The Competent Jerk: Managing a Top Performer Who Alienates His Coworkers

My top producer, “Luke,” out-performs any three employees. I love him to death. I wish I had more employees with his energy and drive.

I also want to wring his neck. He alienates other employees with his brash “my way is the only way” attitude. When others are speaking in company meetings, he talks over them and cuts them off, using a condescending tone as he discounts their ideas. He never pulls anything like this with me.   

When I talk with him about how he ticks one or another of his colleagues off, he insists they’re jealous and out to get him because his results make them look bad. I’ve told Luke he’s gained a problem reputation in our company and warned him that it has seeped out to others in the industry. He just shakes his head, tells me he’s widely admired, and reminds me his results speak for themselves.

I need to fix this, but don’t dare push too hard. Luke gets defensive easily, and I’d hate to get him mad and lose him to a competitor.  

Answer:

Luke knows the results he achieves makes him valuable to you or any other employer. He covers his problem behaviors with plausible denial, claiming jealous coworkers want to take him down.

You say Luke never pulls “anything like this” with you. I disagree. Luke speaks down to others in your presence and you allow it. That makes you complicit and damages your reputation.

Your and Luke’s discussions have hit a brick wall because Luke has a blind spot. He doesn’t see his own behavior or feel any negative consequences. Worse, he’s managed to get you to back off, leaving the situation unresolved.

You need to move past this stalemate by motivating Luke to change. If you don’t, you’ll allow Luke to damage your company’s reputation and his own. His coworkers won’t enjoy working with him, eroding your team’s cohesion and long-term performance. He may even drive others out of your company because they won’t like how he treats them or how you allow it.

You have four options/

You can do nothing. When Luke’s jerk behavior causes enough problems that he quits or you fire him, he can find a new employer. You’ll be left cleaning up the mess he leaves behind.    

You can give Luke a reason to improve. Does your current compensation system only reward hitting goals and targets, or could you incentivize collaboration and peer relationships?

If Luke respects you, you can mentor him, helping him understand the value others bring to the company and him. You can tell Luke you appreciate his energy and drive and diplomatically explain the impact of his behavior on others and what he stands to lose if others won’t work with him.

You can surprise Luke with reality. Many companies now use 360-degree reviews as a tool for getting managers and other professionals to change ingrained problem behavior. Here’s how 360’s work.

Ask Luke to name a dozen individuals in your company and industry he respects. Then, let him know you plan to send them a confidential survey asking them to describe Luke’s strengths and Achilles’ heels in ten key areas. You, your HR officer or a consultant can summarize the results, taking out any comments that identify the individual who made them. The results, from individuals Luke himself named, will give Luke a new perspective on his behavior.  

When Luke asks you why you want to do this, tell him you want to invest in his professional development. Explain you’ll be asking these individuals how Luke handles leadership, presents himself as role model, makes judgment calls, and similar topics useful to him in his career growth.

You may be able to stir Luke’s interest by asking him to give you areas on which he’d like feedback and letting him know he’ll get a summary of what these twelve individuals say.

Luke may react in one of two ways. He may buy in, assuming all or most of the feedback will be positive and provide him with results he can use to negotiate increased compensation or to prove he has no problems.

He may feel picked on. If you fear that possibility, select at least two others, perhaps even yourself, on whom you’ll conduct the 360-degree review. While problems lead you to use the 360 to give Luke convincing factual information to prove he needs to change, anyone who receives a 360-degree review benefits from the feedback they receive.

You can even combine options two, three and four. Whatever you decide, don’t let Luke’s blind spot become yours.    

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3 thoughts on “The Competent Jerk: Managing a Top Performer Who Alienates His Coworkers

  1. Those are good ideas. I had one of these employees at my last place of work, and ultimately he became such a cancer to the workplace that I regret now that I didn’t fire him. He was the reason most of my other staff quit, although I didn’t know it at the time. He was always on his good behavior when I was around, and he would bully the other workers when I wasn’t. No one said anything to me because they felt- perhaps with some justification- that I wouldn’t do anything. Like the employee in this article, he was my top performer, and I legitimately feared that customers would be upset if I let him go. But in hindsight I think the pain of letting him go would have been temporary and more than made up for in improvement in morale of everyone else. But had I seen these suggestions back then, I definitely would have tried them.

  2. This is a toughie both for the manager who supervises Luke and for Luke. The 360 review, done by the manager and/or two or three others, should be revealing, if people aren’t too frightened of revenge from Luke to tell the truth. Anonymity should be guaranteed and designed in, for sure.

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