With Martin G. Moore

Episode #240

The Talented Jerk: How much should you tolerate?

We’ve all come across people during our careers who are really good at what they do, but are just awful to work with. They seem to think that their superior performance gives them the license to behave in any manner they see fit, and they don’t observe the usual social protocols that are essential in maintaining a stable team.

Talented jerks come in many different shapes and sizes: there’s no one-size-fits-all description of how they show up in a team. Some are just terminally annoying, and you feel as though you want to roll your eyes every time they talk.

Others are willfully destructive, and appear to be pushing the company’s leadership to see just how far they’ll be allowed to go before they’re brought into line.

Today’s episode is pretty simple: I identify five common types of talented jerk, and give you some ideas for how to approach each situation so that you remain in control, and neutralize their impact on team culture.

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Episode #240 The Talented Jerk: How much should you tolerate?

When one of your peers is a talented jerk, it can be really frustrating, but when you’re a leader and one of your direct reports is behaving like that, it’s a real problem that can affect team culture, motivation, and performance.

the difference between an individual contributor and a leader

Now, just before I start on how to identify and manage a talented jerk, I want to make an important distinction. There’s a big difference between an individual contributor and a leader. The reason this is important to recognize is that you can potentially apply a different standard, depending on whether the talented jerk is leading other people.

For an individual contributor:

You ultimately want your people to behave in a way that’s lawful and consistent with any other employee standards that you set through organizational policy.

So, of course, everyone is bound by the law wherever it relates to the workplace. This includes sexual harassment and bullying legislation. It includes industrial relations law. It includes any laws governing fraud, falsifying of records, or paying bribes… you get the picture. Anything that the reasonable person would naturally observe.

Every one of your employees and contractors is also bound to observe the stated company values and the code of conduct, if you have one. These generally go that level beyond simple, lawful behavior and set expectations and standards around the moral and ethical behavior that the organization expects.

One of the dilemmas you may grapple with when it comes to an individual contributor who happens to be a talented jerk is how strict you should be in enforcing these obligations. I’ve seen even not-so-talented jerks get away with unlawful behavior, because the leadership of the company is too weak to enforce the standard, and doesn’t want an incident to gain any attention outside of the company. It’s not that common, but it does happen.

Much more common is the abandonment of behavioral standards to make exceptions for those people who the company considers to be a high performer. Either way, this is not good.

But that’s just individual contributors.

When it comes to leaders:

The standard you set needs to be even higher. Why? Because, not only are leaders in a position where they should be setting an example for others, but they also have a habit of replicating their own behavioral standards inside their team.

If you have a leader who plays fast and loose with the truth, their team is likely to do that as well. If you have a leader who takes shortcuts with compliance obligations, their team is likely to as well. If you have a leader who ignores corporate directives and decides to do things the way they want to do them, their team is likely to do that as well. The critical factor here is that in each case of the talented jerk, you’ll need to make an assessment of how widespread their impact is.

Individual contributors can sometimes be given just a little more latitude than leaders, depending on the severity of what they’re doing. But anyone in a leadership position has to be held to a higher standard because of the multiplier effect that it has on the culture of their team.

If you tacitly endorse their behavior by turning a blind eye to it, you are signaling to everyone else that it’s okay, and that they’re quite welcome to follow suit. When it comes to behaviors, I generally lack tolerance for people who behave badly even when they’ve been given direct feedback. Why? Because unlike some other performance elements, behavior is a choice. It’s a decision the individual makes, and if they choose to, they can also decide to behave differently, particularly if the right pressure is applied.

Your job as the leader is to apply that pressure.

So, even though I might theoretically have a little more tolerance for an individual contributor, I haven’t been in a position of leading an individual contributor for several decades. It’d be interesting to see how I’d deal with it, knowing what I know now. What I do know is that, when it comes to leaders, I am a no-tolerance zone.

If you decide that you don’t want to behave in a way that models the values the company holds dear, then I probably need to free you up to be successful in another organization (preferably one of our competitors).

the five common types of talented jerk

I want to get super practical here and tell you how you can approach each situation, if you happen to be their leader.

1. The One Who Uses Arrogance as a Mask

Now, this type’s pretty interesting. You don’t come across them very often, but they’re common enough to deserve their own category. These are the people who simply put on an air of superiority, and have that general arrogance that no one likes. Interestingly, they may or may not perform well.

Sometimes the arrogance is nothing more than a cover for fear of failure, or an insecurity that they may not be adequate for their role. They could very well be an untalented jerk. These people are widely disliked because they lack transparency. They don’t even attempt to connect with people. They tend to communicate poorly and they seem to be dismissive of other people’s opinions.

So, how do you treat them? Well, when you come across someone who uses arrogance as a mask, it’s pretty easy to address in a one-on-one conversation as long as you’re comfortable with conflict. Because their identity is built around their arrogance, it’s sometimes hard to get them to engage, and the conversation can feel like you’re nailing jelly to a cloud. So start with a focus on results. Be really clear on the actual outcomes that are being achieved, and how you assess performance against those. Quite often, they aren’t actually that good.

From there, talk about the downside of their behavior. Discuss the negative impact on the team. Focus on the blind spots that inevitably arise when they have a habit of not listening. And, most of all, make it clear to them how it impacts their performance, which in turn will affect their promotability and their potential career development.

For any of these conversations to be useful, you need to give them an idea of specifically what to change and where to start. For this type of individual, I think it works best to describe how it’s impacting their performance. For example, lack of consultation and unwillingness to take other people’s opinion and insight on board will detract from the quality of their decisions.

To break through their facade though, a good first practical step is to put an expectation that they seek other people’s views. You can test this in every subsequent one-on-one by asking them what they’re learning from the people around them. But these types of talented jerks are ultimately very expendable, so they shouldn’t create too much of a dilemma if they choose not to change. Let them go, and find someone who’s more likely to be a fit for your team.

2. The Rainmaker

A rainmaker is a top sales or business development person who brings in a large portion of the company’s business, so at least the performance is clear. But this only speaks to the what, not the how. And because revenue numbers are generally quite quantitative and visible, a rainmaker can quickly develop a sense of superiority, even indispensability, which can lead to all sorts of bad behavior.

Quite often, it starts with something small (like being overly loose with the company expense account), and they might find it pretty easy to rationalize their errant behavior. “Hey, I’m bringing in so much money for the company, they can afford to buy me a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 86 to drink with my fettuccine carbonara tonight.”

There are many other ways rainmakers can go rogue with process though. For example, not completing essential documentation, or not contributing to the company’s CRM data… not following commercial guidelines for profit margins… unilaterally deciding to waive certain contractual terms for their clients…

They often begin to take a really short term focus. The rationale is, “Well, I bring in the business and it’s someone else’s problem to manage the business once it’s on board.” And this can create some devastating long-term consequences for both operations and financial performance.

So, how do you deal with it? This is where it’s really important to use a variety of assessment criteria for performance. It’s absolutely critical to rainmakers that they know that performance is much more than just top line sales. Draw a picture of the value chain, put the focus on the downstream impacts of their behavior, and make sure they have measures in place to assess not just revenue, but the profitability of that revenue–the revenue quality.

Anyone can drop the price low enough to win business, but doing it in a way that wins profitable business is another thing altogether.

Stamp on any little signs that they aren’t following process as early as you see them. Don’t let them get into bad habits and build their natural sense of brazenness. The big question is, if they don’t show signs of wanting to follow behavioral standards, what do you do? These can be pretty tough choices, but I’m of the mind that they shouldn’t have a place in your team. If this is the way they behave internally, then chances are there are impacts on customers that are just as devastating… you just can’t see them!

3. The Technical Guru

This is the person who has some unique or highly valued technical expertise, and they use this as an excuse for their errant behavior.

People like this typically tend to find a safe haven in a certain type of company: companies that market highly technical products and services… companies where power is derived through this technical expertise, not through innovation, disruption, and new ideas… companies that have their origins in industries where customer knowledge of the product working is quite low… companies that have low employee turnover. These are all signs.

These jerks are talented, but ultimately replaceable. They only survive for as long as the organization supports the knowledge-is-power paradigm, and you can change that as a leader.

Look, technical knowledge is all important, but it needs to be balanced, and there needs to be a constant focus on renewal of skills, sharing of information, and risk mitigation. The biggest downside of the technical guru goes way beyond their mere poor behavior, although all the things I said previously still apply here.

The greatest downside is key person risk. This is where you have to focus your attention.

So, how do you deal with it? As long as you have a highly valuable technical person who is the only one with knowledge in a specific area, your business is at risk. So follow these steps.:

First, determine if the knowledge is actually core to the business. If it is, you’ll need to try to keep it in-house, which can sometimes be quite a difficult proposition.

Second, work out if you can find those skills anywhere else. If the skills are non core to your business’ competitive advantage, you’ve got a lot of flexibility and freedom. No matter what, you need to make sure you have emergency coverage if something unexpected happens. If you can buy the skills readily from the market, then happy days. It’ll make you much less inclined to hold onto a talented jerk with supposedly indispensable knowledge.

Dealing with the individual one-on-one is pretty important. You need to make them accountable for sharing their knowledge, and extracting it from their head into formal processes to the greatest extent you possibly can. Make it a central part of their KPIs and, if possible, make their remuneration and their ongoing positive performance ratings dependent on how well they do this.

My overall view though is that you can buy any technical skill from the market. It may not necessarily be as context-ready, but a smart technical person with the right basic skills is going to work it out. There is absolutely no need to entertain poor behavior in technical gurus.

4. “Often Wrong, Never in Doubt!”

We’re getting into some tricky territory here. Sometimes you can have a great performer who’s very bright, and more often than not, she’s right… but she doesn’t accept the possibility that she could be wrong. We often find these people in senior leadership roles, and they’ve already gained the confidence of being promoted to positions of greater money and power. This confidence gives them a level of bravado that makes them quite obstinate.

One of the biggest downsides is that they tend to create a silo between their team and other teams in the organization that they have to work with. So what do you do? When you come across the often-wrong-never-in-doubt leader, it’s important that you’re clear with them about your expectations.

In CS Energy, I created a category of performance assessment to evaluate how well each leader was working across boundaries. I did this partly because I saw it as an organizational weakness, and partly because I had a bunch of high-powered, A-type personality leaders who suffered from often-wrong-never-in-doubt syndrome, at least to some extent.

Another really important thing to realize is that, instead of shying away from the conflict that these types of people can create, it’s important to take it head on. You need to pit these often-wrong-never-in-doubt leaders against your other smart people, on any issues that you think require some robust debate and the introduction of different schools of thought. This will demonstrate that no one gets it right all the time.

In their one-on-ones, you need to make sure that you talk about the downside for their career development. Individual excellence is only good if you’re an individual contributor. Working with others and harnessing their talent is an essential part of leadership.

If they want to move up, they need to stop focusing on their own capability and focus on lifting others up. These types of leaders tend to toe the line a little more than the other talented jerks because they know their future promotion opportunities depend on it. But just as often, they’ll self-select ,and they’ll go to another company where they don’t have to toe the line.

5. The Conscious Culture Killer

Sometimes (although it’s quite rare, thank goodness), you’ll run into someone who’s simply malicious. They seem to get their jollies from trying to work out how far they can push their power and control, how far they can go before someone reins in their behavior. This is a huge test for your leadership strength.

Recognizing that someone falls into this category can be difficult, because they disguise themselves pretty well. But they always show their true colors eventually. How do you handle these gems?

I’m an absolute no tolerance zone for these talented jerks. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a low level individual contributor or the CEO of a major business unit. Their behavior makes a mockery of everything you are trying to create as a leader, and if you entertain their behavior, you completely neutralize your own power.

You surrender your ability to talk about behavior at any level: company values become meaningless; any talk about how we treat each other is meaningless; cynicism and negativity start to permeate your culture.

The only remedy here is to surgically remove that cancer before the whole body is infected. And don’t shy away from this one. It’s the biggest test for your strength of character and your willingness to establish a constructive, high performance culture.

Wrapping this up: as we’ve seen, talented jerks can come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are fairly innocuous and they’re pretty easy to turn around with some direct and specific feedback. Others are incredibly difficult to change and (9 times out of 10) they’re unlikely to go the distance.

There are many ways you can deal with talented jerks, but the only thing you can’t do is to give into inaction. Taking these issues head on is going to give you the best possible chance of preserving the desirable elements of your culture, and it’ll give them a much higher probability of changing their behavior, and realizing their potential. You need to liberate their talent and neutralize their jerk.



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