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Does It Pay To Be the Bad Guy at Work?

Anthony Balderrama, writer

One of my favourite high school teachers was also one of the least liked by many students. He assigned a lot of homework, gave the kind of exams I had nightmares about and therefore gave only mostly Bs and Cs each semester. In class, when someone gave the wrong answer, he didn’t humour us by saying, “Well, almost …” He would tell you that wasn’t the right answer without belittling you and then asked if anyone else knew the correct response. He was the exact opposite of the popular teachers. Still, those who dared to take his class actually respected him quite a bit.

My GPA didn’t like him, but I learned a lot more from his class than any other. If I gave an incorrect answer in class, I never forgot the right one. I learned how to study and to accept imperfect scores — both valuable lessons when I went to college.

The whole tough love approach wasn’t easy to take, and at times I imagine it wasn’t easy for him to be the bad guy, but it worked out for the best. It’s a good approach to use in business, too.

What does bad mean?

At work, there are two types of bad guys or gals. One is the actual enemy — the person who sets out to make your life miserable. This could be the co-worker who steals your ideas and then makes you look incompetent in front of the boss. The other kind is the person who will take unpopular stances for the good of the company.

At first glance, being the second type of bad guy doesn’t seem so bad because your ultimate purpose is an admirable one. But, do you want to explain to the boss that her new plan is actually an old one that failed miserably? Do you want to tell your colleague that his work ethic is damaging the team’s reputation? Honesty can earn you a reputation as the enemy rather than the tough-love friend and alienate co-workers who don’t see you as a team player.

How to make the bad image work for you

Whether you’re the CEO or an administrative assistant, everybody wants respect. Remember: Anyone can complain, but a critical thinker can offer insight for people to consider. If you’re going to express an unpopular opinion, justify it and offer some good alternatives instead of just problems.

When you’re highlighting someone’s mistake, be honest but tactful. If you have a caustic tone when you approach some team members about an unsuccessful deadline, you’ll immediately put them on the defensive. Speaking down to anyone, especially in front of other people, will reflect worse on you than on the person who made a mistake.

Think about my unpopular high school teacher. He didn’t coddle us but he didn’t make us feel stupid. Would you want to work for a boss who didn’t have the same respect for you? Probably not, says Laurent Duperval, president of Duperval Consulting.

“Employees want to be treated with respect and they want to feel valuable,” Duperval cautions. If your type of bad guy is disrespectful and humiliating, then don’t expect to receive much appreciation in return.

Duperval witnessed examples of the wrong kind of bad guy on multiple occasions. When a boss fired an employee via e-mail, several other employees soon found work elsewhere because they didn’t want to receive the same disrespect. Chances are, if the person was fired for just cause, the other employees wouldn’t have feared for their jobs. But if the boss didn’t have the decency to tell the person face-to-face, in private, what else would he be willing to do when they made a mistake?

Being Mr. or Mrs. Popular shouldn’t be your No. 1 work goal, of course; but you should think about the kind of culture your harsh critiques cultivates.

“One person’s good guy is the next person’s bad guy and vice versa. The question is: Did you get compliance or commitment?” Duperval asks. “With compliance, you get what you want in the short term, but the long-term price can be steep.”

How can you do it right?

Being the bad guy (but really being the good guy) isn’t impossible, it just requires careful attention.

Don’t throw anyone under the bus. You’ll come off as a traitor if you’re quick to pin blame on someone without offer suggestions of how you can collectively improve next time.

Don’t mistake honesty for cruelty. Telling the truth isn’t painless, but it doesn’t need to be torture.

Keep things in perspective. Sometimes it’s OK to let little things slide. Nobody’s perfect, so there’s no need to highlight every mistake someone makes.

Be the good guy, too. When something goes well, make a point to mention it. Being the bearer of bad news gets old for both you and others.

Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

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