How to Deal With Top-Performing Jerks

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been very clear about what his organization does with its brilliant jerks: It gets rid of them. As he has said in the past about them: “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.”

Netflix aspires to develop a “Dream Team,” which they define this way:

“A dream team is one in which all of your colleagues are extraordinary at what they do and are highly effective collaborators. The value and satisfaction of being on a dream team is tremendous. Our version of the great workplace is not sushi lunches, great gyms, fancy offices, or frequent parties. Our version of the great workplace is a dream team in pursuit of ambitious common goals, for which we spend heavily. It is on such a team that you learn the most, perform your best work, improve the fastest, and have the most fun.”

On Netflix’s Dream Team, there are no “brilliant jerks.” They know that the cost to teamwork is just too high and that plenty of brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and they insist upon that.

It’s a great approach to teamwork and culture that we would all be wise to consider. The top performer who puts themselves and their needs above that of the team is too much trouble. In far too many sales organizations, you’ll see examples of someone whose emotional instability causes people to walk on eggshells around the office, But yet, they’re still there — because they’re seen as a top performer who drives profits to the company.

However, is keeping a top-performing jerk worth it? According to research from Harvard Business School, the answer is a resounding no. HBS researchers asked tens of thousands of workers about their experiences with toxic employees. They found that almost 50% of those surveyed admitted to putting in less effort into their work — and 25% of employees who had been treated with incivility admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers. It’s a ripple effect that can cost your company in ways that are difficult to account for directly on a spreadsheet.

Life is too short to deal with jerks. So here’s how to make sure you’re fostering the best environment for your business.

Intervene Early

Toxic behavior has an exponentially negative effect on your organization, so it’s imperative that you immediately begin to take course-correcting actions as soon as you discover these behaviors.

Sit down with the offender as soon as possible and have a courageous conversation. Explain how their behavior is affecting their coworkers and how it’s affecting the organization as a whole. Set clear expectations about the lines they cannot cross — and the consequences of crossing those lines.

But remember, do not confront toxicity with toxicity. Instead, approach a high-performing jerk with compassion. Whenever I think about these situations, I think about Brené Brown’s book “Dare To Lead.” In the book, she discusses something all of us need to remember — that so many managers and leaders in business today are taking out their unhealed childhood trauma on their employees. In other words, a high-performing jerk had something go wrong along the way and, unfortunately, you and your organization are bearing the brunt of it.

To truly be a servant leader, you have to show your willingness to show them a different way — one that values collaboration, service and commitment. Set the example you would like to see.

Take Decisive Action

Unfortunately, our best intentions do not always translate into the actions we desire. This is especially true for dealing with top-performing jerks. If they refuse to rein in their behavior, you have no choice but to present them with a severance package, show them the door and cross your fingers that they go to work for your competition.

It’s as simple as that. Doing so is fairly simple too. In values-led organizations, it’s crystal clear that it’s not just about what you do and accomplish but how you get there. In a healthy culture how the work gets done matters.

Taking action also sends a broader message to everyone at your organization: Behavior inconsistent with your values will not be tolerated.

Remember Your Responsibility

I wish I could say that I have never tolerated high-performing jerks. Early in my management career, I let a lot of behavior slide that I never would today.

But as I’ve grown as a leader, I’ve come to realize that putting organizational performance above everything else doesn’t fit with my own value system. The purpose of an organization can be so much more. When we hire someone, we’re inviting them to join us on a journey for eight hours a day. We have a responsibility to make sure that experience is a positive, healthy one that not only improves our organization’s bottom line but improves the lives and well-being of those that work for it.

Yes, we have to hold people accountable. Yes, we have to have clearly defined expectations. But ultimately, culture is a reflection of how you lead. Think about the amazing leaders that shaped your life. You have the opportunity to make the same kind of contribution.

Leadership isn’t a job, it’s a responsibility.

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