Above Header Navigation

How to Keep Smart People from Killing Each Other

While I am spending a little downtime with my family, I wanted to share with you a timeless article from our Leadership Library.

If you want to poison the well where you work, allow a Certified Jerk to roam free.

Mollycoddling is a pernicious and infectious organism you need to expel from your organization.

No Asshole Diagram

It’s easy to figure out how to deal with the Certified Jerk

This phrase is powerful in so many ways.

Smart people can often be prima donnas – I’ve heard those accusations myself … the smart people part, of course, not the second (and when it has been used, it’s typically disguised in less elegant terms) … but the brilliance of some people is often more blinding than enlightening.

Fortune magazine once asked Dr. Mehmet Oz about the best leadership advice he had ever received.

Keep Smart People from Killing Each Other

As a Chief Resident associated with Columbia University, Dr. Oz’ mentor told him that the hardest part of being a leader was “keeping smart people from killing each other.”

He told him that he tried hard to find something in which each of his leaders could excel, so each could be the best at “something” … a much better strategy than having everyone trying to do the same thing “because it breeds discontent”.

When leaders fight for attention ….

You’ve probably seen many occasions when the “bright folks” are competing for attention …


talking louder,

bored when others speak,

listening to it all but hearing nothing,

… the symptoms aren’t all that subtle.

Yet, finding something in which each can excel, with a dash of a “divide and conquer” strategy, you may be able to optimize the value and contributions of each of them.

What about the A**holes in your organization?

Some turn out to be a**holes, too.

That’s why I also like Robert Sutton’s post including a simple diagram his students created to illustrate the right course of action to take when encountered by such folks. (You see the diagram at the top of this page.)

This decision tree can be used in many ways to sort out more than just the a%#-holes that have burrowed into your organization.

Substituting “Prima Donna” for “Certified Jerk” also works, assuming there’s any difference between the two.

“Lone Wolf”, “Pain in the A%#” and “BallBuster” are also legitimate substitutes.

Mollycoddling is deadly to everyone

I have referred to mollycoddling in leader/employee relationships in the past, and really need to devote an entire article to it.

Why? Because it is often at the heart of a leader/employee relationship that is not working … and not uncommon when a Certified Jerk is still hanging around.

Often, it continues ad nauseam because the leader won’t face the difficult decision to make the obvious and necessary change.

Be clear about your values & culture

These situations invariably result when a leader has a very muddled view of his or her priorities and goals.

The leader ignores tap dances around the cultural damage his mollycoddling brings as well as the message it sends to even the most casual observers who’ve seen this misfit relationship fester over the years.

Invariably, the leader is unclear about what’s really important in her organization, and fails to recognize that she may be the last one to realize it.

She compromises the value and culture of the organization by not being accountable for the dysfunction of the Certified Jerk relationship.

Instead, the leader is paralyzed by questions … 

“who’s going to replace them?” …

“they do a lot of things very well” …

“are we sure we can get along without them?”

… all while the organization is suffering from the tribulations of the Certified Jerk.

Make the tough decision and move on

In some ways, mollycoddling is the worst possible situation.

You have an employee that is dragging down the entire ship, poisoning the well along the way. The result is a culture that is eviscerated because everyone else sees it, too, and wonders about the capability of the leader who can’t make a decision that everyone else sees as long overdue.

Mollycoddling is an injustice to both parties … extending a relationship far longer than warranted.

friday click to tweet mollycoddling

It’s a recipe, leavened with a chicken stock of weak leadership, that’s created by ignoring, avoiding and overlooking a dysfunctional relationship that should have been terminated a long time ago.

Follow the simple diagram and stick to your guns.

The temporal pain will be far exceeded by the cultural gain and the unshackled enthusiasm of everyone else in your organization.

I have a question for you: what’s the most effective action you’ve ever taken to deal with a Certified Jerk in your organization? Be sure to visit our Facebook Page or @Exkalibur on Twitter to share your thoughts and comments.


, , , , , ,

We respect your email privacy

  • One might ask, why were the jerks hired in the first place? Surely they didn’t become jerks only after you hired them. I hear two common reasons:
    1. The person(s) who interviewed the jerk asked many questions about skills and experience, but few that would give insight about emotional intelligence.
    2. “We knew he would be a tough one to work with, but we really needed his skills.”

    Two comments about these:
    — Get help interviewing from a professional who knows how to draw out candidates
    — Put a plaque on your wall that says, “The cemeteries are full of absolutely indispensable people.”

  • Exkalibur

    Mike – you are right on all counts. My experience is that the all-star whose skills are desperately needed skates by for that reason when the cultural fit is obviously out of whack. That chicken will eventually come home to roost and the company will realize it was a mistake in the first place, but only after the damage is done. I’m a big believer in starting with cultural fit first because if that isn’t right, nothing else will be worth the trouble it creates throughout the organization.

  • Silence

    Great when I have power from the top down, no problem.
    I would like to improve my skills of dealing with it when a narcissistic masochistic Jerk somehow is the superior coming from the top or sideways.
    Old Greek saying “when a fish stinks it stinks from the head”.
    In agreement with Craig Kensek’s comments.

  • Exkalibur

    Silence – the old Greek saying is usually pretty true. If the leader is unwilling to cut the cord on the Certified Jerk, it falls on him or her. Unfortunately, the entire organization suffers.

  • Arnold denton

    Great article. Sure could use some advice on how to put together the 30 day plan and monitor it. I think it will take a lot more than 30 days to turn this type of personality around.