Podcast Episode 99 – The Brilliant Jerk

The brilliant jerk is a phrase that was made famous in the Netflix culture deck, is also known as a Toxic A-Player. The brilliant jerk refers to people on your team who are highly productive in their role, but they don’t fit the culture. They don’t align with the behaviours or core values, and they come at a high cost to the team.

In this podcast episode, Kevin Lawrence and Brad Giles talk about how to deal with brilliant jerks, and why it is essential for leaders to deal with them, and also to prevent hiring them in the first place. Because the cost to the team is simply too high. Not taking action endorses the behavior – and undermines your culture and the value that you’re showing towards other people.




Please note that this episode was transcribed using an AI application and may not be 100% grammatically correct – but it will still allow you to scan the episode for key content.

Kevin Lawrence  00:12

Welcome to the Growth Whisperers podcast where everything we talk about is about building enduring great companies. That’s something that myself, Kevin Lawrence, and my partner here, Brad Giles, we’re passionate about. Brad, how’re you doing today?

Brad Giles  00:26

I’m doing excellent. Thank you. Very good in this part of the world. How are you doing Kevin?

Kevin Lawrence  00:36

Things are going great here, too. So what are we on for today? Brad? What are we gonna dig into and have some interesting conversation about?

Brad Giles  00:53

Today we’re talking about the brilliant jerk – we’ve all served alongside brilliant jerks. Before that, we always like to say phrase of the day, we advocate for it when you run meetings as well, just a simple way to start and perhaps break the ice. So I’ll start off on that, Kevin. And I do that because there’s a look at your face, I’m thinking he’s still thinking about one. So mine is reset. Because every time we run a quarterly or an annual meeting, I have a slide and it’s reset, because we are resetting, it doesn’t matter what’s happened. It doesn’t matter, the successes or the failures, everything stops and gets reset, so that we can build our next business plan for the next 90 days. Reset. So Kevin, what might be your word or phrase of the day?

Kevin Lawrence  02:02

Well, mine is resilience. Interestingly, because I’m feeling damn good. I did a keynote this morning for a large organization that a global organization on resilience, and so it’s fresh on my mind. I’ve written lots about it, and we’ve talked a lot about it. You know how important resilience is. Resilience is your ability to bounce back from whatever life or work throws at you. So reset, and resilience, and that those two words tie nicely together. We’re doing a little resilience reset today, Brad?

Brad Giles  02:49

Well, let’s try and reset some brilliant jerks because they need it.

Kevin Lawrence  02:51

I want to make a disclaimer. I think there’s a number of times in my life that I might have been that jerk. Well, maybe not the brilliant part. But I definitely could have been a jerk part, you know, as an aggressive personality, I can think of a number of times when people probably called me a jerk. And I probably earned it. Actually, no, I definitely earned it. So like, we all have moments where our behavior is not great. Whether a button gets pushed, or we get trigger who or we’re in a bad way, it doesn’t matter. We all have it. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Little things that go a bit sideways – we are talking about the terminal cases. Yeah. The people who are generally consistently, always just really frustrating to be around and it doesn’t seem to change.

Brad Giles  03:44

We all have good days. And we all have bad days. It’s part of the human condition. Maybe we didn’t get enough sleep, maybe something is affecting us. Maybe we were you know, worried or we’ve got our other pressures. So everyone has good and bad days. But worry, where are you at your average? That’s kind of what we’re saying here. So you may have, you know, been a brilliant jerk, or I might have at some point or even just a jerk, but where do you reset to the average? In terms of your being able to deal with other people? That’s what we’re saying. Because brilliant jerks. When they reset to the average, the average is brilliant jerk. It’s not, you know, the average is they’re a jerk, you know, they don’t play well with others. They upset their team members, they don’t align with our core values in the organization. So assist consistently is the key. Yeah, so you get a bit of a leave pass as it were for having a bad day. Everybody does. And that’s okay. But where do you where’s your average? That’s what we’re really saying, is it your trend line?

Kevin Lawrence  04:51

So what makes someone a brilliant jerk? Our first kind of point we want to dig into and really, this is someone they’re normally really good at their job, like they are very effective. But they’ve got this bad attitude and it cost a lot of friction around them. And normally, usually the ones that keep their jobs for a while the frictions, internal, whatever they do externally seems to be good. And in the book, I wrote Your Oxygen Mask First, we call them a toxic a player, which means, you know, a performance on getting the results in a role, but toxic because they don’t fit the culture.

Brad Giles  05:37

And they’re generally violating a few core key or key core values, upsetting the people around them on a regular basis. So if you’re a leader, and you’re having regular chats about one particular individual, and maybe there’s a bit of a chance around that, so I remember, there’s one CEO who will go unnamed, and I would have to say for four, maybe even five years, every time we would be talking about this particular individual. And he would always say the same thing. If Dave leaves, then we are going to lose some of our most important customers. And I was like, but what is it costing us?

Kevin Lawrence  06:21

There’s a cost if he stays now.

Brad Giles  06:27

And we tried to reconcile that. But it was yeah, it was a really, really tough conversation. And of course, as is always the case, Dave ended up going in a horribly messy situation. And afterwards, it was partially, you know, the doing of the leader. And it was partially not, but because the pressure began to build on the frustration. Yeah. And so as we got towards the end, or and then we pass the end, the CEO was saying, I wish I’d done it years ago, as is always the case, we say that, yes.

Kevin Lawrence  07:06

And normally, you don’t lose the customers you think you’re going to lose? Right? Yeah, they own key relationships, and they’re in a revenue generation, there can be an impact. But generally, we begin to build it to be bigger in our head. I’m not saying there aren’t cases, there are cases where we’ve had to deal with this, and have a plan over a year or two years before because we didn’t want to take the chance of overly disrupting, you know, the revenue line of the company.

Brad Giles  07:35

This guy we were, we were at a two day annual meeting. And we went out for dinner. And this guy dominated the conversation for like an hour or two without anyone getting another word in edgewise to the point that people pretended they needed to go to the bathroom. So they could just go outside and be able to form their own conversations. It was typical, brilliant jerk behavior.

Kevin Lawrence  08:01

So I had one a company I was working with in the US, been working with them a couple of years, we had a tight executive team massive momentum, great growth, everything was great. And we had a new CFO. And this is before I was forcing my clients to top grade all the key hires. I come in the room, he’d been in a company 42 days, this is a quarterly, we’re at the coffee break, and I go to the CEO. So do we want to fire him at lunch? Or do we wait till tomorrow without even talking to the CEO? I was listening to the conversation on the break. I saw him in action. And I went, this is atrocious. And it almost broke down all the health and harmony of the exec team in 42 days. Now we wait. You know, this is Thursday? We actually we didn’t fire him that lunch. We didn’t fire him on Friday. But we did Monday morning. Yes, we wait until after the weekend. Which is it because it was just a wrong hire and the damage these people can do. I have another one. similar scenario. And I had a bit of a talk I gave the CEO a bit of a talking to he hired this guy. This is 10 years ago, we hired him over the phone without ever meeting him. And it was a sales guy and we weren’t using zoom back then. We’re in a very conservative company. He’s telling locker room jokes that are insanely inappropriate in front of the mixed crowd at the coffee break. And I said to the CEO, you need to fire him and you should do it at lunchtime. We need to get this guy out of here. We did at the end of the day. We let the meeting run out. We don’t want to disrupt the minute we fired him at five o’clock. Because this it’s just I mean those are extreme but not another one I’ve seen some examples are kind of our point to over talkers. One of my clients had one who was their best truck driver and I’ve shared this story in the past, they were in Vancouver and their own fleet of trucks that they had to get across the mountain pass to another place called Calgary. And these are extreme mountain pass even they made this show about this highway in the winter called the highway through hell. It did not matter what the weather was, he would always get through on time most reliable truck driver maintained his truck perfectly, cleanest truck, just a little problem, they would get one or two complaints every week from people on the road, because of his aggressive driving and how we would cut people off and be an ass on the road. Now, because their company name was on the trailers and trucks Yeah. So you know, it just it was hard, because he was so damn good. And, you know, I’m sure you’ve got other examples to grab. But these are, they’re really good at their job. They’re just a liability. And like a ticking time bomb.

Brad Giles  11:08

The important part is not just that he doesn’t play well with others inside the firm, because he was not playing well with others on the public roads. And yeah, and so it’s in general doesn’t play well with others. So let’s talk about the definition, the brute jerk. Now you and I might interchange that with a toxic a player. And that comes from the book, top grading as well, the definition of a player, someone who’s in the top 10% of available candidates at the pay rate that you provide. So this is someone who is producing the numbers, they’re pretty consistent at hitting the numbers for their role, but they don’t leave the core values, you know, no one wants to sit next to them. No one wants to hang out with them or get into some kind of lunch time banter with them. Because they’re a jerk.

Kevin Lawrence  12:08

They might not be a bad human being. They’re just in the wrong darn place. Like the guy that we did fire at the end of the day, the sales guy who got hired on the phone. There’s places where he actually probably because he was a personable guy, he just was crude in a conservative environment. So there, there are environments that aren’t conservative that he could have been great in.

Brad Giles  12:52

But he couldn’t. My reading the situation, he couldn’t recognize that that was inappropriate. He didn’t have the EQ to recognize this is not a locker room. This is a mixed environment where in a professional setting where it’s not really appropriate. Exactly. And so the big thing about toxic guys or brilliant jerks is that you’ve got to take action, no matter what it is it you know, it may be easy for us to say get them out fire them. But that’s one option. But you can’t just if they’re toxic, you can’t just let them sit and fester. Because the cost to the team is simply too high.

Kevin Lawrence  13:39

But why do people let that sit and fester? Because they’re worried about productivity loss?

Brad Giles  13:43

Because brilliant jerks. They’re brilliant. They’re high productivity, okay, but they’re low on the behavioral or the cultural side. And so they’re fearful that we won’t like the example I provided we won’t be able to replace those customers, or those sales.

Kevin Lawrence  14:05

Yes, they’re fearful and, and a scarcity of you know, if we do something bad is gonna happen. That’s the root of it. And it’s, it’s unfounded. You might take your time, and you might be smart about it. But you can always work your way around. We had one in another company that that, unfortunately didn’t work out recently. And there’s a lot of concern about the additional workload and strain on the team. If you got if you only had three people, maybe, yeah, we got 500 people, the system handles it. And they’re often relieved because the stress and the tension is out of the environment.

Brad Giles  14:51

So you’ve got to take action, inaction is perhaps where your gut will take you motivated by fear, as you said, but you’ve got to take some kind of action on this. And for many people, though, we like the fear says I don’t want to fire them, it’s your read on the situation, if that’s the case, then try to move into some kind of coaching situation with them to help them to understand the problems. I mean, we genuinely want to give everyone a fair chance at helping themselves to become better to be able to align, it won’t, it won’t always happen. But if you want to, it’s appropriate to give them a good chance.

Kevin Lawrence  15:35

I agree. And you’ll always owe it to him because they might not have been made aware about it, they might have been like that their whole life, their manager might not be doing it. If they don’t report to you, you might not be given the feedback. So there is truth. The other thing that’s important, not taking action endorses the behavior. Oh, yeah. So you know, your culture isn’t the words in the wall. And we said it is your culture is your hiring and your promotion decisions. When you promote these brilliant jerks, what you’re saying is core values don’t mean anything. If you’re highly productive, you’re it’s okay to be a jerk. No matter what we say you’re endorsing it, if you allow them to stay in their positions, you’re endorsing it, which undermines your culture and your value that you’re showing towards other people.

Brad Giles  16:22

And people look at you as the leader and think that you just don’t care, right? And that’s direct are the real problem. Because they would think I totally aligned with these values of this company or the behavioral expectations. And then they would look at the toxic a the brilliant jerk, and they would say, This person is not acting in the way in which everybody talks about the coachee here. And then they look at the leader, and they say, well, obviously this person doesn’t really care about these values Correct? Or these behaviors?

Kevin Lawrence  16:59

They think why would I work so hard to be effective with this person, you can get away with all that. So it’s stuff so so you gotta address it. And, and, and there’s lots of different things you can do. But the biggest thing is to make sure they get the straight goods, and we often get brought in to help turn these people around. Good leaders want to give them a chance and make sure they haven’t missed it and missed something. And so normally, where we start is the manager making sure they’re actually giving them the real tough feedback, that’s, you know, sometimes, you know, we’ll do in depth, we do a very, very thorough deep in depth 360, where you’re interviewing people getting lots of details of what it is measuring them on a few different ratings of leadership, debriefing with them, and their manager coming up with action plans of how they’re going to get better at the behavior, that can help you that can get through them. exit interviews when people leave, because normally people that work with or for these people, there will be carnage people, you know, it’ll cause carnage. So even some of that are clients, even whatever data you can put in front of them to try and give them a wake up call, like, hey, this isn’t working, things need to change. And here’s why. And this is where HR has an amazing, important role in companies is to make sure that it is crystal clear the feedback they’ve been given. Because a lot of managers are not very good at laying out the truth in a way where it’s like, if this doesn’t change, you’re gonna lose your job.

Brad Giles  18:41

Yeah. And they may, through fear or whatever, be reluctant, especially because of the performance, they’re achieving the numbers day you got it, they believe they’re helping the manager to achieve their numbers. Maybe they’re even one of the highest performers on the team. And so the manager is thinking, if that person goes, and that’s a hit to the overall productivity or performance of the team, then that’s going to make my job so much harder. And so they kind of tend to turn a bit of a blind eye toward the behavior, but not really appreciating the overall negative cost that it’s bringing. Yeah. Go ahead. Yep. But after you’ve had those conversations, I mean, the example I provided we gave that guy almost a year’s worth of coaching, one on one coaching with a coach to dig into it. Sometimes it just won’t work. Sometimes. They are such a brilliant jerk of excellent proportions, that they’re not going to be able to change who they are. They’re got hard wired emotional issues. that you will not be able to disentangle. And if that’s the case, you need to take action, you cannot let this person continue to be toxic inside the team.

Kevin Lawrence  20:11

Yeah, and that’s, that’s the hard part, you just need to make sure you’ve given them chances, make sure that they have clear written goals, maybe it’s a performance improvement plan, maybe you get them a coach, maybe you send them on a training or personal growth program, you know, you know, often people want to make sure they’ve given them the chances and give them all the chances to continue to earn the role in the company. And then if it doesn’t, it’s time to move on, it’s painful, and, you know, treat them as fairly as you can be respectful as you can, and let’s move on, pick a day, knowing what’s picking the elephant, we will do we get people to pick a date, they’re gonna be it’s gonna be if there isn’t notable improvement, and we know we follow the processes the best, we can then pick a date. Now the gears, once that’s done, you also got to make sure, generally, when these people leave, there’s a little bit of happiness in the company. And the key thing is, we also want to maintain a respectful culture and don’t let people celebrate too much. Like try and keep it really Pro. And at the same time, make sure you’re listening to all of them saying we should have dealt with this sooner. Right, that’s feedback for you the decision maker that this probably should have been dealt with a long time ago.

Brad Giles  21:26

What’s implicit in that statement is, and they may not have the courage to ask this of the leader. Why didn’t you deal with this sooner? Because there’s the evidence that they’re questioning your activity and your action?

Kevin Lawrence  21:40

Correct. And then the final step is, well, how do we prevent all of this in the first place, which will be our next podcast, and we will talk about the top grading methodology that is designed to make sure you only put the right people into new roles, whether they’re external hires or internal promotions, having a very thorough process to minimize these mistakes, that are not good for the person and they’re not good for us. Nobody’s nobody actually is not good for the team, either. Nobody’s winning with these people being in these roles.

Brad Giles  22:12

And that’s our episode 100. Very interesting one to look forward to a bit of a milestone for us. Yeah, but how do you consistently hire people who live your values, and are productive in their role at an acceptable level? That’s what we’re going to be talking about next week on the growth whispers. Okay, so thanks for listing a good chat about the brilliant jerk, unfortunately, a part of life, many leaders and teams. And yeah, so I guess in summary, we have covered off what is a brilliant jerk, they’re productive in the role or highly productive, they’re low on the values and behaviors. We’ve provided a few examples there, and also been able to explain that you you must take action, no matter what it is, you must kind of take action. Any other further comments on all of that, Kevin to close this out?

Kevin Lawrence  23:09

It’s just they’re hard situations to deal with. And our job is just to make sure that we really give them the best chance they can of being successful with our company, or freeing them up to go get a job in a company that they suit better.

Brad Giles  23:23

Yeah, indeed. Okay, so thank you for listening. This has been the Growth Whisperers podcast. My name is Brad Giles. And you could find me at evolution partners.com.au And you can find Kevin at Lawrence and co.com. And obviously we both produce newsletters full of actionable interesting insights every week. You can also subscribe to those for more. Thanks for listening. We hope you have a great week and look forward to chatting to you again next week. Have a great one.