Positive Spillovers from Bad Behavior

24 January 2010 at 1:09 am 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

When I introduce in class the concept of influence activities I emphasize that these, like other forms of discretionary behavior, can have benefits as well as costs. Think of self-assessments, such as a faculty member’s annual report to the department head or Dean. Certainly, faculty will find creative ways to overstate their accomplishments, minimize their failures, make themselves look better relative to their peers, and so on, and the time and energy spent doing this can be considered influence costs. At the same time, a savvy department head or Dean knows how to read between the lines, to separate signal from noise, and generally how to extract useful information from these reports, information he or she might not otherwise have. The challenge for organizational design, then, is not to eliminate influence activities altogether, but to limit them to the point where marginal benefit equals marginal cost.

This popped into my mind the other day when I read (courtesy of Stephan Kinsella) the confessions of a self-described “law school asshole.” University of Pennsylvania 3L Steve Mendelsohn (writing in 1990) tells his fellow students: “You know who we are. We’re the ones who always have our hands up in class volunteering to answer the professor’s questions, or ready to ask one of our own at seemingly any and every opportunity. Everytime you hear one of our names called, you groan and turn to the person next to you and slowly shake your head from side to side.” He even admits his name was in the center square of the Asshole Bingo cards his fellow students would bring to class.

As with influence activities, however, law-school assholery seems to have public benefits: keeping the discussion going and the atmosphere lively, eliciting from the professor information that other students would like to have but are afraid to ask for, and so on. I confess that, as an instructor, I’d rather have a few such assholes in class than a room full of polite, well-behaved dullards.

The serious question is whether this applies to organizations more generally. Are “civilized” workplaces necessarily better than rough-and-rowdy ones? It’s easy to come up with examples of organizations run by jerks that failed, but do we have systematic empirical evidence that nice-guy firms finish first? Do the marginal costs of costs of placing rude, self-centered people in management positions outweigh the marginal benefits?

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Michael Marotta  |  24 January 2010 at 11:42 am

    MEEE!!!!!

    It would be interesting to quantify how influential such people are over the course of years or decades. My field is criminology. I know from one background investigation that my peers said that I think that I know more than the teacher, but that I have no influence with my group. Harsh reality…

    I can offer one case study, perhaps not widely known. CYPRESS SEMICONDUCTOR president T. J. Rodgers has grown a successful business by a conscious plan of direct engagement. In their meetings, you are expected to make a strong statement because weak statements have no value. You are then expected to have facts (of course), but then, also to have even more facts because everyone else around the table is going to argue with you on every point. If you can’t take that, then you have not much to offer, certainly not at the management level. CYPRESS and Rodgers have been around for 40 years. It seems to work for them.

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