Workplace Issues

Five Ways to Fix Your High-Value Jerks

Jerks get the job done but leave misery in their wake. Here are five strategies for managing difficult-but-talented employees, and what to do if th...
Susan CrammApril 9, 2012

Talented jerks. Every organization has them. They’re knowledgeable and relentless. They’re the “go-to” resource whenever there’s a crisis or an important project. They get things done but they leave bruises by micromanaging and intimidating their colleagues and reports.

You hate their behavior, but love their results. 

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This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

You don’t want to fire them; you want to fix them. 

Well, don’t get your hopes too high. It’s impossible to turn an organizational pit bull into a poodle. But you can, with a strong leash and a steady hand, mitigate extreme behaviors by:  

  1. Stepping back. Determine whether you’re setting up your jerk for success or failure. It’s pretty easy to bring out the inner jerk in anyone by asking for the impossible and then providing little support. Look around your organization: if you find yourself surrounded by jerks, it’s likely you’ve created a dog-eat-dog world. Of course, if your company is in the middle of a turnaround, command-and-control leadership is essential. In that case, it’s the leader’s job to support his jerks by clearly communicating priorities so that the rest of the organization doesn’t confuse the message with the messenger.
  2. Taking off the blinders. Help your jerk understand her strengths and weaknesses by providing true 360-degree feedback. In emotional-intelligence lingo, most jerks have low levels of self-awareness and don’t understand how their behaviors affect others. Ensure that the 360 process concludes with the jerk meeting with you. In that meeting, make sure the jerk does the talking. By articulating her negative behaviors and explaining how they can be a detriment to her effectiveness and the overall health of the organization, she’ll increase her psychological commitment to change.
  3. Being direct. Tell your jerk that she needs to change or hit the highway. Don’t hide or disguise the hard truth by wrapping it in a pretty ribbon, such as: “You’re really talented but you need to learn how to get things done in ways that don’t alienate those around you. I know you can change and I’m here to support you.”  Jerks have such a high opinion of themselves (and such a low opinion of others) that they’ll soak up the compliments and reassurances and not even hear the criticisms.
  4. Providing specifics.  Make sure your jerk knows exactly what she has to stop and start doing.  Broad goals, like “improve listening skills,” don’t work. They need to be broken down into detailed behavioral instructions. For example: “Your goal is to get others to articulate issues, opportunities, and actions by facilitating rather than directing discussions. Do so by asking open-ended, clarifying questions, recap understanding, solicit recommendations, and facilitate decision making by analyzing pros and cons.” Many leaders struggle to provide such specific behavioral expectations because they don’t understand, in detail, the jerk’s current behaviors, and haven’t thought sufficiently deeply about what they want stopped or started.
  5. Persevering. Assess progress on a monthly basis using Marshall Goldsmith’s “Feedforward” process.  Require the jerk to reach out to her stakeholders and obtain input about what she needs to work on in the next 30 days. Sit down and review the stakeholder input and agree on one thing she should be working on over the next 30 days. If after six months the stakeholders’ input doesn’t reflect progress, it’s time to part ways with your jerk.

It seems to me that jerkiness is on the rise in many organizations. This is unfortunate but understandable given the stresses of the current economic and competitive climate. But talented jerks can create a climate of fear that causes others to go passive-aggressive, defensive, and timid. Talented jerks expand their impact at the cost of those around them, dividing rather than multiplying, making the organizational whole less than the sum of its parts. Rather than accepting jerkiness as the “new normal,” it’s more important than ever for leaders to have the courage to fire what they cannot fix. 

Susan Cramm is an executive coach and president of Valuedance, an executive-coaching and leadership-development firm specializing in information technology. She is a former CIO and CFO, and is the author of The 8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT (Harvard Press). Susan can be reached at