Workplace Reality #8: There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #8: “There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa“.

If you have worked for a few years in industry, you may have faced one or both of these:

  1. You meet a co-worker who impresses you with their intellect and ability, only to find out in later interactions that they are extremely hard to work with and impossible to handle
  2. You get mad at some co-worker because he behaves like a jerk, and find out later that actually he/she is the start performer of the team

Why Jerks thrive in organizations

In Straight from the Gut, Jack Welch’s landmark book, he talks about performance and attitude. This can be visualized in a 2×2 like this:

  • Green Box – Straightforward. Awesome talent, managers should do what it takes to keep them and groom them.
  • Orange Box – Straightforward. Poor talent, get rid of them ASAP.
  • Yellow Box – Tricky. Should you reward the person for good behavior and invest in them to improve performance, or get rid of them for lack of performance. Jack Welch recommends the former.
  • Red Box – Very tricky. Should you keep rewarding them for high performance and pardon the bad attitude, or penalize them for bad attitude. Jack Welch recommends getting rid of such people right away.

Red Box is where Jerks live.

Most organizations and managers don’t have the guts to fire a high performer for bad attitude, even when there is enough evidence to suggest that loss to team/org productivity and morale due to bad attitudes outweighs the results delivered by the person.

By having singular focus on performance, at the cost of attitude focus, organizations foster Red Box behavior – such performers get promoted, and they get a chance to ‘impact’ larger group of people. Promotion serves as a reinforcement that what they are doing (including bad attitude) is good for their career, and so they do more of it, and others are encouraged to follow their footsteps.

Jerks thrive.

Dealing with the reality

It is fairly easy to identify such ‘red box’ candidates:

  1. You keep getting into arguments with a certain employee and your manager sides with that person all the time.
  2. You keep hearing complaints about a certain employee through your informal network, while the person is a start performer based on official records.

Whether they are really hard to work with or not, best way is to work with them and find out!

If you are in such a company, it is important to have a plan to deal with such employees.

  1. Avoid – If possible, stay away from projects that involve these people you identify as ‘red box’.
  2. Build a working relationship – It is possible to have a working relationship with people who may be hard to work with otherwise. It may be because you are a high performer in your own right, or you may have a quality that person needs to be successful, etc. However, this will solve only your problem, if you are one of those people who get mad at people when they behave badly with others, this will not work for you.
  3. Be the crusader – Take on the person. This may be career suicide in some cases, so not everyone should try it. But if you hold your personal values high enough, and feel obliged to the organization to do the best you can, you should be willing to call out bad attitude from the person. This will result in conflict (and having good conflict resolution skills will be important), but it will help the organization tremendously in the long run. Easier said than done!

However, most important thing, and the focus of this series, is to remember that organizations will have jerks, even when you fail to understand why. It will help you if you understand why, and it will help you the most if you learn to deal with them.

In the next post, we will discuss the final reality, the Reality #9: “What leaders say can be very different than what they mean“. Stay tuned.


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