And other aspects of performance can be affected as well
According to recent reports the cardiac surgery unit at my local hospital has a mortality rate almost twice the national average and the main reason given is a “toxic atmosphere” and bickering between two rival camps of surgeons. Since I’m an outpatient at the cardiology unit in the same hospital this is a source of both personal and professional concern for me. On a personal level it’s slightly worrying since I am expecting to have a minor cardiac procedure there later this year, and on a professional level it’s another demonstration of how people who behave like jerks can mitigate the best endeavours of an otherwise doubtless highly competent team.
It’s uppermost in my mind at the moment, not only because of my supraventricular tachycardia but also because I have just finished reading Robert Sutton’s excellent book “The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”. In what amounts to a manifesto for removing jerks (my preferred term, although Sutton devotes a substantial intro to his rationale for using “asshole” – he’s American obviously) from workplaces.
The most convincing argument for me is the concept of TCA (Total Cost of Assholes) which shows that it’s not just the ‘soft’ cultural issues that are impacted, there’s a direct cost impact as well. When you count up the reduced productivity of the people affected by bad behaviour and the time spent appeasing, counselling or disciplining the perpetrators, together with the management overhead, legal costs, settlement fees etc. you find that it’s just not worth recruiting the brilliant salesperson, surgeon or CEO in the first place.
But, I hear you ask, don’t we have to tolerate a bit of jerkiness or assholery from leaders just to get things done? This is a tricky question and one which Sutton tackles head-on: you occasionally need to be direct or even downright rude to make things happen – he refers to this as being a “temporary asshole” – but maintains that being a full-time jerk or “certified asshole” is, in the long term, counter-productive and injurious to business performance.
Sadly, our popular myths and stories often feature heroes and heroines with significant personality defects who nonetheless solve the crime or carry out life-saving surgery as a result of their controversial insights. In the latter case, we’ve often discussed in NextTen whether we’d prefer the fictional Dr House as the surgeon you’d want to diagnose your mystery illness rather than someone more “touchy-feely”…
The heart of the matter
But back to St George’s – and real life – the newspaper reports of the “dark atmosphere” in the cardiac surgery unit are frustratingly light on detail and, as always, there may be other reasons for the high mortality rate: as a teaching hospital St George’s often has the more complex cases to deal with. But what struck me was that out of a team of 39 people there was a view that the environment was toxic, but nothing appeared to have been done about it.
It appears that management are now taking action but ensuring a healthy workplace – in all senses of the word – requires that those on the receiving end of sustained jerk behaviour are able to raise their concerns and have them dealt with rapidly and constructively.
It’s not exaggerating too much to say that, in this case, it could be a matter of life or death.