• WSL Leadership

"Being" versus "Acting Like" a Jerk


Leadership is all about having an impact on other people. How we think of others defines the parameters of our effect.


It feels normal to think of people in absolutes. Someone is defined by their relationship to us as a sister or a co-worker. Or their actions take precedence, and they are a fidgeter or murderer. It feels just as normal to judge some people as being a jerk or a bully.


All of this is a beautiful slippery slope into limiting our effectiveness as leaders because of our preconceived ideas (maybe stereotypes, maybe biases) that go with the labels we judgmentally apply.


The best leaders bring out the best in their teammates. When we have a teammate who is (being) a jerk, we’re stuck because “that’s just who they are.” I’m not underestimating the power of an excellent leader to influence the character of their teammates. I’m just saying influencing their behavior is much more straightforward, not to mention easier.


If someone is a jerk and yet, for some reason, you value their contributions and want to keep them on the team, the job of changing their character is daunting. Where do you even start with that? Is that in your scope of expertise as a leader?


It is simpler to influence and shift behavior, and it can be done consistently and effectively. Behavior can be regulated, behavior can be called out, and people (and their behavior) can be called in to align better with expectations (or standards or policy or team values or…). Doing this well also takes some skill and practice. By using emotional intelligence and consistency with applying a thoughtful approach, you can change behavior. It’s possible, and it happens all the time (sometimes inadvertently).


The door to changing behavior opens when we recognize that people are separate from their actions. When we realize that they are “acting like a jerk” instead of “being a jerk.” The behavior that causes us to make this judgment is behavior that you, as a leader, have the power to influence.


Once we separate a person from their behavior, we can identify and address specific aspects of that behavior. It also reminds us to recognize the humanity in people beyond often what is only a snap judgment and it exposes the laziness of clinging to stereotypes (or worse).


I have a clear bias toward leaders viewing themselves as educators. Influencing behavior is a piece of educating your teammates. If you are leading and not putting intention toward cultivating the behavior that you want to see in your team, the behavior will degrade to the lowest tolerable level - and probably just beyond tolerance to make sure where the limit is for intervention.


Next time you’re about to disempower yourself by judgmentally labeling someone, pause for a moment and look at the specific behavior leading you to this label. If it’s someone you’ve worked with for a while, you may have many past examples that you’ve condensed down to pronounce judgment on seemingly benign actions. Look at the behavior. Identify the specific behavior.


That is the first step to changing the behavior. I can’t promise you’ll change hearts, minds, or character, but you can still cultivate an excellent team where people don’t act like jerks.




Read more thoughtful leadership writing at WSLLeadership.com/articles.