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The “brilliant jerk” dilemma and why so many managers get it wrong

"Brilliant jerks" don't necessarily need to be fired. But leaders can't let them run amok just because they get results.

8 min read


The "brilliant jerk" dilemma and why so many managers get it wrong

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I run a case in my programs featuring Joe (not his real name): A brilliant contributor, widely regarded by customers and his firm’s executives for producing hit products.

Joe’s superpower is his ability to translate his deep knowledge of customer operations into requirements that engineers use to create software solutions. Joe is a hit-creator whose products are largely responsible for his business unit’s rise to market leadership. Unfortunately, in the words of many of his team members, “Joe is a jerk and almost impossible to work with.”

OK, being labeled a jerk isn’t actionable feedback. However, what is observable is his regular belittling of colleagues and teams when they don’t see the brilliance of his ideas and rush to agree with him. His brash communication style — excused as eccentric when the unit was in startup mode — is not appreciated by many who joined the firm in recent years. With little context for Joe’s work and previous contributions, they see the disagreeable behaviors and wonder why Joe isn’t held to the same standards as the rest of the organization.

Behind the scenes, Joe has been on the receiving end of challenging feedback, tough performance evaluations, and ample internal and external coaching over the past few years. Joe’s manager, Pat, has not ignored the behaviors and has arguably gone above and beyond investing in outside help for Joe. And while Joe responds well to the coaching for a while, eventually something triggers him, and the old behaviors resurface.

What’s a manager to do?

In most settings with this case, the initial guidance from the group is for Pat is to fire Joe. Playing the devil’s advocate, I offer:

  • Joe is a hit-creator. Isn’t firing him like Apple firing Steve Jobs or the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth? Do you want to be the manager who fires Jobs or makes that trade?
  • One of the firm’s core values reads: “Break down walls in the way of serving customers.” Isn’t Joe simply living up to the firm’s values when he challenges teams who don’t adopt his customer-focused ideas?
  • As a manager, you are accountable for results. Joe generates results that directly impact the top and bottom lines in positive ways.

After considering these points, a number of people in every group change their “Fire Joe” vote and suggest alternative strategies. These range from isolating him in a new role away from everyone (the “Penalty Box” approach) or even promoting him. On rare occasions, someone suggests the team might be the issue and recommends team coaching.

And then, the debate begins on whether to fire or rehabilitate Joe.

I bet you have a “Joe” in your workplace: Why do managers ignore their toxicity?

To the outside observer, and to many who have lived through one of these painful experiences, firing Joe is the obvious choice. Yet, I work with hundreds of professionals every year who are quick to confirm the presence of a “Joe” in their environment. When I ask for their perspectives on why the toxic behaviors are tolerated, the answers include:

  • People are afraid of this person.
  • The bosses look the other way because they love what this individual produces.
  • The focus is on the numbers, and nothing else matters. The values are just framed artwork on our conference room wall.
  • There are two sets of rules in our organization — one for the so-called superstars and one for everyone else.

A confession and 6 lessons learned the hard way

After indicating all of Pat’s actions to attempt to change Joe — or at least help him change — the group dissects Pat’s behaviors and finds this manager guilty of perpetuating the situation over several years and allowing toxic behaviors to continue without consequences.

After the group hits maximum outrage, I confess, “I was Joe’s manager. I was Pat.” Entire groups have gasped in unison at this confession. After all, unknowingly, they just spent 20  minutes eviscerating me for not handling this correctly. And they are right. I misfired.

Here are six of the big lessons I learned the hard way. Don’t make the same mistakes.

1. Money, time and coaching won’t change someone unless they want to

I was blinded by Joe’s brilliance and contributions, and believed as an early-career manager that I could help him change. His good behavior most of the time and particularly after coaching and feedback sessions reinforced my hope that I was on the right track.

I thought with enough time and effort, Joe could evolve into a model citizen and a brilliant contributor. I worked hard with and on Joe and repeatedly failed to accept the reality — this work was all on him and not me. If he wasn’t going to adapt his style, no amount of moral suasion and outside coaching was going to help.


2. Too much time with the wrong people is costly

When the manager’s time is occupied with the brilliant jerk, those deserving of coaching and development suffer. It’s easy to spend too much time with the wrong people, and it’s costly in the form of engagement, morale and turnover.


3. Accountability must be evenly distributed

There cannot be two sets of rules in the workplace — one for superstars or high-potentials, and the other for everyone else. Unfortunately, in my coaching work, I regularly see situations where accountability isn’t spread uniformly across the group. For managers choosing not to deal with the brilliant jerk, recognize everyone is watching you and judging you on your handling of the situation.


4. There is a price too high to pay for results

The pursuit of results at any cost is often a contributor to the “brilliant jerk” situation. There’s a systemic issue when toxic behaviors are ignored as long as the results are good.

If you feel you are forced into this situation, it’s time to talk with your boss. Their response will speak volumes about the culture of your organization. If your concerns fall on deaf ears and the behaviors are excused in the pursuit of performance, you’ve either got a bad manager or you’re in a toxic culture. Either way, you might want to consider a move to a new role or firm.


5. Additional team coaching might have helped

I didn’t think of it during my tribulations with Joe, but the team might have benefited from additional coaching. Effective teams develop strong sets of values around acceptable and expected behaviors and are quick to police situations when someone steps outside boundaries. They learn to communicate, resolve disagreements, and find a way forward for difficult situations.

I’m not sure in hindsight whether offering team coaching would have changed the outcome, but it should have been one of the areas of investment.


6. Internal systems are often barriers. Don’t let this stop you

In many organizations, managers face a nearly impossible situation for dealing with brilliant jerks. In one organization I worked with, managers are required to invest a year or more documenting behaviors before gaining support for termination. In some cases, the manager is practically presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Recognize there’s a litigation-avoidance emphasis on these situations in many organizations. My counsel is for managers to engage, play by the rules and fairness always, and seek executive sponsorship to accelerate the process. Top leaders own streamlining this process while infusing it with checks on fairness and appropriate risk management.

The bottom line

It’s extraordinarily easy to excuse or ignore communication behaviors that introduce toxicity into the workplace, especially if you are under pressure for results. Don’t fall into this trap. Engage quickly with feedback and coaching.

If it’s a team situation, help the team reinforce core values and expected behaviors of all members and observe the situation closely. Just don’t rationalize maintaining or sustaining the individual in this environment at the cost of destroying it for everyone else, along with your credibility as a manager.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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