Dealing with ‘brilliant jerks’ in the workplace

Policies, programs and tactics for dealing with abrasive top performers

Dealing with ‘brilliant jerks’ in the workplace
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

Let’s say you have a fantastic salesperson in your organization — a real rainmaker who blows all of his targets out of the water and is always ranked as one of the top salespeople in the company. Sure, he ruffles a few feathers and can be a little abrasive at times with colleagues and even customers, but it’s really the financial results that count, no?

In such a case, companies are often prepared to overlook some inappropriate behaviours and the fact these “brilliant jerks” don’t play well with others. After all, top performers — particularly in revenue-generating functions like sales — can be up to three or four times as productive as average employees.

The problem is such people may not actually be your top performers. While I’m not naïve and I understand businesses exist primarily to make money for their shareholders, in the long-run these individuals could be doing more harm than good and might not actually be your best performers. It all comes down to how you measure and manage performance.

Using performance management programs

Any performance management program, whether formal or informal, needs to consider the “how” as well as the “what” of performance. This means it must consider not only employees’ results and accomplishments, but also how those achievements were obtained.

While there are many different types of performance management programs, and quite a few organizations are moving away from formal performance reviews, many performance management systems are based on some type of management by objectives (MBO) approach. These programs generally feature cascading goals, joint goal-setting with managers and employees, ongoing feedback, mid-year check-ins, self-assessments and formal performance appraisals.

While performance ratings are generally based primarily on the attainment of performance goals and objectives, some allowance must also be made for competencies, organizational values or other measures. When developing and evaluating goals, it is also important to consider soft skills and how individual goals were achieved.

This can also be built into specific metrics when developing “SMART” goals (those that are specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-bound). While goals need to have some degree of specificity built into them, the idea is for managers to work with their direct reports in developing goals that can be evaluated based on more than just hard numbers.

Another type of performance management program that can help is 360-degree feedback. While there are some drawbacks to this model, the idea is to obtain input from an individual’s manager, direct reports, colleagues, key business contacts and even customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders.

Even when people behave like jerks to others, they often won’t display those behaviours in front of their managers. However, by obtaining input from all relevant stakeholders, a manager can get a better picture of how her direct reports interact with others.

Evaluating competencies can also help, and it is particularly important to have a competency framework that includes things like teamwork, customer service, management and leadership and the development of others. All of those competencies relate to how people work with and treat others.

As mentioned, an organization’s core values should be included in a performance management system, and any rating or review process should consider how well employees demonstrate and live those values. One or more of those values should relate to how employees treat others.

Other tips and strategies

Having a respectful workplace policy and ensuring senior leaders model appropriate behaviours can help set the tone. Once dignity, respect and civility are spelled out in a policy, communicated to everyone and enforced consistently, employees will get the message that abrasive behaviour, rudeness and bullying will not be tolerated.

The way employees are rewarded and incented can also have an impact. Some organizations have compensation programs that drive inappropriate behaviours and lead to a culture that is overly competitive.

An example might be extremely aggressive sales targets tied to bonuses or commissions that consider only metrics like total sales but fail to factor dimensions such as customer retention, satisfaction or returns into the equation.

It is also important to build soft skills, the development of others and leadership competencies into compensation and rewards programs for management.

While some top performers may be a little quirky and some allowance should be made for that, employers should not tolerate brilliant jerks. In some extreme cases, there may even be no choice but to exit them from the organization.

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