How a Jerk at Work Can Put the Kibosh on Your ERP Software Selection Project

The old software selection “how-to” horse may not have been beaten to death yet, but it’s certainly received a few good whacks. As you already know, particularly if you peruse the TEC site or subscribe to TEC’s newsletters, there are myriad articles on the challenges of software selection from various sources, offering advice to everyone from worried delegators at the top of the corporate food chain to beleaguered cubicle-serf managers closer to the bottom.

So maybe by now you know the key steps necessary for a detailed, accurate, and well-planned software selection project (or at least, that software selection is not a haphazard process needing no forethought or plan of action).

But another topic has received less attention. Have you ever considered the importance of your employees’ skills in the successful outcome of a project? Not the just their hard skills—those are inarguably important—but also their “warm-and-fuzzy” soft ones? Believe it or not, these soft skills can make or break a software selection and implementation project.

Sure, sure—we all have to be nice and get along with our colleagues, or our time at work becomes a living nightmare. And anyway, most of us possess some (and maybe in some cases, all) of the personal and interpersonal qualities required to function on the job and more generally in our so-called civilized society.

However, it’s increasingly an issue—even a problem—that some people appear to have missed out on “warm-fuzzy” training sessions somewhere along the way. But rather than slipping into a life of crime, they’re sitting in the next cubicle. The notorious “workplace jerk” is probably doing much more to harm the office ambiance than simply making employees duck down below the cubicle partition when they see him or her coming.

This Jerk, in fact, could be—whether intentionally or not—sabotaging your company’s efforts at project management, including software selection and implementation.

But first: what exactly defines the “workplace jerk”?

Robert Sutton, in “How to Deal with Jerks in the Workplace” (also a professor at Stanford University and the author of The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t) offers two benchmarks for defining a workplace jerk:
The first standard is whether someone consistently leaves people feeling demeaned and belittled and de-energized. The second standard is whether that person targets people who have less power than they do. But there’s also an emotional component—the feeling that you’re being oppressed or pushed around by a bad apple.

And in another article (perhaps citing his book, which I haven’t read) Sutton qualifies his use of the term “a**hole”: in his view, it describes the people whose workplace behavior encompasses “bullying, interpersonal aggression, emotional abuse, abusive supervision, petty tyranny, and incivility.”

Bosses or managers aren’t the only ones guilty of these types of behaviors. “Workplace jerks” can exist at any level in an organization, though they are more likely to be found in positions of power—the higher up the bad apple, the less chance there is a manager will be “pruned” for his or her nasty attitude. And according to a 2007 Employment Law Alliance survey, “nearly 45 percent of US workers have toiled for an office bully”—a disheartening statistic that accounts only for “jerky” managers, and not for jerks at other levels.

And how does the Workplace Jerk put a wrench in the works (no pun intended)? Any number of ways, in Sutton’s view. The 12 offenses of the jerk include:

  • personal insults

  • invading co-workers’ personal territory

  • uninvited physical contact

  • threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal

  • sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems

  • withering e-mails

  • status slaps intended to humiliate victims

  • public shaming or status degradation rituals

  • rude interruptions

  • two-faced attacks

  • dirty looks

  • treating people as if they were invisible

But undoubtedly, there are scads of others—any of which you may have experienced yourself. Kris Dunn, author of the HR Capitalist blog, cites another type of workplace jerk: the “Information Hoarder,” who aggravates the lives of coworkers by not sharing information and generally resisting collaboration.

It may seem obvious to some readers how these jerks and their actions can ruin workplace morale—especially those of you who’ve had to endure them. There are the minor repercussions, such as workers who are more distracted and less motivated. But some effects are of more seismic proportions.

The “total cost of a**holes” (or “TCA”), according to Sutton, can be extremely deleterious to the ongoing stability and productivity of your organization: “They poison the work environment, decrease productivity, induce qualified employees to quit, and therefore are detrimental to business, regardless of their individual effectiveness” or productivity. And, they can even cost your company well over a hundred thousand dollars annually.

Other effects include (as listed in Sutton’s article for the McKinsey Quarterly)

  • impairment of individual performance (individuals being the targets of bullying or other “jerky” behavior)

  • collectively impaired organizational performance

  • increased turnover

  • absenteeism, in part due to stress-related illness

  • decreased commitment to work

  • less satisfaction from work and life

  • heightened anxiety, depression, and burnout

If it isn’t bad enough that these are the day-to-day effects on employees, just think what a Workplace Jerk can do to more complex initiatives like software selection and implementation.

Scenario #1: You need to get a complete and accurate list of business processes from the shop floor manager. Though not an out-and-out jerk, he is an Information Hoarder, and doesn’t think it’s necessary to document each and every process, no matter how hard you try to persuade him. You either have to then approach his team and ask for their input—an act you’re afraid he’ll think approaches treason—or leave those parts of the definition of requirements blank or incomplete. Just imagine how well the software will fit your needs. You lose sleep worrying about how to solve the problem, and notice your productivity plummets for a couple of weeks.

Scenario #2: You approach your comptroller with a report detailing the ways you think processes could be improved by implementing an automated solution. You’re hesitant to do so in the first place, because he’s a renowned jerk, though he’s never said or done anything to you personally (there’s just something about the way he looks at you that makes you feel like a cattle-prod is being brandished at your ol’ ticker). So, before you meet with him, you read and reread, and edit again, eliminating several of the suggestions you think are useful, but that you anticipate getting flack from him about. The comptroller accepts your report with little comment, and the software project proceeds… but months later, it is discovered that the software lacks the very functionality you had detailed in your first draft, but edited out due to fear of the “jerk’s” incrimination…

Scenario #3: So-and-so is a mid-level manager. You give her a list of the detailed criteria of the modules at which you know she’s an expert, telling her she has a three-week deadline to get back to you. The three-week deadline comes… and then goes. At the end of the fourth week, you decide to follow up with a polite inquiry by e-mail. By the end of the next day, you still haven’t heard from her. So early the next morning, you call her extension. She doesn’t answer. You call one of her employees, just to make sure she’s not sick or on vacation. “No, she’s at her desk,” he whispers. “She just never answers her phone.” You thank him, and hang up, sighing. Then you stroll down to her end of the building.

As luck would have it, she’s on the phone. “That is not the performance I expect from you,” she snarls, “you’re letting me down again. I want it on my desk by 3:00 pm—no ifs, ands, or buts. In other words, get your fat butt into gear.” She hangs up. “Yes?” she barks at you, not looking up. “Yes, ah, I was just wondering if you had a chance to look at those criteria?” “Nope,” she says. And apparently has nothing else to say. “Ah. Okay, well, how about by the end of the week?” “Look,” she growls, still not looking up, “I get enough hassles from my own team and managers, I don’t need someone else marching in here and loading me with their problems. You’ll get the criteria when you get them.”

Taken aback, you can’t think of anything to say. “Are you deaf, or something? Or just stupid?” she asks, raising her voice. All the employees in the vicinity stop talking, look over, and immediately pretend they’ve heard and seen nothing. Your face flaming uncontrollably, it dawns on you that she’s not only a grade-A jerk, she’s a hypocrite. You mutter something like “sorry to bother you” and head back to your desk, wondering how you’re going to explain the delay to your boss.

And finally, exactly one month behind the original deadline, she returns the criteria to you. Very conveniently (for her), she’s indicated “no need” for all the features dealing with transparently, audit, and compliance—features you’d told her were most important to consider. You wonder how quickly you could find another job if you quit today.

Scenario #4: Your company’s customer relationship management (CRM) software selection project was completed almost six months behind schedule. Even now that the CRM system has been implemented, there seems to be an ongoing problem with user adoption. You and another member of the software selection team are sitting back and trying to figure out the cause of these problems, including the delays caused by everything from requirements definitions submitted late, to cancelled meetings, to unnecessary meetings, to absenteeism (especially in the sales department). “Wellll,” you start, “I think a large part of it is because the head of the sales team is, well, ah…”

You hesitate, thinking of a way to phrase your opinion more diplomatically. “A jerk?” she says, a rueful smile on her face. “Yes. I know. We all know. In fact, he’s in the chief’s office as we speak.” You raise your eyebrows. She runs her finger across her throat. You both chuckle. Then sigh. Because although the sales manager evidently won’t be around to cause any more damage, this project has already been rather seriously blemished—though not, hopefully, ruined irreparably.

A Word or Two of Advice

Short of firing the offending jerks—which might not be a bad idea, all things considered—how can you prevent having your software selection project ruined by a workplace jerk? One effective tactic is to hire outside analysts, consultants, or other experts who can help not only by guiding you through the steps of the software selection process, but also by providing a bit of neutrality and objectivity (also known as “jerkicide”? experts in the use of a “jerk-o-meter”?), should any conflicts occur.

(All that about jerks being said, we all have our bad days due to personal stress or other factors, and you shouldn’t jump to the conclusions that because you feel Mr. M “snapped” at you or Ms. N ignored you in the hallway the other day means he’s doing a quick change into the Incredible Jerk or that she’s about to launch a vicious and career-ending e-mail campaign against you. Maybe he’s sleep deprived or she’s worried about the results of a health-related test. Compassion and forgiveness go a long way to making the workplace a sane and productive environment. J)

Thanks to Denis Rousseau for taking the time to help me with the software selection side of the “Workplace Jerk Scenarios” above—much appreciated.

Read more about jerks in the workplace:

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

Have you ever worked with a jerk? Tell us about how it affected your work environment—and what you did about it.
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