Working with jerks

For eight seasons Dr House (played by Hugh Laurie) ruled the ratings. From 2004 to 2012. For those of you who missed it, Dr Gregory House was an absolute genius – but he was a nightmare to work with. His behaviour could only be described as toxic and bullying. He was uncaring to any patients he bothered interacting with, demeaning and degrading to his staff, and completely disrespectful for those in authority. But his behaviour is tolerated because he is a genius at diagnosing the medical issues no one else can manage.

I have to admit to being a fan. But in hindsight, I really should have reacted as strongly to his mistreatment of staff as I did to the bullying behaviour of the leadership in another program called the Apprentice. But House was only fiction.

Why did it run for eight seasons? Well, there are probably many reasons, the writing, the acting, the characters etc, but there is also another reason … most of us have – at some point – worked with, or for, a jerk. Those above seem to tolerate it, usually because they get some outstanding results. But results are only half the story … less than half in my view.


The cost of incivility

In 2016 Christine Porath wrote a telling article called “The hidden toll of workplace incivility”[1] It was the culmination of eighteen years of research, with over 14,000 subjects. At the start of the project in 1998 49% of respondents stated that they had been treated rudely at least once a month in the workplace. By the end of the project in 2011 that number had risen to 62%. The reasons for the increase are probably the subject for another article, but it is an alarming trend … bearing in mind the research finished a decade ago.

The costs of that toxic behaviour in the workplace are staggering. 47% of the respondents said they took time off because of the behaviour (80% said they lost worktime worrying about what had happened), 38% said they deliberately decreased the quality of their work. These are alarming numbers, but anyone who has worked for a toxic boss or with a toxic colleague won’t be surprised. After all, why put in any extra effort if you are punished for it?

Staggeringly 78% said their commitment to the organisation was affected by the behaviour of such individuals. Why? Because the organisation allows it to persist and, on many occasions rewards the perpetrator.

In addition, 12% said they had left their job because of toxic behaviour.


But what are the actual costs?

Let’s just focus on the issue of additional staff turnover that toxicity creates. I’ve seen many estimates around what it costs to replace an employee and they range from 75% to 200% of the employee’s annual salary (Lost productivity, recruitment activity, retraining and so on).

So, let’s be conservative and say that when a staff member leaves it costs their annual salary to replace them. The average salary in Australia is a smidge under $80,000. So, every time a staff member leaves because of the bullying and toxic behaviour of a colleague or a manager you can write off $80,000. A decade ago, 62 percent of your staff experienced this behaviour and 12% of those people left their jobs.

If you have 200 staff, 124 of them experience this toxic behaviour and 15 staff will leave as a direct result of the behaviour. That just cost your organisation $1.2M. But that’s okay because these toxic people are so good at their job!!

Hang on, just go back a little … one of the first findings in the research was that 38% of staff who are treated poorly deliberately drop the quantity and quality of their work. Imagine that a certain toxic manager has 10 staff and 4 (rounding up from 3.8) of them are dropping the ball a little … let’s just say the quality/quantity of their work is down by 10% (that’s conservative). That means the team’s output is down by almost half a person (0.4 EFT). Is this toxic manager’s ability able to make up that shortfall?

We haven’t even touched on how this affects customer facing staff. In the research one in four respondents said the toxic behaviour of a manager/colleague had directly impacted on their interactions with customers. That can’t be good.

There is an additional cost: Second-hand incivility – how those who witness these behaviours being perpetrated on their colleagues respond. I worked in a team where the director would take aim at a team member (seemingly at random) and humiliate them in front of the whole team. EVERYONE in that meeting felt terrible, humiliated, angry, powerless and probably much more. Survivor guilt. You were glad it wasn’t your turn but knew that it could be at the next meeting, so your energy was directed at avoiding that likelihood, by not showing any initiative, innovation, risk or potential. You wanted to avoid being noticed. It was an excellent strategy for the creation of mediocrity. Those who witness the toxic behaviour have a 25% drop in productivity and a 45% drop in new ideas. Again, that can’t be good.


How hard is civility?

Civility is simple. Treating others with respect and dignity is a lot easier than being toxic, and it has added personal health benefits. It goes back to what we refer to as the golden rule … an idea found in every one of the major religions and almost all of the minor ones:

“Treat other people the way you want to be treated”

A set of civil behaviours would include:

  • Respect
  • Tolerance
  • Inclusion
  • Warmth
  • Empathy
  • Friendliness
  • Thanking people for their contribution
  • Giving credit to individuals
  • Listening attentively
  • Humbly asking questions
  • Acknowledging others
  • Smiling and greeting people
  • Engaging in polite conversation
  • Encouraging others and building them up
  • Having the time or making the time for others

The most important determinant of a staff member’s commitment and engagement is the respect they receive from their leadership. In fact, the top five reasons people feel engaged with an organisation are: respect, recognition, appreciation, inspiration and opportunities to grow. They all fit within a definition of civil leadership.

In 2012 Google conducted Project Aristotle[2] To determine what made an effective team. They studied 180 of their teams worldwide and concluded that the number one determinant of a team’s success was Psychological Safety (team members feel safe to take risks and communicate openly without fear of reprisals). Psychological Safety was deemed far more important than the number two determinant of Dependability. They found that te223 with high Psychological Safety had less turnover, more creativity, they bought in more revenue and were twice as likely to be rated as effective by the executive.


The solution

You need to deal with toxic individuals before you lose the good ones. More importantly you need to minimise the chance of people becoming that way over time.

The best outcome would be for the individual to reform their behaviour and become a productive positive leader, but that is unlikely to happen because, not only have they been behaving this way for a long time, but they have been rewarded for it based on their output.  Even if they did reform, staff would take a long time to forgive and forget.

However, if that person were removed from the position, you would reap immediate benefits such as:

  1. Faith in the organisation would be restored – because an organisation’s culture is defined by the behaviours it tolerates.
  2. Productivity would increase as described above.
  3. Innovation would improve – when an individual feels respected and is acknowledged and given credit for work performed, they are happy to share and go the extra mile.
  4. Absenteeism would decrease – when people don’t like their boss, they are much more likely to take a day off for even the slightest reason.
  5. Stress and anxiety in the workplace would decrease.
  6. An increase in collaboration and teamwork – people are happier to work together and share openly when they feel safe.
  7. Improved customer service – treat your staff well and they will look after your customers. That’s a given.
  8. Turnover would decrease – that is a major saving.

You would quickly find that the genius wasn’t worth it and now they have been removed, the team has risen to take on that role.

In addition, you need to recruit for civility. Ask targeted, behavioural questions to ensure that potential recruits treat staff and others with respect. Always, yes always, do referee checks. Ask referees deliberate questions around how the candidate treats others.

Embed civility into your cultural values. Respect, tolerance, dignity of the individual, inclusion and so on. Build accountability into your performance management processes. Reward leaders for behaviours that align with your organisational values (and stop rewarding the ones that don’t). Staff need to hold the leadership accountable as well, and they need to feel safe to do so.

Encourage collaboration, not competition and don’t tolerate toxic behaviour within teams, or even between teams.

Continuous professional development in this area is also essential. Emotional Intelligence, Diversity and Inclusion, Communication Skills and so on.

Role model civility from the CEO down. The whole leadership team needs to be on-board with this. Not only role modelling civility, but also seeking to continuously improve in this area.



Changing a person’s toxic behaviour is quite difficult, particularly if it’s been allowed to persist for some time and has in fact been rewarded by the organisation … as in the case of Dr Gregory House. He was revered and despised simultaneously. It is far easier to encourage, strengthen and reward existing positive behaviours that to change existing poor ones. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

At Fundamental Training and Development, we can help with a range of training interventions to both encourage and strengthen positive leadership and help staff deal with negative behaviours:

  • Leadership – We run a range of programs to help leaders and potential leaders manage themselves and others in a positive and productive way.
  • Emotional Intelligence – to help staff and leaders develop positive behavioural and communication skills.
  • Reflective practice for leaders – teaching leaders to spend time in reflection as a method of personal growth and development.
  • Talent Management – to help you recruit retain and reward the right staff.
  • Courageous Communications – to help managers have those difficult conversations with those who are behaving poorly.
  • Giving and Receiving Feedback – to help staff and management communicate openly to each other.
  • Dealing with Difficult Behaviour – to help staff develop skills and strategies to deal with the poor behaviour of colleagues, managers and customers.


Article by Adam Le Good, Director of Fundamental Training and Development. 

For help with any of the topics mentioned above contact us:


[1]        Christine Porath: Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University

[2]        Understand Team Effectiveness:

© 2021 Fundamental Training and Development

Fundamental Training and Development offers a range training on this topic. All our programs can be tailored to your specific needs. If you have any questions, or comments, or if you would like discuss your learning and development needs, please contact Adam Le Good at Fundamental Training and Development on 0412 101 115 or