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Only a Jerk Has a 'No Jerk' Rule

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Presumably Bob Diamond, the former Barclays boss, was touched to see his daughter speak up for him on Twitter the other day. But it's not clear that her more profane comments (look them up) were entirely helpful. Indeed, had she been applying for a job at the bank it's possible she would have fallen foul of her dad's famous 'no jerk' rule.

Diamond did not like jerks. If you didn't fit in, or didn't know how to behave, it meant you were a jerk and not welcome at Barclays. As Diamond explained to The Times last December: "You know what a jerk is when you see it. If we ever ignore the rule it always comes back to haunt us."

Leave aside the speculation that still surrounds Diamond's own behaviour and leadership at the bank. The question is: how wise a strategy is it to take such a hard line on people who are different, who are irritating, who make unwelcome observations and ask unwelcome questions?

To a domineering or unprincipled boss, anyone who gets in the way probably looks like a bit of a jerk. But who defines what a jerk is, anyway? Of course it is the people in positions of power and authority. The 'no jerk' rule almost guarantees cultural uniformity, and therefore a kind of stagnation. What may look like a source of strength - "alignment", "cohesion" - could lead to trouble.

Consider the recently published report into last year's nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan. Why hadn't employees at the power plant spoken up earlier about safety hazards and possible flaws in the system? The (uncharacteristically) blunt report, presented by Prof Kiyoshi Kurokawa, was clear:

"What must be admitted - very painfully - is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan'. Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the programme'; our groupism; and our insularity."

What kind of employee speaks up in a culture like that? A 'jerk', that's who. (Although as Naoko Shimazu of Birkbeck College has pointed out, the Japanese version of the report emphasises "regulatory capture" over cultural problems - which rather reinforces the argument made in the English language version!)

Only two out of the 12 board members at Barclays are women. That establishes the bank solidly as an average performer on board diversity in the FTSE100, where only 16% of directors are female. Are senior women executives "jerks", too? Must they be kept out for being too different, and should they only be allowed into the boardroom if they can behave more like men? You have to wonder.

Hidebound businesses and institutions need fresh thinking, different voices, new people. The world is changing and we need to change too. It is the mix and variety of people in a business that give it its strength and vitality. God save us from softly spoken, well-behaved organisations where everyone is the same and nothing ever changes. We need, if anything, more jerks, not fewer. Only a jerk has a 'no jerk' rule.