Creating a Jerk-Free Workplace Culture

If you’ve ever had a boss or colleague who caused you to exclaim, “What a Jerk!” you know the impact one person can have on both organizational and employee wellbeing. In fact, a recent Washington Post article explores the research on the negative impact bad bosses have on physical and psychological health.

Because the quality of leadership ultimately determines the state of both organizational and employee wellbeing, it is critical that organizations invest in a comprehensive strategy to ensure Jerks are not taking over and damaging the culture. In Robert Sutton’s book, “The No Asshole Rule,” he describes the two tests he uses to determine if someone is acting like an asshole:

  • Test One: After talking to the person, you feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled. In other words, you feel worse about yourself.
  • Test Two: The person in question (i.e., “alleged asshole”) aims his/her venom at people who are less powerful.

Why does this matter? Because employees with abusive supervisors (i.e., Jerk bosses) quit their jobs at accelerated rates. And because those still trapped working for a boss from hell have:

  • Reduced productivity and commitment to their employer;
  • Heightened depression, anxiety, anger, irritability, and burnout;
  • Difficulty concentrating at work;
  • Sleep disturbances; and
  • Reduced job satisfaction. 1

Consequently, the organization suffers with increased costs associated with turnover, absenteeism, and distracted and impaired individual performance. Sutton even provides additional factors to consider when calculating your TCA (Total Cost of Assholes to your organization), which includes legal and HR management costs. For example, we know that the relationship people have with their immediate supervisor plays a critical role in whether they are engaged at work; and present data indicates that employee disengagement is costing U.S. businesses $450-550 billion per year.

Unfortunately, too often companies ignore a jerk’s behavior, frequently making excuses because that individual brings in a lot of sales, or is well-connected or may even be a shareholder or partial owner in the company. I have seen this happen more times than I care to see where I’ve been asked to work with a “problem leader” to provide coaching and support as part of that person’s individual development plan. Sometimes the leader is able to make dramatic and positive changes but other times not.

I recall one leader who I’ll call Jeff. Jeff was a total hot-head, and employees complained about him regularly. He was sent to counseling, directed to work with me, enrolled in mindfulness-based stress reduction, and more. Nothing changed. He was one of the owners, but his fellow owners refused to stand up to him and hold him accountable for his behavior. As a result, every employee who reported to him either moved to another area within the company or left altogether; they couldn’t find anyone to tolerate working with Jeff for more than one year. And the leadership team spent more time squabbling because Jeff would derail productive meetings with some upset and complaint. Not surprisingly, all of the work this company was doing to try to promote thriving organizational and employee wellbeing was being undone. Why would employees believe leadership valued them when they continued to allow a bully like Jeff to run free? Their TCA was extremely high and climbing!

Protecting Your Culture: Developing Quality Leaders

Thankfully, some organizations that had jerk leaders like Jeff took the difficult steps to get rid of them; and the results were immediate. Employee trust in leadership, morale, and self-reported wellbeing improved dramatically because the executive team made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated and took the steps to protect the culture they were working so hard to create.

Workplace culture is essential for building your company’s brand and the entire employee experience. Most of the highly successful Firms of Endearment (FoEs) understand this and work to protect their culture and ALL stakeholders. One FoE, Southwest Airlines, is particularly known for protecting its good culture. Time after time the company has shown consistent intolerance for abusive people and even those too cold or gruff to fit within its culture; and the company is thriving by putting culture and its people first.

Every interaction employees have with a leader reinforces their belief and experience of the company culture. Therefore, quality leadership development is a critical cornerstone of any high-performing organization and thriving workplace culture and a pre-requisite for any successful employee wellbeing initiative. Successful organizations in the 21st century reconsider how to develop leaders to effectively manage change — particularly adaptive change.

The challenge is that leadership development cannot be a one-time event. It has to be an ongoing effort. The world is constantly changing; we are all human; and no one is perfect. It takes considerable, intentional effort to be a great leader because it requires a lot of self-awareness, self-management, and resiliency to be able to continue to support employees as people first — regardless of what is happening.

In our book, “How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, Featuring the 7 Points of Transformation,” we describe in detail a four-part framework for approaching leadership development in a way that builds a solid foundation for your organization (and helps ensure an asshole-free workplace).


  • Step One: Enhance Self-Awareness. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that having leaders with a transformational leadership style, which builds trust and conveys a sense of meaningfulness while individually challenging and developing employees, is associated with increased employee wellbeing.2 However, leading transformation and adaptive change, demands hitting the pause button to be more self-aware. In fact, self-awareness is now one of the fastest growing competencies in leadership development programs.3 This is also a great place to embed awareness and support for leaders to tend to their own wellbeing.
  • Step Two: Build Effective Thinking. Because behaviors are really the manifestation of the underlying thinking, it’s impossible to expect leaders to DO or behave differently until they can think differently. Once leaders have greater self-awareness of their purpose, what matters to them, their wellbeing, and when their thinking is and isn’t serving them well, they have a solid foundation on which to build effective thinking skills. Leaders’ state of mind and quality of thinking is critical to organizational wellbeing and performance.4 We have found that when leaders develop and strengthen their Intrinsic Thinking, they have more capacity to lead adaptive change and are more resilient.
  • Step Three: Develop & Foster Quality Relationships So Others Can Grow. Great leaders are both transformational and servant leaders. They truly care about the people they are privileged to lead.5 In fact, research has shown that managers will plateau in their careers if they can’t develop and transition from expertise and control to authenticity and shared purpose.6 Therefore, this step of development involves supporting leaders so they can create the conditions for employees to use their strengths and talents each day, feel connected to the company purpose, and embrace the pause themselves — to slow down and see the big picture.7 In fact, one of the hallmarks of the highly successful Firms of Endearment is their commitment to servant leadership.
  • Step Four: Grow the Organization. Growing the organization requires leaders who can help the organization look at itself — to be reflective and learn from its activities and decisions. The leaders’ job isn’t to make sure that people know exactly what to do and when to do it; the leaders’ job is to ensure that there is strong and evolving clarity about what the organization is and where it’s headed. Great leaders help employees clarify their purpose and find meaning in their work.8 THIS will provide the maximum benefit for employee wellbeing, much more so than whether your leaders visibly participate in wellness programs and support healthy lifestyles.

Having leaders who are able to look at themselves, tend to their own wellbeing, and bring forward their best thinking to support and foster quality relationships is the key to creating the conditions in which both organizational and employee wellbeing can thrive.


1. Sutton, R.I., (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York: Business Plus.

2.  Jacobs, Christine; Pfaff, Holger; Lehner, Birgit; Driller, Elke; Nitzsche, Anika Stieler-Lorenz, Brigitte; Wasem, Jürgen; Jung, Julia (July 2013). The Influence of Transformational Leadership on Employee Well-Being: Results From a Survey of Companies in the Information and Communication Technology Sector in Germany. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 55(7), 772-778.

3. Bersin, J. (April 4, 2014).The Five Elements of a ‘Simply Irresistible’ Organization. Forbes.

4.  Delaney, S (2008). Why State of Mind Matters in Times of Great Challenge. Results from Thriving Global Leadership Survey (

5.  Sinek, S (2014). Leaders Eat Last. New York: Penguin Group.

6. Cashman, K (2012). The Pause Principle. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

7.  Bersin, J (April 4, 2014). The Five Elements of a ‘Simply Irresistible’ Organization. Forbes.

8.  Wheatley, M.J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at or

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