First Line Manager: Are You a Jerk?

I believe some of the employees I have managed thought I was a jerk. Maybe I was the right kind of jerk suggested in this article I read.


Jerry Useem in a June 2015 Atlantic article, “Why it pays to be a Jerk” gives credence to the old saw that nice guys finish last. He gives us the results of several studies that somehow the jerk comes out on top. He points to the success of a two of my favorite jerks, Steve Jobs and George Patton. He leaves out two other famous jerks, Lee Iacocca, and Jack ‘Neutron’ Welch. Iacocca said in his book he confronted the engineer that told him it took time to design a convertible with the comment, “Take a sedan and cut off the top.” Jack Welch is reported to have cut General Electric’s payroll by 100,000 employees. The famous jerk list is long and I could mention more. The article points out being a jerk is OK if it benefits the group; not so, if the jerk is in it for self-benefit. I think I know what he means. I was a jerk for the group.


So, what kind of a jerk was I as a first line manager? I had high standards for me and the employees. When we failed to uphold the standards I addressed the problems. This could make me a jerk. Especially if the same employee repeatedly created the same problem.


I bet I was considered a jerk when I took over an operation and made corrections. These corrections were addressed quickly. I actually had one employee tell me at her third yearly performance review after my coming to her office, “Jim when you came we did not know how to take you. We phoned your last office and they said give it time you will understand him.” I took this as a complement. The employees knew my actions were not for my benefit, they were for the benefit of our group and the company.


Sometimes I had to push a person off the diving board, this can come across as being jerk. I had a new dispatcher in the storm center. She was thoroughly trained but had never worked a major storm. I came by to check on how she was doing. She was panicked. She said, “I can’t do this; I need help.” I said, “Yes you can.” She said, “No I can’t; you do not love me.” I replied, “Yes I do, that is why you are going to stay here and work this area.” I am sure she thought I was a jerk. I should have saved her. I did not. She calmed down and from this point on she did a great job.


At times, I was a silent jerk. I just took action and did not say anything to the employees. In one office I managed I got a call from a couple of lineman that worked for me. They said they could not find the outage on an electric circuit feeding Washington Camp. It was a long rural power line. I knew it well. They asked me to come help them find the problem. Both of these lineman were new to my office. This to me was a test of what I would do. I knew the line had to be broken in one place where it went through the woods. When I drove past them they were leaning against the hood of their truck waiting for me. I drove to the site where I thought the line was down. There the line was on the ground. I called them on the radio and said, “The line is down behind the old school bus.” I drove past them on my way back to the office. It took me less than five minutes to find the wire down. I never mention this to them or did they ever mention it to me. I knew they were jerking me. Maybe they thought I was a jerk, a silent jerk. I never again got a call from them saying they could not find wire down.


Be careful being a jerk outside of your workgroup. My wake-up call came one day when I was discussing a metering issue with our division meter superintendent. He said, “Jim why are you so hard to get along with.” Wow, this got to me. Did he think I was a jerk? It made no difference why he though this, I had to do some repair work. If he thought this what must other employees in the company outside of my work group think of me? I instantly became aware that I was not creating goodwill for myself or my workgroup. I changed. Being a jerk gets you a reputation outside of your workgroup that can’t be good for you. You may get away with some jerk actions in your workgroup, you work with them every day. But being a jerk will not work with others outside of your workgroup. They do not know you or your intentions. They just think you are difficult to work with, “a Jerk.”


This is my point; never be a jerk unless it has meaning beyond yourself. Be a jerk for the betterment of your group. Employees may as a group talk about you as a jerk; but, most individually will know you had to be a jerk for them to accomplish their mission. So, if you are a jerk be one for the right reasons; not, because you think you are entitled to be one. That makes you truly an unbearable jerk.


First line management is a tough job and employees will at times think you are a jerk. If you want to remove yourself from the permanent jerk category here are a couple of special comments that will do that, “Thank You” and “I appreciate your efforts.”

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