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Toxic Employees

Does Your Company Reward Competent Jerks?

People who achieve short-term results at the long-term expense of the organization can be devastating.
Does Your Company Reward Competent Jerks?
Image credit: Sjale | Getty Images
Guest Writer
CEO of management consulting firm DecisionWise
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Your “top" sales manager is knocking it out of the park when it comes to his quarterly sales figures, but leaves a wake of paid in his path getting there. Half of his team is either threatening to quit or actively interviewing down the street. 

Your technology superstar is getting clear results, but burns every bridge she crosses. It’s a good thing she’s not dealing with your end-users -- her's is not the face your company wants to put forward. But, you reason, “she’s sure good at what she does.”

While everyone in the company knows the damage these employees cause, the organization puts up with their behavior because they think they are getting results. But is this the performance you really want?

Related: When Do You Stop Protecting a Superstar?

The Competent Jerk

“We’re hitting our targets. I know his team can’t stand him, but he delivers!” That’s a familiar rationalization we hear often as we work with organizations. Yet they wonder why, despite these “stellar performers,” overall performance is lagging.

We call these results-at-any-cost employees “competent jerks.” They get operational results and hit the metrics they are expected to hit, but they may be taking down the organization in the process. They produce results -- at least that’s what the dashboard metrics show -- while simultaneously generating a path of destruction. They destroy morale, disengage teams, derail the efforts of others and may ultimately destroy an organization. They are cancerous, as this type of behavior rarely remains contained. Their impact spreads throughout the organization. Yet, they’re your “top performers.”

So, what’s the problem if they’re hitting the numbers? For starters, these individuals often maximize their own results at the expense of others. They are focused on operational metrics, but forget that results cannot always be immediately quantified in terms of sales dollars, defective parts per million and customer satisfaction scores. Are operational measures important? Absolutely. Are they complete? Not by a long shot.

The long-term impact of these individuals can be devastating to an organization, especially if they are expected to lead others. Unfortunately, many have risen through the ranks because of their ability to hit performance targets and metrics. Their behavior is reinforced with each promotion, annual evaluation or additional assignment.

As our team works with hundreds of organizations in conducting 360-degree feedback assessments, we see this pattern over and over again. While the competent jerk’s performance evaluation shows stellar results, the 360 shows that the behaviors displayed in order to get there are clearly identified by others as inappropriate and damaging. Although his or her immediate operational results are maximized, they are achieved at the expense of morale and team engagement, employee retention, the customer experience, and overall long-term effectiveness (yes… even operational effectiveness).

Related: Study: Dodging a Toxic Hire Is Better for Business Than Onboarding a Superstar

Working with the competent jerk.

Competent jerks meet two qualifiers: They hit or exceed their operation numbers or expectations (what gets done), but they are hard to work with (how it gets done).

Competent jerks often know they are jerks, but feel it is the only way to achieve success. Some are even proud of the fact. Even more prevalent, however, is the organization that not only enables the behavior, it encourages and rewards it. After all, it is hard to argue with the excellent results that they achieve.

There are several ways to deal with these jerks, and they begin with the organization itself:

1. Expand what you measure.

The company must understand that performance is more than immediate operational results, and hold their employees accountable for how an employee gets results.

The way in which an individual goes about achieving results (the “how”) is as important as what results are achieved (the “what”). Of course, achieving short-term results is a must. However, those who achieve short-term results at the long-term expense of the organization can be devastating. For many companies, this means a shift in thinking, accountability, expectations, measurement and reward systems. It also means taking a step back, understanding true, complete performance and clarifying performance expectations (hint: this includes both the “what” and the “how”).

2. They need to know they are a problem.

Competent jerks must be made aware of the effect of their behavior on others. Evaluation of overall performance should include a behavioral component, in addition to operational metrics. This feedback should be an important part of a manager’s performance evaluation, as well as day-to-day feedback. Using an instrument such as a 360-degree feedback assessment can also help provide the wake-up call needed to promote change. The fallout from a manager who is a competent jerk often includes disengagement of the team. The manager should understand the level of employee engagement on his or her team, and should be accountable for creating an effective employee experience.

3. Help them be jerks... outside your organization.

Coaching provided by this person’s manager or an outside coach is often the key to turning the manager around. That said, some simply can’t (or don’t want to) make the change. In that case, your best bet is to help move the jerk on. While it may be tempting to justify the employee’s behavior with their short-term results, keep in mind that the long-term impact may be damaging to the jerk, the jerk’s team members and the success of the organization. It’s better to make the tough call now and keep the jerk from devastating your organization long-term.

These types of individuals can and do change with the proper support. They must want to change, understand exactly what needs to change, develop an action plan to make it happen and receive on-going support and follow-through.

Just as important to changing the individual is changing the organization. After all, it takes courage to say, “competent jerks aren’t welcome here!”

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