Jerks Rise to the Top?

Michael Scott from The OfficeNew York Magazine takes an interesting look into boss psychology. The article seems to support the theory that nice guys finish last and you need a mean streak to get ahead. Is the politically correct, gender sensitive, collaborative, consensus building boss model we’ve heard about through the 90’s to today crumbling? Narcissism is even cited as a requisite trait for executive material:

“Narcissists have unrealistically exaggerated views of their abilities and achievements,” reports University of Florida professor Timothy Judge…a growing body of evidence argues that narcissistic personality traits are some of those that propel the jerk up the ladder. Research suggests that he who climbs quickly is likely more talkative, social, and at the same time more obviously—obviously is the key word—dominant than his peers. “He answers to himself,” as one management consultant puts it. He’s self-referential—“I believe … ” is the way he starts most every sentence. He has a talent for manipulating others’ impressions. One way he sometimes does that is by flashing a little anger. “Leadership research shows that subtle nasty moves like glaring and condescending comments, explicit moves like insults or put-downs, and even physical intimidation can be effective paths to power,” reports Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor and author of The No Asshole Rule.

Management of people is a balancing act. I’ve written in the past about the unique game a Product Manager plays in influencing those who they don’t have direct managerial responsibility, or even a dotted line from (which can ultimately lead to burn out). Unfortunately, as the article touches on, the traits that elevate people to leadership positions does not elevate their ability to lead. This could explain why Executive teams frequently make brain dead decisions.

A person with the traits outlined by the research presented in the article would make a terrible Product Manager. A true narcissist is not curious, because they make a statement and stick in it like concrete, refusing to move even when wrong. “Why research the market – I know I’m right!”

As PM’s it is tempting to think of our products as antiseptic and clean of the messy people politics that the human management side entails, but the truth is that every product in encumbered by our choices on the human side. Employees are people, are imperfect, do like to feel valued, do want to participate in a meaningful process, and do what their voices heard. The best people are going to flock to companies and managers who recognize and support this creativity. Better people make better products.

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1 Comment

  • Reply The Cranky Product Manager May 9, 2007 at 11:07 am

    Well, this explains George W. He would definitely make a lousy PM.

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