When Smart People are Bad Employees

And I always find, yeah, I always find somethin' wrong
You been puttin' up with my sh#t just way too long
I'm so gifted at findin' what I don't like the most
So I think it's time for us to have a toast

Let's have a toast for the douchebags,
Let's have a toast for the a@%holes,
Let's have a toast for the scumbags,
Every one of them that I know
Let's have a toast for the jerkoffs
That'll never take work off
Baby, I got a plan
Run away fast as you can
—Kanye West, Runaway

Kanye West - Runaway | Listen for free at bop.fm

In hi-tech, intelligence is always a critical element in any employee, because what we do is difficult and complex and the competitors are filled with extremely smart people. However, intelligence is not the only important quality. Being effective in a company also means working hard, being reliable, and being an excellent member of the team.

When I was a CEO, this was one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn. I felt that it was my job to create an environment where brilliant people of all backgrounds, personality types, and work styles would thrive. And I was right. That was my job. Companies where people with diverse backgrounds and work-styles can succeed have significant advantages in recruiting and retaining top talent over those that don’t. Still, you can take it too far. And I did.

Here are three examples of the smartest people in the company being the worst employees.

Example 1: The Heretic

Any sizable company produces some number of strategies, projects, processes, promotions, and other activities that don’t make sense. No large organization achieves perfection. As a result, a company needs lots of smart, super engaged employees who can identify its particular weaknesses and help it improve them.

However, sometimes really smart employees develop agendas other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses, so that he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons. The smarter the employee, the more destructive this type of behavior can be. Simply put, it takes a really smart person to be maximally destructive, because otherwise nobody else will listen to him.

Why would a smart person try to destroy the company that he works for? There are actually many reasons. Here are few:

  1. He is disempowered—She feels that she cannot access the people in charge and, as a result, complaining is her only vehicle to get the truth out.

  2. He is fundamentally a rebel—She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employees.

  3. He is immature and naïve—She cannot comprehend that the people running the company do not know every minute detail of the operation and therefore they are complicit in everything that’s broken.

Often, it’s very difficult to turn these kinds of cases around. Once an employee takes a public stance, the social pressure for him to be consistent is enormous. If he tells 50 of his closest friends that the CEO is the stupidest person on the planet, then reversing that position will cost him a great amount of credibility the next time he complains. Most people are not willing to take the credibility hit.

Example 2: The Flake

Some brilliant people can be totally unreliable. At Opsware, we once hired an unequivocal genius—I’ll call him Roger (not his real name). Roger was an engineer in an area of the product where a typical new hire would take 3 months to become fully productive. Roger came fully up to speed in two days. On his third day, we gave him a project that was scheduled to take one month. Roger completed the project in 3 days with nearly flawless quality. More specifically, he completed the project in 72 hours. 72 non-stop hours: No stops, no sleep, no nothing but coding. In his first quarter on the job, he was the best employee that we had and we immediately promoted him.

Then Roger changed. He would miss days of work without calling in. Then he would miss weeks of work. When he finally showed up, he apologized profusely, but the behavior didn’t stop. His work product also degraded. He became sloppy and unfocused. I could not understand how such a stellar employee could go so haywire. His manager wanted to fire him, because the team could no longer count on Roger for anything. I resisted. I knew that the genius was still in him and I wanted us to find it. We never did. It turns out that Roger was bi-polar and had two significant drug problems: 1. He did not like taking his bi-polar medication and 2. He was addicted to cocaine. Ultimately, we had to fire Roger, but even now, it pains me to think about what might have been.

One need not be bi-polar to be a flake, but flakey behavior often has a seriously problematic root cause. Causes range from self-destructive streaks to drug habits to moonlighting for other employers. A company is a team effort and, no matter how high an employee’s potential, you cannot get value from him unless he does his work in a manner in which he can be relied upon.

Example 3: The Jerk

This particular smart-bad-employee type can occur anywhere in the organization, but is most destructive at the executive level. Most executives can be pricks, dicks, a-holes or a variety of other profane adjectives at times. Being dramatically impolite can be used to improve clarity or emphasize an important lesson. That’s not the behavior that I am talking about.

When used consistently, asinine behavior can be crippling. As a company grows, its biggest challenge always becomes communication. Keeping a huge number of people on the same page executing the same goals is never easy. If a member of your staff is a raging jerk, it may be impossible. Some people are so belligerent in their communication style that people just stop talking when they are in the room. If every time anyone brings up an issue with the marketing organization, the VP of marketing jumps down their throat, then guess what topic will never come up? This behavior can become so bad that nobody brings up any topic when the jerk is in the room. As a result, communication across the executive staff breaks down and the entire company slowly degenerates. Note that this only happens if the jerk in question is unquestionably brilliant. Otherwise, nobody will care when she attacks them. The bite only has impact if it comes from a big dog. If one of your big dogs destroys communication on your staff, you need to send her to the pound.

When do you hold the bus?

The great football coach John Madden was once asked whether or not he would tolerate a player like Terrell Owens on his team. Owens was both one of the most talented players in the game and one of the biggest jerks. Madden answered:

“If you hold the bus for everyone on the team, then you’ll be so late that you’ll miss the game, so you can’t do that. The bus must leave on time. However, sometimes you’ll have a player that’s so good that you hold the bus for him, but only him.”

Phil Jackson, the basketball coach who has won the most NBA championships, was once asked about his famously flakey superstar Dennis Rodman: “Since Dennis Rodman is allowed to miss practice, does this mean other star players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen can miss practice too?” Jackson replied:

“Of course not. There is only room for one Dennis Rodman on this team. In fact, you really can only have a very few Dennis Rodmans in society as a whole; otherwise, we would degenerate into anarchy.”

You may find yourself with an employee who fits one of the above descriptions, but nonetheless makes a massive positive contribution to the company. You may decide that you will personally mitigate the employee’s negative attributes and keep them from polluting the overall company culture. That’s fine, but remember: you can only hold the bus for her.

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