Don’t Work For a Jerk

Work should be a source of joy.

Okay, if that’s too strong…

It should at least be a source of personal well-being.

Gallup’s research confirms that work is the second most important factor in promoting our life satisfaction. (The first is the quality of our relationships.) We spend half our waking hours working. It is a source of personal identity, growth, and self-efficacy.

That’s all great when our work is good. But when work is not good, it’s our single greatest source of stress. And new research is confirming what we all know. If our work is stressful, it’s mostly because our boss is bad.

Here’s why:

Business organizations are designed as power hierarchies. This is because the military is run as a power hierarchy, and modern organizations come from the military gene pool. The family tree of business also runs back to royalty, warlords, and a host of archaic organization models.

The people at the top of hierarchies hold life-and-death power (or hire-or-fire power) over everyone. They are also expected to be smarter, better informed, and more capable than their employees.

Of course, sometimes they are.

Often they are not.

But it’s not competency alone that determines whether a leader creates a great place to work. More often, it is his or her personality, values, and worldview.

The emerging research on leaders of large, modern enterprises is that they tend to be more narcissistic and less empathetic than average. I know…this is not surprising. But let’s take a closer look.


  • Tend to act confident, be well-groomed, self-promoting, and extroverted. They make eye contact, offer inflated compliments, and have high energy.
  • Need and may demand the spotlight, recognition, and admiration.
  • Are self-serving, self-focused, and insistent.
  • Constantly search for better deals, better people, better jobs, better spouses.

And their grand ability is to leverage their influence to dominate a social group. That’s why leadership positions in business, politics, and the media appear to be loaded with narcissists.

What’s dangerous about this is that the most dominant trait of a narcissist is fake empathy. That is when a person pretends to care about the sufferings and sacrifices of others, but really doesn’t. It’s what enables business executives to permanently lay off hardworking, creative, successful employees to temporarily raise profits. It’s what enables leaders to sell and promote bad food and harmful products, or brazenly pollute and poison the environment.

Researchers have now administered thousands of personality assessments, and found that people with low empathy scores tend to become lawyers, economists, and investment bankers. (I know, I know…no surprise.)

So what’s this got to do with our work? Everything.

IBM published research last year revealing the person most employees least enjoy spending time with is their boss. They found that our stress hormone levels skyrocket when we talk to our bosses, due to the massive economic and social power bosses have. If that power is wielded by a narcissist or a low-empathy leader, it’s frankly very scary.

The cure is simple. Not easy, but simple. It has two elements.

First, become great at something. That way, you have a career instead of a job. We all earn money by creating value. Value in a business is primarily created by saving money or making money. Be clear on what you’re great at, and get better. Become an expert in a field you’re passionate about.

You do this by reading, going to conferences, writing, speaking, doing. Do something for at least 30 minutes each day to learn something new in your field of choice. Give yourself three years to get in the top 25% of your field. In five years be in the top 10%. Life is short. Be great at your work so you will always be in demand.

Second, don’t work for a jerk. Remember, business is a magnet for slick narcissists. So if you are going to work for someone other than yourself, you must target great companies that push self-promoters away. You will discover these humane places to work through networking, reading local lists of good companies, and asking around.

Sometimes transitions take time. Don’t fret about it. Just don’t settle for being stressed, scared, and exploited.

I just finished teaching a career class to about 60 adult UCSD students. What was reinforced to me is that we all have gifts to give. We have a difference we can make. And if you want to, you can put yourself in the right place with the right people to work the way you are uniquely designed to. Never give up your dream.


5 Responses

  1. You are right, right, right Will.The biggest obstacle I see to everyone implementing this strategy is the “sheeple factor” and the reality that because of the current economic fear/insecurity factor most people are frozen in place and unable to take positive action to change their circumstances. Getting out of the current economic/political situation is going to take strong and united action from all of us with no compromises. The lack of true, servant leadership across the board in all of our institutions education, business and government is appalling. Where are those heroic leaders that appeared during hard times in the past to lead us to victory and change the course of history? Are we and our American country just going to give up after all those before us who put forth great effort and also gave their lives for our rights and freedoms? We must again become ONE instead of a distracted and fearful many and start to get back to the uncompromising principles that made us great. The hell with the narcissists and bad bosses and leaders, let’s put them all on notice that they and their tactics are not acceptable . . .period.

  2. Some additional thoughts from other sources. What do you want? Are you willing(to pay the price) and are you able (do you have the capabilities)? Never let circumstances or another person dictate your future. Napoleon Hill said: “Imagination is the most marvelous, miraculous, inconceivably powerful force the world has ever known.” God’s gift to us is more talent and ability than we’ll ever hope to use in our lifetime. Our gift to God is to develop as much of that talent and ability as we can in this lifetime. Start today with goals and actions to make them happen and take you where you want to go.

  3. Love this! This explains our frustrations and also gives us a way out of them. Thank you, Will. (Any advice for the vast majority of us have no clue what our talents are, or whose talents are not valued by big business?)

    • That’s a great question, and the answer has two parts.

      First, at the end of each day ask yourself ” what did I do well that I really enjoyed today?” Write it down. Repeat this for 21 days, or until you see a pattern of your motivated talents. This is your

      Second, ask yourself and others you respect how you might use your motivated talents to make money or save money for an employer. That’s why businesses hire people–employees should either contribute to the growth of the business or increasing its profitability. Once your present yourself as a value creator, you change the way people perceive you.

      That should get you started…

      Keep in touch. Tell us how

  4. Never work for a jerk and if you “take client’s on” never take on jerky clients. Now that is incredibly difficult to do because, sometimes you don’t know they are a jerk until you’re deep into your consultation and commitment with the client. But, in retrospect when I think back to my very first GUTT feeling about the person, I realize that I knew all along that the end result was NOT going to be pleasing or happy or satisfying to me or I did know it WAS going to be just fine and a “win / win” all around for everybody. NOW I LISTEN TO MY GUTT ONLY. I seek out only people who believe in “win / win” results and I run away from the “winner take all” mentallity people who are destroying the “American Dream” for the middle class.

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