Problem: Executives don’t see assholes as assholes. They see ’em as top performers.
Saw that headline above over at Harvard Business Review just now. Rebecca Knight, who I believe works for INSIDER these days, is usually pretty good. The article itself, linked here, isn’t bad and actually has some examples of how to deal with a so-called “brilliant jerk,” which I believe is a term we’ve now attributed to Reed Hastings, origin-wise.
So while the article itself is good, here’s the problem: how does an executive look at a brilliant jerk? If the executive is self-aware, which is sadly pretty rare in most companies, they will see “Well, this guy or gal performs well, but they seem to be a general negative for the team, so maybe I should talk to them.” Most executives, who are harried and hurried and propped by a bunch of lieutenant enablers, can only see results and financial acronyms; it’s ostensibly all they know. As such, they look at an asshole and think “This person ships. He/she sells. I like it.”
It’s the same issue we have with burnout. Burnout is brutal, and very real. Many people experience it, and it’s probably why Netflix keeps having good quarters — because you get to the end of a brutish, burnt week and you just want to watch some stupid bullshit on your couch. However, the thing is, executives don’t see burnout as a “crisis.” If anything, they see it as the cost of doing business. Because what is work to them? It’s long nights, it’s late night emails, it’s “strategy,” it’s hustle, it’s beating rivals. If that stuff supposedly burns you out, well, fuck you. Go get another job, you little snowflake. This is the real world. This is what’s expected of you.
I did a 5K fun run a few years ago at a zoo, then went to get beers afterward — because why else run 3.1 miles if you’re not going to ruin it with a bunch of IPAs after, right? So I started talking to this CEO of a 500-person company at the bar. That was interesting. We had about three-four beers each, so the convo was flowing. At one point he says to me on the whole topic of “brilliant jerks” or “asshole top performers,” he says (I tell ya!) “If a dude is hitting all his numbers, and he’s 15x the expected quota, and he’s keeping the lights on, and the secretaries have their kids in private schools because I can pay them better, then honestly I don’t care about the culture. I don’t care if that guy’s an asshole. I just don’t.”
I paraphrased that, but it’s mostly accurate — and I would bet it’s how a lot of executives think. That same guy also told me that wellness initiatives are bullshit, which I largely agree with too. You want to bolster my wellness? How about you remove the “at-will” designation from my job, so that I can’t get fired for one email that Paula in HR doesn’t agree with? Right, right.
The headline above — the image for this post — the reality is that if you have an asshole who is tanking the team and no one really wants to work with him/her, even if they perform super well, you should fire them. But the reality of realities is that if you ship or sell in corporate, you will always be protected. It doesn’t matter if you grab ass, toss around the N-word casually, make people cry in the bathroom all morning, etc. If you ship product, or you sell ice to the Inuit, CEO Charlie will always have a place for you at Widgets, Inc.