Tame your belligerent superstars

Most companies get rid of executives with nasty tempers. But sometimes a jerk is just what you need.

The world is full of jerks, and they tend to gravitate to the C-suite. Study after study shows that the more power people accumulate, the more inconsiderate and entitled they become. Working for that kind of boss is demoralizing — but having them work for you brings a whole new set of challenges.

Jerks can poison a workplace and drive away your talent, and the simple answer is to fire them before too much damage is done. That’s what happened to Jack Griffin, the CEO of Time Inc. who was recently thrown out after less than six months on the job. Insiders reported that Griffin was an insensitive boss who launched into tirades and belittled employees. Yet for Griffin to have been hired at such a senior level, he must have exceptional skills. Which raises the question: What do you do when your star hire turns out to be a petty tyrant, yet you still believe in his potential?

The good news is, reform is possible, but it requires a deft touch. Talking to the executive about inappropriate behaviour “is going to be delicate, because you brought someone in who is supposed to walk on water,” says Ron Thomas, a principal with StrategyFocusedHR in New York. The key is not to come off as accusatory, but to emphasize that whatever changes are necessary will ultimately make the person a better manager.

In fact, these individuals are usually not aware how they’re affecting others. Robert Sutton, a management professor at Stanford University, has helped a number of executives improve their managing styles. One boorish exec had a habit of shutting down and interrupting employees. Sutton and his team observed a meeting and asked him to estimate how many times he had interjected. “He thought he’d hardly been interrupting at all, when in fact he’d been interrupting constantly,” says Sutton. “There was some embarrassment, but it worked.”

Another tactic is to designate a “cleaner” — a senior person who repairs the damage and cools tempers after the volatile executive’s outburst. Sutton points to Steve Jobs, the mercurial co-founder of Apple. “One of the things he learned to do is to surround himself with people who offset his tendencies.” What Sutton calls “effective assholes” tend to develop a close relationship with someone who can tell them when they’ve crossed a line. Jobs, for instance, counts Bill Campbell, a low-profile Silicon Valley guru, as a mentor and confidant.

Of course, obnoxiousness is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Executives brought in to shake up an organization (“change agents,” in management parlance) can be unfairly branded as heartless by employees. A blog post on Harvard Business Review, for example, argued this was Griffin’s role at Time. A number of techniques can help with such missions, such as inviting employees to provide input before shaping a plan for change, and rallying staff against a competitor to boost morale.

That’s what director Brad Bird did a few years ago when Pixar brought him in to re-energize the company. Bird was a demanding boss and had a reputation for being difficult to work with. One of his first acts at Pixar, he told McKinsey Quarterly, was to track down the frustrated employees who felt their unconventional ideas were not getting enough credit, and have them make a movie together. This was the team behind The Incredibles.

But such techniques won’t always work. If staff unhappiness keeps spreading, dismissal and a return to civility may be the only option. Says Sutton, “People always remark, ‘You can’t believe how good you feel after the person has left.'”