In nearly 25 years of working with leaders—and more than a decade of one-on-one coaching and advisory to Fortune 500 CEOs—there is one issue raised by virtually every leader in every environment: What to do about the brilliant jerk?
Netflix popularized the phrase “brilliant jerk” in an early culture manifesto that made its way around the internet, but whatever we call them, the question is usually the same. As a leader, how do I manage individuals whose delivery of terrific results (measured quantitatively) exists in tandem with terrible interpersonal or cultural impact (measured qualitatively, if at all)?
These behaviors manifest in various ways. Sometimes, their perpetrators are flashy and loud, taking ideas and air from the room. Sometimes, they are perfectionistic and manipulative, impressing others until eventually turning on them. Sometimes, they express big charisma that makes them loved by customers and loathed by colleagues.
I know brilliant jerks because I have had them on my teams, I have worked alongside them, and, on more than one occasion, I have been one. (I share that with zero pride, only rigorous honesty.)
On one’s own, no individual is solely or wholly responsible for conflict in an organizational system. Every member of a team plays a role in creating or allowing the conditions that enable a colleague to behave poorly or disrespectfully.
So, why do people behave badly? Because they can.
People who succeed and are rewarded for delivering great results do so in the way that is easiest and most obvious to them, often by default. Even in the face of tough feedback, they’ll keep doing it—especially amid repeated reward—in cultures that refuse to condemn their accompanying behavior as unethical.
But why would any conscientious leader continue to reward a team member for a right “what” but a wrong “how?”
Often, it’s because we’re framing the conflict as behavioral and individual, rather than ethical and about the total context. But difficult decisions—like whether to let a challenging high-performer go—can be clarified by using the three sides of a moral-ethical-role responsibility triangle.
Morally, most of us accept that it is wrong to treat others poorly, especially colleagues. Ensuring exemplary performance is a responsibility of every leadership role. So, with two sides of the triangle clear but in conflict, the leader should look to the third—in this case, ethics.
“Ethical context” is what we collectively consider helpful or harmful, beneficial or detrimental, in a given organization, setting, or society. Historically, where performance is valued above all in an organization, what people delivered mattered more that how they did it.
But ethical context is dynamic, and things have changed. Behaviors broadly considered acceptable or unacceptable in organizational life today are different than they were even a decade ago. Leaders are as likely to be fired for allowing destructive cultures as they are for mishandling poor performance.
If contextual ethics can shift over time, so, too, can the leader’s engagement with them. That change demands that leaders override the power of history and the informal cultures and networks that have allowed poor behaviors to thrive. That’s not easy–culture is typically deeply embedded —but it’s certainly possible, with a few clear actions.
- Review your official articulation (and subsequent repetition—or lack thereof) of your organization’s ethics. Do you have an ethics statement? Is it live, or does it live in a file somewhere? Ethics are officially communicated through written documents, company policies, and official statements, but to be taken seriously, they have to be repeated and referenced regularly.
- Examine your unofficial “leadership signals.” Beyond the official policy, ethics are more importantly communicated through systems of reward and performance management, meeting norms and accepted in-and-out-of-the-room behaviors, shadow power networks, and personal relationships that are decoupled from the organizational hierarchy. What signals are you sending about what’s ethical here? You’re going to make mistakes; everyone does. Whether and how you acknowledge, apologize, and recover from your mistakes is even more important than having made the mistake to begin with.
- Enroll leadership champions. Rather than feeding more attention to the bad-behaving big deliverers, invest time and space in those colleagues at all levels who create psychological safety, role model great performance, and engage in productive, respectful behavior. Once you’ve enrolled others who are philosophically aligned to the ethical context that you wish to create, lean on them; share your expectations of a mutually created, positive dynamic and then give them space to show their exemplary leadership.
- When you’re exiting someone for unethical behavior, make your reasoning clear. You don’t have to violate confidentiality or share details to convey that a leader’s exit is, as one company put it in a recent 8-K filing, “unrelated to the Company’s financial reporting and business performance.” Make it clear what matters, and the full extent of how everyone will be held to account.
- Drop the false dichotomy. Under the new psychological contract that exists between workers and their workplaces since the COVID-19 pandemic, how we work is as important as what we do. Every individual must deliver both brilliant performance and brilliant behaviors, with a mix of clear accountability and unwavering support from everyone else in the system. It’s not “either/or”–it’s “both/and.” That keeps everyone engaged and feeling supported.
Courageous leadership doesn’t require a difficult decision between retaining the brilliance and getting rid of the jerk. It instead dials up a bolder and far more relentless communication and re-evaluation of ethical context at every turn.
Eric Pliner is the CEO of YSC Consulting and author of Difficult Decisions.