How To Be A Jerk To Your Employees And Still Be Loved

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Tony Schwartz of the New York Times tells an intriguing tale of three visionaries – Elon Musk (Tesla/Space X), Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) – who built world-changing businesses all while being notoriously cruel to their employees.

For example, Tony describes when Elon Musk’s long-time assistant asked for a raise.  He told her to take a two-week vacation while he thought it over and, upon her return, “told her the relationship wasn’t going to work anymore.”

In addition, Jeff Bezos was infamous for his vitriolic outbursts dubbed “nutters” according to Tony, and Steve Jobs, though a “sensitive” man could be coldly demeaning.

Yet, Tony says that many of those on the receiving end will defend their leader’s ways with unwavering loyalty.  Some spoke of Elon Musk, for example, as they would a deity.  But why?

Tony gives three reasons, which can generally be thought of as competing contingencies:

1) Because They Can.  Customers care about the product they are purchasing — not so much about the workplace that produces it.  The products in question, after all, have literally changed the world.  As Tony said “Genius covers a lot of sins.”  Give the people something they can’t live without, and you will be surprised what you can get away with.

2) Working for a Visionary.  The guy running your company might be intolerable, but boy is he a visionary, and boy can he inspire you to work harder when the chips are down.

3) Success Breeds Power.  To a certain extent, great visionaries who have impacted the world can just get away with things that the rest of us can’t.  Tony described how Steve Jobs, for example, would frequently park in handicapped spaces and drive without a license.

Money talks.  When it’s rolling in, and your employees are buying houses and putting kids through college it’s easier to tolerate a firebrand boss.  Add to that a high-profile visionary that has fundamentally changed how our world works and suddenly you are part of something bigger than yourself.  Something world changing.

To read Tony’s full article, visit the New York Times here.

After you do that, let us know what you think about these visionaries in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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