The aftermath of the capitol riots has left the Republican party with a conundrum. It is the same one facing leaders who find themselves managing a brilliant jerk. We get a lot of benefits from this person but do the downsides outweigh the good? This often occurs with a sales person or designer who are deemed irreplaceable. They couldn’t be replaced with anybody with similar talent, leaving a big hole.
This situation is typically managed by providing feedback, coaching, and requiring them to clean up their act. The trouble is, it never escalates to taking action because the leader is scared of the consequences. If they leave, will we end up worse off?
Brilliant jerks Easily become indispensable
The brilliant jerk ignores the feedback and requests, because after all, they are a jerk and they are not going to change. Warning after warning only emboldens them because it convinces them they are truly indispensable. Action is only taken when they egregiously step over the line. It leaves the leader with no choice but to act.
Leaving the jerk in place avoids making the tough decision, but it also has much bigger ramifications. It sets the culture for the company and especially for anyone who works with them. Imagine the company has a set of values, one of which says we treat everyone with respect. The jerk abuses most everyone they work with and gets away with it. Is the company culture what is stated in the values or by what behavior is tolerated? You don’t need me to tell you it is the latter. The impact of this may seem less immediate than firing the jerk. The trouble is, in the long run, it can be devasting with increased turnover, a tarnished brand and reputation, etc.
It is necessary to take action
When faced with a brilliant jerk who ignores feedback and chooses not to change, you have no choice but to act. More words are meaningless, only action will make a difference. Often that means letting them go. But as Ben Horowitz notes in his excellent book on culture ‘What You Do Is Who You Are’. You can engineer an arrangement to keep them out of way and still doing great work. I don’t recommend trying to do that, but it is possible.
The most important thing is taking action. It speaks much louder than words.