Three ways that a brilliant jerk will ruin your team

Culture Change

7th December, 2018

One of the biggest dilemmas you are likely to face in your leadership career comes when you’re faced with the disruptive – and often destructive – behaviour of a brilliant jerk. Do you fuel their ego? Do you hold onto them for as long as they produce outstanding results, hoping that the rest of the team accept that their knowledge and experience make the pain worthwhile? Or do you create the opportunity for them to leave your team as soon as possible?

Over the years I’ve worked with teams in FTSE250 companies as well as football teams in the English Premier League and English Football League. I’ve built the culture in County Championship Cricket teams, Universities and multi-billion pound organisations across the world. My experience in all of those environments is that brilliant jerks must evolve and align with the culture or leave.

Here are three reasons why tolerating a brilliant jerk will ruin your team:

They will ruin your reputation

Let’s go back to the foundations of leadership. The number one characteristic that followers want from their leaders, is honesty. More accurately, as anyone who has experienced a leadership event with us will know, we need our leaders to be congruent, authentic and for their words and actions to align. You can’t demonstrate this crucial characteristic if you accept the misaligned behaviour of a brilliant jerk.

A brilliant jerk will ruin your reputation because you will always make allowances for them. Those allowances and inconsistencies in standards will leave others feeling that if he/she does that then why can’t I? Or even worse they will lose faith in you and leave.

You lose the rarest breed of them all – genius team players

A year or so ago I was working with former Wales manager Chris Coleman and his Assistant Kit Symons. Another member of the coaching staff asked how Welsh superstar footballer Gareth Bale fitted in with the rest of the national squad. Coleman answered in an instant, “Gareth isn’t just a brilliant player in a team, he’s a brilliant team player.”

Whether in business or sport, people like Bale – outstandingly talented, incredibly hard-working and culturally brilliant – don’t come along often. When they do, if they join a team dominated by a brilliant jerk they don’t hang around for very long. Why? Because their high standards apply in all areas of their work and life and, while they’ll make allowances for others who might not be as talented, they refuse to be held back by others who don’t share their ethics or attitude.

Your brilliant jerk will shape the next generation

Who is more likely to get noticed: a steady, good performer who maintains good relationships, or the brilliant jerk with their great results and toxic relationships? You know which you want to be noticed… and you know which one actually is noticed. The brilliant jerk inadvertently models the way for new people who join the team. More junior people who are promoted assume the behaviours this outlier demonstrates are the norm. They adopt this way of being and the culture of your team shifts again…for the worse.

How do you handle a brilliant jerk?

The intricacies are too broad and varied for a single article (feel free to email me to start a fuller conversation about building a high-performing team) but here is my go-to first step when dealing with brilliant jerks. Include a behavioural objective as part of their performance measures. One of my executive coaching clients recently added an objective to all of her team’s KPIs. It simply reads ‘and you do all of the above in a values-led way’.

This organisation has a strong culture and their values are alive and breathing. The inclusion of this simple objective means that no matter how well someone performs technically or results-wise, if they aren’t behaviourally aligned they can’t be classed as a high-performer.

By finding the appropriate way to introduce a similar measure in your team, you give a platform upon which your conversations about behaviour and culture can be built.

To find out more about our approach to culture change please watch the following videos charting the connection between strategy, culture and change.

Narrative Pathways 1 – The definitions

Narrative Pathways 2 – How strategy, culture and brand interact

Narrative Pathways 3 – Service -v- experience

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