One reading of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography suggests the key to success is being a jerk, a piece of advice that some bosses have taken too literally. But science is on the side of nice bosses. It has found mean bosses lead to lower worker satisfaction, which in turn leads to worse financial performance. For this month's Wired cover story Ben Austen writes of the acolytes following Jobs too literally: "Businesspeople who have taken the life of Steve Jobs as license to become more aggressive as visionaries, as competitors, and above all as bosses." They are people like Steve Davis, CEO of TwoFour, who told Austen he has set aside family for work. Or Tristan O’Tierney, a software developer for Apple that also helped found Twitter, who admitted his pushy methods come with "collateral damage." "You make them better by forcing people to do work they didn’t know they had in them," he said. While these theories might have worked for Jobs, who was known to berate employees, that is the exact wrong impression these entrepreneurs and managers should get from the book. At least, if they want to get the most productivity out of their workers.
In his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t Robert Sutton argues this type of behavior causes overall financial damages to a company. In it, for example, he points to one company that ran a cost analysis, finding a mean manager's behavior cost it $160,000 in one year. He also notes the many successful companies -- Google, Virgin Atlantic, and Southwest, for example -- that had leaders who didn't abuse their workers. More recent research has confirmed his findings. One study found a direct correlation between worker engagement and "leadership effectiveness," as the chart above shows. A study of government employees had a similar outcome, finding worker unhappiness tied to unsavory boss behavior. Some might argue "engagement" and "satisfaction" have nothing to do with the bottom line. But, a group of studies have shown that the worker unhappiness caused by said horrible humans, and vice versa, has a domino effect. "Specifically, in Sears' case, when employee satisfaction improved by 5 percent, customer satisfaction improved by 1.3 percent, which led to a .05 percent improvement in revenue. That might not sound significant, but for $50 billion Sears, that that came to an extra $250 million in sales revenue," explains Harvard Business Review's Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.
Jerks, however, argue, as O'Tierney did, that playing nice guy doesn't get the most out of employees. But, when workers don't like their bosses, they don't necessarily work harder to make the boss like them more. "When employees feel they're mistreated, they get even," Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Florida who led a 2006 study of the effect of bad managers on job satisfaction told the American Management Association. "If your supervisor is mean or rude to you, it increases your workplace deviance because it makes you angry and frustrated," Judge said. These kind of sentiments lead to high turnover and more sick leave.
Of course, for all the studies booing the evil overlords, these men could point to studies that say the opposite. Like this one, which says sarcasm and anger makes employees work harder and smarter. But to that we say look into your soul and ask yourself is that the person you want to be? Call us rejectors, as Austen would, but from both a humanitarian and economic perspective, Jobs sounds more like an exceptional example who somehow managed to get both success and reverence.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.