Do you have a “brilliant jerk” (or two) in your workplace?
I teach a leadership class at my local University, and in a recent class, one student shared the story about a high-performing employee who was a jerk. That jerk created a toxic environment but was consistently the number one salesperson. She asked what she should do about the person when senior management focused on that person’s results but not the impact of her actions.
I advised the student to focus on the costs that jerk had on the organization; how many employees or customers did they lose because of this person’s actions? For example, if a new employee quits due to this person being a jerk, how much revenue was lost, and how much did it cost to replace that person?
If the jerk costs more than they earned, the decision becomes economical, not emotional.
A High-performing Jerk is typically in a position of power and has awful toxic behaviours that negatively impact colleagues. Their harmful bullying behaviour “evades consequences” because they’re generally high performing in another metric.
Enough is enough; it’s time for workplace leaders to step up and stamp out these awful behaviours.
Pay Attention to the Brilliant Jerk
High-performing Jerks are bullies but do not have their behaviour dealt with because they may be high performing in another area.
Leaders need to take a more active role in stamping out toxic behaviours in the workplace by:
- not shrug off, laugh off or walk past anything that constitutes harassment in your workplace;
- speak up against harassment that occurs on your watch, and
- Investigate and, if substantiated, discipline and exit perpetrators of harassment regardless of their clients, relationships, public profile, revenue, technical skills, perceived brilliance or commercial value.
Ignore the Brilliant Jerk at Your Peril
When organizational leaders ignore or tolerate High-performing Jerks, they signal to employees and other stakeholders that they value profits over people. I shouldn’t have to point out the consequences; however, recent studies show that toxic workplace culture is ten times more likely to drive employee attrition than dissatisfaction with compensation.
“Enough is enough. It’s time companies considered the consequences of their actions. Toxic rock stars are the cancer of company culture. Leaving them in a position of power reveals what the company truly values: profits over people.” HBR
Failure to effectively deal with the High-performing Jerks has significant implications for medium to long-term company profitability (if you want to think about dollars rather than doing the right thing!) The cost of talent management (attrition replacement, talent sourcing costs, employee compensation) will skyrocket.
Leaders Must Take A Proactive Stance
Dealing with the High-performing Jerk after they have polluted your culture with their toxicity is a must. But how about we prevent it from getting to that stage in the first place?
Here is some food for thought. Ask yourself:
- Am I protecting an employee with toxic behaviours in my workplace?
- Am I prioritizing some results over long-term positive, sustainable outcomes?
- Do I reward harmful behaviour through my inaction or other ways?
- Have I, in any way, contributed to a toxic workplace culture through my behaviours? (Particularly towards women)
- Am I the reason that people don’t want to come to work anymore?
- Am I the reason that our employee turnover rate is higher than ideal?
Here is what to do immediately.
- Publicly commit to creating and sustaining a workplace culture where everyone, irrespective of their identity, is respected, valued and can reach their potential.
- Publicly commit to a Zero Tolerance policy (Brilliant Jerks are Not Welcome Here!)
- Ensure there are robust procedures and practices for confidential reporting of brilliant jerk behaviours (workplace bullying, harassment and disrespect)
- Ask people from all levels and all backgrounds, ‘Does your boss conform to what you believe are the values of this organization?’
- Hold the leaders in your workplace accountable for [better] managing the brilliant jerks in your organization. And themselves!
And finally, do not underestimate the damage the High-performing Jerks have on your organization. Do not imagine that your organization is not affected.
Do not neglect your role as a workplace leader to protect your employees, including those who are already marginalized, predominantly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Women, Women of Colour, from the awful impact a brilliant jerk can have.