He showed little mercy when berating co-workers. He seized on their setbacks and scoffed at their maladies. He punched at least two in the head.
The office etiquette in question did not belong to a swashbuckling bond trader or adrenaline- addled bouncer. It belonged to Michael Jordan, a six-time National Basketball Association champion and pop-culture icon widely regarded as the game’s best player ever.
As Jordan himself said of his teammates in “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary about his career whose last two episodes will be shown Sunday night: “I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level as me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.”
More than 15 years after Jordan retired from professional basketball — for the third time — the mix of power and grace he displayed on the court remains a breathless thrill. But his leadership style, such as it was, feels outdated.
In the intervening years, a chorus of experts has warned employers, investors and board members against tolerating such cruel or demeaning behavior. Academics and government officials have used terms like “toxic worker” or “superstar harasser” in preaching vigilance against flawed if seemingly talented performers.
“Every organization needs the ‘no-asshole rule’ because meanspirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves,” Robert Sutton, a Stanford University management professor, wrote in a 2007 best seller named for that rule.
Watching the Michael Jordan depicted in “The Last Dance” presents a paradox of sorts: The Bulls dominate the league. Yet Jordan is frequently meanspirited. He appears to make light of one teammate’s migraine and uses words like “dumbass,” or more foul-mouthed epithets, to refer to others. He doles out postgame abuse as easily as high fives, complaining, “You couldn’t make a damn jump shot all night long.” He seems to delight in embarrassing a teammate on camera.
One struggles to know whom to believe: the experts or your lying eyes.
According to the studies Mr. Sutton cites in his book, the problems with toxic workers range from the obvious to the subtle. Their belligerence creates costly distractions. Their treatment of co-workers increases turnover and absenteeism. When the demoralized colleagues do show up, they perform apathetically.
One classic study of Sears employees in Chicago from the 1970s found that workers with widely disliked supervisors came to work at about the same rate as their colleagues on typical days, but that their attendance dropped significantly during a snowstorm, when they had an excuse to stay home. The study suggested that poor morale tended to destroy the so-called discretionary effort that often abounds in a healthy organization.
Another study compared two similar manufacturing plants that carried out pay cuts after the company lost two large contracts: one where an executive had tersely delivered the news before hustling off to another meeting; another where an executive spent an hour apologetically answering questions. Workers at the first plant subsequently stole from their employer at far higher rates than workers at the second plant because, according to the author, they were determined to “even the score” with the seemingly heartless executive.
Despite such evidence, employers and investors have often persuaded themselves that a toxic superstar can generate more in revenue than they inflict in costs.
But this, too, has become harder to justify in recent years. A 2015 study of thousands of frontline employees like customer support specialists found that the financial benefit of retaining a toxic worker whose performance ranked in the top 1 percent was offset more than two-to-one by the costs of additional turnover. The employers would have been much better off substituting in average performers for the toxic stars.
In some respect, the logic even applies to the Chicago Bulls. In the season that followed Jordan’s first retirement in 1993, the Bulls won 55 games, only two short of their total from the year before. Several Bulls players have attributed the performance to greater teamwork and lower stress. “The atmosphere was different, no doubt about it,” Will Perdue, one of the team’s centers (and the onetime recipient of a Jordan punch to the noggin), said in an interview.
Yet however well the Bulls meshed without Jordan, they were clearly not as good. “I knew we were a very capable team who could compete,” said B.J. Armstrong, a guard on the team. “But when you’re competing at that level, you have to have an advantage. Michael gave us that advantage.”
Mr. Sutton, the Stanford professor, said in an interview that there might be a handful of instances in which organizations can benefit from otherwise toxic personalities, such as when locked in a bitter, zero-sum competition. In these instances, he said, having a jerk set the tone “helps you vanquish and intimidate competitors.”
His book cites the example of Steve Jobs of Apple, who, according to a recollection by a co-worker, once left this message for a rival chief executive: “Tell him that the Macintosh is so good that he’s probably going to buy a few for his children even though it put his company out of business.” The rival’s company folded a few years later.
Still, Mr. Sutton’s book goes on to note that while some exceptions to the no-asshole rule may exist, they often turn out to be “dangerous delusions.”
Dylan Minor, an adjunct assistant professor at the Anderson School of Management of the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-author of the 2015 paper on toxic workers, said that the Bulls’ success amid Jordan’s apparent abuse could simply reflect cultural differences: Behavior that is unacceptable in one environment may be accepted or even esteemed in another. It may also be the case that women and people of color are criticized more for behavior that is treated as unremarkable for white men.
Both Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Perdue made variations on this point. “There were no hidden agendas that he had other than to win,” Mr. Armstrong said. “If all you cared about was winning, it was the most beautiful environment you ever experienced.”
Mr. Perdue said that Jordan got the most out of teammates by setting expectations, and that the day Jordan clocked him was remarkable only for how unremarkable it was. “I started to go back at him and Eddie Nealy grabbed me from behind,” he said, referring to another teammate. Then it was abruptly over. “We kept practicing,” Mr. Perdue said.
But other N.B.A. veterans expressed skepticism that Jordan-style outbursts — he was given to chiding teammate Horace Grant as “too stupid to even remember the plays,” according to the book “The Jordan Rules” — were considered acceptable. Even in the N.B.A. of the 1990s, said Jeff Van Gundy, who coached the New York Knicks during Jordan’s last three seasons in Chicago, most players who doled out such lashings “would be marked with resentment.”
In Mr. Van Gundy’s view, the ’90s Bulls may have won despite Jordan’s antics, not because of them. He was so freakishly talented, driven and hardworking that, notwithstanding his behavior, the net contribution to the team still exceeded that of any basketball contemporary. “You’d have to be that level of great to lead that way,” said Mr. Van Gundy, adding that the approach would probably backfire even for an excellent but not transcendently gifted player.
In that sense, Jordan was not unlike a brilliant start-up founder whose impact on a company’s early prospects is so large it dwarfs his or her personal foibles, said David Golden, who helps run the venture capital arm of Revolution, the investment firm of the America Online co-founder Steve Case.
Still, the model may be of limited use in the business world. Brilliant but epically difficult tech entrepreneurs have a habit of spreading dysfunction far and wide as their companies grow. Perhaps most famously, the early success of Uber under its brash chief executive Travis Kalanick gave way to a culture some of the company’s investors regarded as toxic, as Mr. Kalanick brawled with regulators and failed to rein in sexual harassment.
“The ability to bend the rules a little bit — beg, borrow, steal, overpromise — can be important at the early stages of the company,” Mr. Golden said. “But they’re usually not the characteristics that make you a good executive and manager.”
And then there’s the problem of distinguishing those once-in-a-generation talents who have both the manner and brilliance of Michael Jordan from those who only have the manner.
“If it’s really the Michael Jordan of entrepreneurs,” said Paul Arnold, founder of a venture capital fund called Switch Ventures, “I’ll probably go with Michael Jordan.”
But given the near impossibility of determining this ahead of time, Mr. Arnold said, “When I realize a person is an asshole, I’ve walked away.”
Noam Scheiber is a Chicago-based reporter who covers workers and the workplace. He spent nearly 15 years at The New Republic magazine, where he covered economic policy and three presidential campaigns. He is also the author of “The Escape Artists.” More about Noam Scheiber
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