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.
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.