Why I avoid competitive people and aggressive assholes

“Mr. Sledzik is not an aggressive person.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 11.34.23 AMSo began a 1,000-word report, produced by some head-shrinking HR consulting firm hired by my employer back in the early 80s. Objective: Find out what makes the managers tick.

The report grew from a two-hour interview and a series of psychological tests administered to everyone in management. My company then used the data to find and promote aggressive, competitive managers. Had this system been in place when I joined the company, I’d never have been hired. Clearly, I didn’t fit the profile.

If you know me at all, you know the report’s opening sentence is accurate. I’m not an aggressive person, nor am I the least bit competitive. I seem to lack the ego (or the hubris) to control people and situations. I’m just a mellow guy leading a mellow life.

While I never saw myself as a leader, over the years I’ve been elected to a dozen or more positions – starting with the presidency of the Junior High Geography Club in 1967. As my wife once said to me, “People like you because you’re not an asshole.” (Some will differ with that assessment, but who knows better than the person you sleep with?) Anyway, In each of these positions I never tried to control people or situations. Sure, I used persuasion techniques, but I always fancied myself a consensus builder.

In the PR/Ad agency business, where I spent my pre-academic career, competitiveness and aggressiveness were prized traits – or at least they were in the testosterone- and cocaine-fueled 1980s. But I learned then, and continue to observe today, that aggressive behavior can be destructive when the aggressors wear blinders. And they often do. When managers become entirely focused on the “prize,” they tend to dismiss alternative views and ignore the long-term damage they inflict, particularly on the internal culture.

In highly competitive environments, outcomes can suffer when the team has too many aggressive/competitive types. Such teams are prone to infighting, as each member pushes his/her own agenda, jockeying for position to ensure the “win.” What emerges is seldom the best solution but, rather, the product of the victor’s will.

Enlightened managers understand this problem and seek to balance the personalities on their teams. I worked for just one CEO in my career who understood this. His company is still thriving 25 years later and he’s still in charge. Three other shops I worked for, run all or in part by highly aggressive Type A personalities, have long passed from the scene, victims of their own hubris and incompetence.

My point? Hell if I know. But since I’m a teacher, I’ll frame it as advice to students:

  • Choose your employers carefully. Follow the advice of Robert Sutton and avoid assholes at all cost.
  • Learn to recognize that fine line between self-confidence and hubris. I still have trouble separating the slick from the substantive. It’s an art.
  • Steer clear of control freaks. They make everyone miserable.
  • Beware of managers who put tactics ahead of strategy. They usually lose the game, no matter how aggressively they play it.
  • Align yourself with people who listen before they talk. It generally means they think before they act.

My critics are sure to ask: What does this guy know about survival in business after spending a quarter century in the ivory tower? Touché. Maybe I don’t know shit. I do know that I didn’t spend the last 25 years making people miserable and running companies into the ground.

But I wasn’t  qualified to do that, was I? As the report said: “Mr. Sledzik is not an aggressive person.”

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I’m not sure what prompted me to write this post. It just came to me. But I must acknowledge the influence of Dr. Robert Sutton’s book, ”The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” and also this insightful HBR piece by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

One thought on “Why I avoid competitive people and aggressive assholes

  1. That’s funny. The same agency sacked me because I had a “bad attitude,” which meant I was aggressive enough to push for good work. Heck, I even had a Ph.D. Maybe it’s because top management there consisted of incompetent imbeciles who paid for useless consultants to conduct meaningless studies while they were busy running the area’s largest ad & PR agency straight into the ground.

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