Toxic A-Players: What to Do with Brilliant Jerks

We all have good days. We all have bad days. It’s part of the human condition.

Maybe we didn’t get enough sleep, are worried or have pressures – and sometimes, we’re a bit of a jerk and not at our best dealing with other people.

There are times when people have called me a jerk – and I definitely earned it.

And then there are terminal cases who are constantly frustrating to be around – who don’t play well with others, upset their team members, and don’t align with the core values of an organization.

These are the brilliant jerks who get great results in their role but are toxic because they don’t fit the culture, cause a lot of friction around and violate key core values. In Your Oxygen Mask First, I call them Toxic A-Players.

Turning a Blind Eye has Costs

Leaders tend to turn a bit of a blind eye toward their behavior. They fear that if they let Toxic A-Players go, they’ll lose revenue and important customers, or have major leadership gaps in the organization that could cause more work for themselves. But if people who work with them are frustrated and potentially leave because of this jerk, you’ll pay anyway – one way or another – and wish you’d dealt with them sooner.

I worked with a company in the US who hired a CFO whose behaviour broke down the health and harmony of a tight executive team in just 42 days. When I saw him in action at the quarterly meeting, it was obvious he had to go immediately.

One conservative client hired a new sales rep over the phone (pre-Zoom days) who told insanely inappropriate locker room jokes, in mixed company – and didn’t recognize it was unacceptable in a professional setting.

Another client with a fleet of trucks had a massive issue with one of their best drivers because his aggressive driving brought complaints and eroded their well-respected brand.

These people may not be bad human beings, but when their behaviour is a mismatch for your culture, they are a liability.

Don’t Ignore Toxic A-Players!

While dealing with Toxic As isn’t easy, you have to do something.

Your culture doesn’t live in words on a wall. It lives in your hiring and promotion decisions. When you promote brilliant jerks, you say your core values don’t mean anything and it’s OK to be a jerk if you’re highly productive.

Doing nothing endorses their behaviour, undermines your culture, how you value other people, and your credibility as a leader. You have to:

  • Take action. The cost to the team is simply too high to allow the situation to fester just because you’re scared of losing the productivity of a brilliant jerk. That’s a fear of scarcity and unfounded. Your team will thank you for relieving the stress and frustration in the environment.
  • Tell the truth. Good leaders give jerks a fair chance. They provide an opportunity to become aware of, understand, and correct the problems and to align with the team. It could be that no-one has done that before and they deserve a chance to improve.
    • Conduct an in-depth 360 including interviews with others to gather details.
    • Give tough feedback Work with HR to make sure your feedback is crystal clear – that if the behaviour doesn’t change, they will no longer have a job.
  • Create a performance improvement action plan, with clear written goals and a timeline, of how they’re going to improve. This may include coaching, training or a personal growth program.

Give them a chance to continue to earn their role in the company, by a certain date. If they need to move on to a company that suits them better, be respectful and treat them fairly.

  • Conduct exit interviews if they leave, with people they work with and, possibly, clients.
  • Listen and learn. Be open to your team’s feedback, especially if they ask why this wasn’t dealt with sooner. In addition, maintain a respectful culture by not letting people celebrate the exit too much. Talk about how to prevent or minimize this from happening again.

More about how to consistently hire people who are productive and live your values in upcoming blogs and podcasts.

The Challenge

  • Who might be a Toxic A (brilliant jerk) in your organization who needs some form of action?
  • How can you make sure that person has a clear message about what they need to do? What they need to do to be productive AND a great fit with your culture?

Want to hear more? Listen to Episode 99 of The Growth Whisperers.