Can the Brilliance of the "Jerk" Be Tapped?
The best business problem cases are those that divide a class into groups making two or more persuasive arguments. The questions of whether or not and how to make investments in "brilliant jerks" seems to fit that mold. This month's question elicited responses across the spectrum of recommended ways of managing them.
At one extreme was Sherpa, who said, "Any sort of 'brilliant jerk" is simply another form of psychopath. Psychopaths have no place in the workplace… " At the other extreme was Crispin Maxweles, who asked, "Was Steve Jobs possibly a 'brilliant jerk'? Could innovation be stifled by simply eliminating the uncomfortable individuals?" Lawrence Nwaru added, "We are all brilliant jerks in one form or the other."
There were differences of opinion about where the fault lies for the phenomenon. Munyaradzi Mushato suggested that, "my experience in industry tells me that most jerks are created by the very systems that are designed to improve performance … that is, about 70% of the jerks are bred!… Most organisations have put in place systems that encourage the emergence of high flyers … at the expense of team goals." Platon suggested that the presence of brilliant jerks may be a warning sign, commenting that "brilliance often is frustrated in environments where mediocrity is most prevalent." the real issue, he added, is why? Trevor Birkenfeld commented that "the true 'jerk' is the manager who is unable to fuse this talent into the organization… The task of management would be simple if only 'easy' people were involved."
A number of suggestions were put forth for ways to tap into the value of the "destructive hero." Serene Huang: "I would talk to them about their behaviors to find out if they are actually aware of it … I would also make peer appraisal part of their year end bonus." Gerald Nanninga commented that "perhaps you are giving them the wrong numbers to hit." Before you fire the 'jerk', he said, "make sure he is upsetting things for the wrong reason rather than for the right reason." Joseph Seiler recalled that in growing companies where he worked, "I came across a few of these Type 4 people. What seemed to help was to load them up with big projects and to score their interpersonal skills often." Grant Stanley said "rather than dismiss them I have been able to use their skills and abilities to … create training materials to share their best practices."
Todd Stark mused about how much we really know about brilliant jerks and how to manage them. As he put it, "I think we need to learn more about this type of person to deal with this phenomenon. We need to learn more about specifically how these folks bring something valuable into the organization and specifically how to minimize the damage," Stark wrote. "Many companies are run by 'jerks' and some of the most successful projects in the world have been accomplished by 'jerks.'"Todd's comments prompt the questions: Have we failed to take appropriate notice of research and accumulated experiences that would help managers understand and act on the problem? Can the brilliance of the "jerk" be tapped with some degree of consistency? Is it worth it? What do you think?
The annoying employee who makes his numbers while alienating those around him will gain needed attention in the coming months with at least one book about to be published on the subject. This is an age-old problem that most managers handle badly.
You know the story by now. It concerns high-performing employees, known by some as "stars" and by others as "destructive heroes" or "brilliant jerks," those who generate a great deal of business while creating problems for colleagues. They are demanding to the point of being abusive, they make promises to clients that their colleagues cannot meet, they take too much credit for success, and they generally are unable to adhere to commonly shared values of members of the organization.
The management response to this kind of situation is too often ineffective. By their own admission, their managers are reluctant to rock the boat as long as the numbers continue to be good. In doing so, they underestimate the costs to the organization, including the loss of other talent. And when they do act, they do so much too slowly, often after most of the damage has been done.
Jack Welch has written about the phenomenon of what he calls "jerks" or "bullies" from his own experience. At GE they were referred to as a "Type 4" manager, "the person who delivers on all the commitments, makes the numbers, but doesn't share the values." In 1992, Welch made the dramatic announcement at a companywide meeting that four out of the five managers being asked to leave the company had delivered good financial performance but were shown the door because they "didn't practice our values." (By the timing of his actions, he also illustrated one problem of managing the brilliant jerk—the event occurred 12 years after Welch assumed the role of CEO.
My conclusions in the past have reflected those of leaders whom I respect. They include listening closely to what is going on; beginning an intervention with the offender early on; providing an opportunity for attitude improvement, possibly with the engagement of a counselor or coach; and then terminating in a timely fashion the employee who is unable to change.
Of course, the best course of action may be not to hire this type of person in the first place. As Richard Fairbanks, CEO of Capital One, is fond of saying, "At most companies, people spend 2 percent of their time recruiting and 75 percent managing their recruiting mistakes." However, it's hard to avoid the occasional hiring mishap.
In revisiting this topic, I'm beginning to wonder if there are ways of salvaging brilliant jerks and preserving the energy, ideas, and performance they can bring to an organization? For example, in larger organizations is reassignment a solution? Will a job with fewer interactions with others help? Can a different boss make a difference?
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman have written about "how to manage around a weakness" not by changing people but by balancing "the strengths and weaknesses of each individual." What have been your experiences? How can organizations best handle the "brilliant jerk"? What do you think?
To Read More:
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), especially pp. 164-174.
John Grossmann, "The Long Odds of Reforming an Employee Who Is a 'Destructive Hero'," The New York Times, October 30, 2014, p. B6.
Mike McNamee, "Credit Card Revolutionary," Stanford Business, May, 2001, p. 23.
Jack Welch, Jack: Straight from the Gut (New York: Warner Books, 2001), especially pp. 185-204.