Are Assholes Team Killers? Not Necessarily.

Angry man yelling and pointing his finger

There’s often a direct correlation between extreme talent and “eccentricity”. Extremely talented people are abnormal, and many of their other attributes tend to be extreme and abnormal as well. They can often be disruptive, arrogant and asocial. They can wreck team chemistry.

Then just avoid them, you say quite reasonably. Well, I say you may need at least a few of these people. Babe Ruth and George Patton were high-maintenance employees and most certainly burned bridges along their way to success. But a championship team needs stars and sometimes those stars can be assholes.

The key is to decide ahead of time how much pure talent you need and how much cost in negative karma and culture you can afford. These are hard choices.

Can you really outlaw assholes? Even if you don’t hire any you may inherit one or someone may evolve into one or someone may fluctuate with the bad side at the worst possible moment. Try to keep them out, but one way or another, you’ll definitely have some despite your best efforts.

Some problems can only be fixed by an extremely talented person. There are never enough of these to go around. And many or most come with heavy baggage. Sometimes it pays to get an ego coach for the ones you need badly enough.

Your job as a leader is to win.

That often means getting the critical work out of all your stars while protecting the other team members from the negativity a star jerk often brings.

What will you tolerate? Where exactly is the firing line?

Have measures in mind to keep the assholes behind that line. Contain the damage if you can.

As a leader, I’ve:

  • Hired a therapist to explain to the asshole how their behavior is hurting them and the team, and to sketch out a path to transformation.
  • Had very direct conversations with other team members about how much we need that particular person right now, and how to work successfully with them.
  • Administered severe public reprimands.

The bottom line is we do what we have to do to ship the product. And sometimes that involves putting up with assholes. Sometimes you get to fire them, but sometimes you have to suck it up and work around them.

That’s my two cents.

Case Study!

Never let an asshole run roughshod over less talented team members who are trying just as hard. This is one of the cases where I have used public reprimanding; it’s seriously bad.

Once one of my stars (aka an asshole) went after another VP at a weekly meeting. Instead of waiting to reprimand him after the meeting, I told him we “would not have it”. Voice louder and deeper than usual, direct eye contact, palms flat on the table.

“Do you understand?”, I asked. “Yes.”, he replied.

“Are you completely and totally 100% sure you understand?”, I said. Again, he replied “Yes.”.

This went down in front of the entire group. It was uncomfortable for everyone, it was theater, and it was effective. Afterwards I asked him if I’d been too rough, and he said, “No, I acted like a child and you treated me like a child.”.

So, yes, sometimes you do need assholes on the team. They can be excellent contributors. But keep a sharp eye on them and don’t be afraid to put them back in their place when they need it.

This article was originally posted to LinkedIn