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The 'no jerks rule': does it improve corporate performance?

While it is difficult to know how many organisations have a "no jerks policy", the idea has certainly taken off.

Following the publishing of Stanford University business professor Robert Sutton's bestseller, The No A—hole Rule, it has emerged that a number of US and UK companies such as Barclay's Capital, Google and JetBlue, have implemented similar ideas with gusto.

Sutton is careful to say he did not invent the concept, but his successful book struck a nerve with people fed up with their workplaces' arrogant bullies. The book has been translated into languages ranging from Croatian to Polish to Japanese.

The "no jerks rule," which makes it a practice to drop employees who might be productive but whose behaviour is unethical, not collegiate, or particularly boorish, is based on the notion that employees who have negative or malicious intent can destroy a pleasant work environment for others employees and even jeopardise the success of the entire business operation.

Press reports in 2011 said some 30 people had lost their jobs as a result of the rule at Barclays Bank; the rule has also been instituted in Australian organisations, such as the successful Sydney Swans Australian Rules Football team, where it is known as the "no d_heads policy".

At the Swans the "no d_heads policy" has taken on almost mythical qualities and is seen as the solution to behaviour problems that often plague sports teams.

That culture, with the help of Ray McLean from Leading Teams – a long-time consultant to the club - was fostered by former coach Paul Roos and continued by his successor John Longmire. McLean is also working with Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley, the Australian netball and basketball teams and other sports teams.

Much of the policy revolves around devolving responsibility to a group of player leaders and, in particular, tough peer to peer reviews where players honestly, and at times even brutally, tell each other exactly what they think and what their strengths and weaknesses are. In the case of the Swans it has led to sustained on-field success over the best part of a decade, including premierships in 2005 and last year.

What McLean tries to find is those that are most influential in a team or organisation, and from there let the group decide whether those "influencers" should also be leaders.

Influence is something you can exert in either direction, whereas leadership is exerting that influence in the direction of the culture the organisation wants to go to. Weaker organisations don't acknowledge that and the negative influencers can end up taking you to places you don't want to go to.

McLean readily admits people in the corporate sector, which now makes up 80 percent of Leading Teams' business, think of leadership and teamwork ideas as "airy fairy stuff".

But, he says executives are beginning to see the benefits of improving accountability in teams, especially if it leads to increased productivity and, therefore, improves a company's bottom line.

"We've had an example in a sales team where their best performer, who brings in the most in dollar terms from sales, actually caused dysfunction in the team through his behaviour," says McLean.

"It was the same at the Swans when they chose their leadership team. They didn't choose a star player and it was largely around him thinking about himself first and preparing that way."

McLean says once the team had identified that individualistic behaviour was causing a problem, the team's rewards system was changed to give more weighting towards the team's behaviour. Productivity gains ensued.

It is precisely the problem facing the Australian cricket team now. During the recent series in India, the team stood down four players for not following team orders, including Vice Captain Shane Watson. On-field results have been poor. Don Argus, the architect of the 2011 Argus review that has changed the structure of cricket, says the team has to stay the course with its changes, including being more team oriented, after he identified a "lack of strong culture" in the cricket team.

McLean says a similar mindset applies to business, which has to take a long term approach to cultural issues. He adds, "When a club or a business say they are drawing a line in the sand and then sometime later draw another line" that leads directly to poor performance.

But one problem with popular management or leadership ideas is that too many places institute them thinking they will be a cure-all, rather than key tools for cultural change. Sutton himself is careful in his book, for example, to say that leaders who try to make a rule which weeds out bad apples cannot be all talk. "If you can't enforce the rule," he writes, "it is better to say nothing. Otherwise, your organisation risks being seen as both nasty and hypocritical."

He also reminds readers that "the rule lives—and dies—in the little moments." In other words, "having all the right business philosophies and management practices to support the no a—hole rule is useless unless you treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way." It is also not just leadership's job: "The no a—hole rule works best when everyone in the organisation steps in to enforce it when necessary," he writes. It must become part of the culture and everyday behaviour, not just a "snappy little rule" discussed by the organisation's top leadership and HR department.

Effective cultural change leading to performance outcomes has to permeate the whole organisation, with leaders living the philosophy in terms of everyday interactions with employees. iHR offers leadership training and workplace inquiries and assessments which can help organisations to examine team culture, engagement and related issues.

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