Can You Afford to Fire the Brilliant Jerk?

It is not uncommon to work with a company and find that there is one admittedly brilliant but equally difficult person, generally in a fairly senior position. I’m sure it’s not a rule that every senior executive team has to have one of these , but I have lost count of the number of companies who harbour one of these types of people in the C suite or just below. You can’t help but wonder why their poor behaviour had not been addressed much earlier in their career before they ascended to a powerful and almost untouchable position.

Note I don’t ask why they have been promoted to increasingly senior positions – that is fairly obvious. Often they are extraordinarily competent at the nuts and bolts of their job, and the people who promote them seldom ask their direct reports about indicators that may signal trouble ahead. Instead I wonder why their previous managers have not been able or willing or sufficiently aware to address problematic issues.

People do not suddenly become bullies or tyrants simply because they are promoted to a Director or Vice President’s position. Examination of their pattern of behaviour in previous positions will illustrate, although perhaps on a less grand dimension, actions that predict future problematic behaviour. In other words, we can predict who will be a jerk as a manager (and so on up the line) at quite an early stage in their career. They rate very low on the critical personality characteristics of empathy and self-awareness.

S/he is either oblivious to or uncaring about the consequences of their behaviour on others. Do they say something that hurts someone’s feelings? Then they should toughen up and get over it. Does s/he resemble an active volcano that blows its top on a periodic basis? Then folks shouldn’t push them, or aggravate them, or disagree with their ideas. Does s/he humiliate or embarrass others in public? Then people should just smarten up and not be so clueless!

One of the reasons why people’s jerk behaviour is not addressed at an earlier stage in their career is that jerks are seldom jerks when they have to deal with those above them in the hierarchy. I don’t imagine your tenure with a company would be very long if you are in an entry level position and you told the President to screw off and leave you alone so you could get your work done! In the presence of the boss (team meetings for example) their behaviour is generally acceptable. However, when the manager is not around to observe, the behaviour may change markedly and the manager is oblivious to bad behaviour that may occur.

As individuals are promoted to more senior positions the opportunities for their managers to interact directly with staff (and thus get an overview of the emotional climate that exists) lessen. It is not until staff go to HR with their complaints that poor behaviour might be brought to the attention of their manager.

Professional Hockey at times, provides an interesting model. There are some players who have been referred to as “a cancer in the dressing room” and even though they may be very skilled or even be a top scorer, there are instances of their being traded because of their negative impact on fellow team mates and coaches. (On that note we know hockey will have come a long way indeed when they fire coaches who act like jerks, screaming at their players, kicking garbage cans across a room, refusing to talk to a player for weeks, etc.!)

Can jerks change? Possibly, if they are identified sufficiently early in their career. Will they change? Ah, that is another question entirely. Weak managers who are reluctant to face issues head on contribute to jerk behaviour because they do not supply consequences for the bad behaviour that is occurring. Unfortunately there is no one perfect and universally successful method of confronting and changing jerk behaviour. But if you do not try and change bad behaviour all you get is more bad behaviour. Do you have a jerk working for you? What are you going to do about it?


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