Succeed Without Being Well-Liked? Maybe Jeffrey Pfeffer Should Read His Own Book.


I have waited eagerly for Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer's latest Business 2.0 column to be available online. After reading his argument that success isn't linked to popularity, I came away thinking it read like a half-truth. Pfeffer should know better because he is, after all, the co-author of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense.

Pfeffer's article starts out well. He points out that to be successful you may have to make some people mad along the way. It makes sense. No one will agree with you 100% of the time, and if you stand up for something, there will usually be a few people that hate you for it. He makes some good points, such as this one:

Ferrazzi makes no attempt to hide his ambitions, and advises others to be equally forthright. When I invited him to speak to my class, he audaciously asked that I make his new book required reading. (He now denies doing this.) Then, in a talk sprinkled with expletives, he encouraged students to sort the people they knew into A, B, and C lists based on relevance to their career goals–and to spend more time with the A's.

It is common sense that you should spend time with people that are moving in the direction you want to go, but it's a half truth. You don't want to become a sycophant.

Pfeffer continues with more good advice from Ferrazzi.

With regard to their future jobs, Ferrazzi advised them to focus on activities they do well and stop worrying about being so well-rounded.

But then the article begins to break down as Pfeffer appears to justify the fact that Ferrazzi behaves like an ass.

Although he had promised to stay for two classes, he left halfway through the second to have lunch with a client.

My students are usually put off by Ferrazzi at first, but they eventually see how an overwhelming drive not to offend can hamper a career.

I suspect Pfeffer was trying to present a balanced view of this topic, but in my opinion he failed because he did not make a critical distinction. There is a huge difference between being worried about offending everyone and being an egomaniac. Pfeffer presents it as a binary choice.

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I think that there is a middle ground. People deserve to be treated with a basic level of respect even if you are looking out for your own interests. Commitments to meetings and such should be honored to the best of your ability. But at the same time, don't be afraid to apply for a new position just because you will be up against a friend. Don't be afraid to tell people the truth just because they don't want to hear it.

If you practice honesty and accountability, you will make some enemies because you don't let people slide. But if you practice aggressive elitism, you will make many more enemies and your *friends* will be of the fair-weather type. Pfeffer is too smart not have made the distinction.

  • S. Kelly

    In your entry above, you state “…You don’t want to become a sycophant…” In principal and practice I agree with you. I have a conscience and I like to sleep well at night.
    However this is a two sided coin. Some people may subscribe to sycophancy and make it work for them.

    In either case, each person has to live with the consequences of their own actions.

    I’ve enclosed a link to an article published yesterday by Harvard in their Working Knowledge newsletter: “LBJ’s Deliberate March for Power”
    It summarizes LBJ’s thirst and accumulation of power through sycophancy.

  • I thought it was a ridiculous article. It’s one thing to stand up for something you believe in, even if it’s unpopular…it’s something else entirely to treat people rudely.

    In real business organizations, it does matter what people think of you. And the “As, Bs, and Cs” are not always who you think they are.

  • Right on David. We need “guru malpractice” lawsuits to rein these pundits in.

  • The more I think about this column, the more it pisses me off.

    Here’s some advice of a very different sort: Ambition and Opportunism.

  • Rob

    Nice post David. I still think, after reading Pfeffer’s book, that this probably wasn’t how he intended to come across. He probably set out to address the problem that people pleasers have in the workplace. They say yes to everything and don’t rock the boat for fear of upsetting someone. They think that by being nice to everyone, you eventually get noticed and promoted. And that mindset should certainly be challenged.

    The way it ended up being presented though, is that it’s ok to be a jerk because as long as you win people want to be associated with you. After writing an entire book about half-truths, I don’t understand why Pfeffer didn’t see that he was addressing two extremes, neither of which is good workplace behavior.

    I don’t see anything wrong with, for instance, Ferrazzi’s desire to dine with the CEO as part of his hiring package. It’s a smart move to pick the brains of smart people, although admittedly Ferrazzi comes across as just wanting face time so he could get promoted. I think he’s right that you should associate with people that will help your career. I would rather spend time with business people learning and asking questions and networking than with some of my less-than-ambitious college buddies that just want to go drink beer. But Ferrazzi doesn’t address the fact that at work, you don’t know where people will end up – especially when you and your co-workers are young. Addressing everyone with a basic level of respect and helpfullness pays off in the long-term and makes for a better work environment.

  • Rob…it’s reasonable to ask the CEO, during the interview, “Can I have dinner with you occasionally?” But putting it in the hiring agreement is silly. You can’t force people to want to do things, and if a year later the CEO doesn’t want to have dinner with you, or doesn’t have time, and you point to the clause in the contract, it’s going to piss him off mightily.

  • Rob puhleeze. No excuses for these two.

    Business life is too short, the stakes are too high, and there’s so much on everyone’s plate. We don’t have time for pundits who are full of it (or even half full.)

    The pundit and the professor both deserve a bronx cheer. (And maybe a highway salute.)