seems to be some consensus that most people are “sheeple” and are more interested in following the herd than thinking for themselves. Still, your description as to who is a jerk, may be different than mine. I may have more tolerance for some types of jerks than others. People, including my wife, occasionally think I’m a jerk, and there are times when I think everyone is a jerk. So, in deciding to unload the “jerk” I think it behooves us to carefully reflect, and from a place of balance decide if the person has to go, or if they do not do they get 1 more or 20 more chances. Nothing is better than when we find some way where we all grow a bit and move forward and nothing more beautiful than a jerk who becomes an integral and helpful part of the organization. I will forward this to a friend of mine who has had tremendous success organizing multiple NGOs and assisting other organizations for her thoughts. Thanks for a great piece.

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