how to manage a brilliant jerk

Sooner or later in your career, you’re going to have a difficult team member – a person whose skills are great but who no one wants to work with because he or she is abrasive, unpleasant, and negative. As a manager, how can you manage the “brilliant jerk” to ensure that they don’t alienate and drive away other good people on your team?

1. View the issues through the lens of performance. Sometimes managers shy away from addressing soft skills or behavioral issues because they figure the issues aren’t about the person’s performance or work product. But if your difficult employee is chronically alienating coworkers, infusing your culture with negativity, or making it hard for you to give feedback on her work, that’s about performance and it’s legitimate to bring up.

In other words, view soft skills, like getting along with others, as being as much a part of what you need from the person in the role as hard skills are.

2. Give the staff member clear and explicit feedback about the behavior that’s concerning you. Share specifics about what the person is doing, what the impact of the behavior is on the team (and/or the person’s reputation), and what you need to see instead. For example, you might say: “When people ask you for help, you seem frustrated with them, which is causing people to stop coming to you for help. When Jane asked you for language for the website this morning, you rolled your eyes and told her you’d send her something if you could find time. This role requires you to have good relationships with colleagues, I want people to walk away from their interactions with you understanding that you’re eager to be helpful. If people are afraid to approach you, you won’t be able to serve as a resource to them in the way we need you to.”

Or you might explain, “I need someone in this role who can maintain good relationships with other departments” (or “who makes colleagues feel their inquiries are welcome” or “who handles stressful situations calmly” or whatever the issue might be). In other words, define the soft skills you need as part of the role, and communicate about that need the same way that you’d address a skills deficiency.

3. From there, continue to address these issues the same way that you would address any other behavior that you asked a staff member to change. That means that if you see an improvement, you should recognize it with positive feedback (“I really appreciate how open you were to hearing Jane’s thoughts on this”). But if you don’t see the improvement you need, you should address it in a progressively more serious manner (“We talked recently about how I need you to be open to hearing feedback about your work, but you’ve continued to seem resistant and adversarial when hearing others’ input”).

4. Be willing to replace the person if they don’t respond to coaching. Ultimately, people who can’t get along with others probably shouldn’t have a place on your team, if they don’t respond to feedback and coaching, and especially if they don’t acknowledge the need to change. If you keep them on because they do good work, you’re likely to lose other good employees and end up with a frustrated, demoralized, and disengaged team that won’t appreciate the disruption in their midst. If someone is truly a jerk, you may need to show them the door.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog.

{ 112 comments… read them below }

    1. Artemesia*

      Good luck on that — tenure is a valuable thing as it protects people from politically motivated witch hunts, but it insolate jerks and layabouts quite effectively as well.

    2. voluptuousfire*

      I worked in test prep and occasionally we would run into potential instructors who were very much the brilliant jerks. Nine times out of ten, they didn’t get the job.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      There was a doctor at the local hospital that wildly needed a personality transplant. Nurses would see him coming down the hall and hide in supply closets or restrooms. The man was not capable of uttering a sentence without being obnoxious.

      I say, if people cannot listen to what you are saying then you are pretty much ineffective at your job.

      There was another doctor that had a rep for being okay if he liked you. But if he disliked you then forget it. He walked in on one dying patient who was suffering. She mentioned her issues. He said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re going to be dead with in 24-48 hours anyway.” He walked out of the room. The woman had no idea she was that close to death- so clearly, he had not explained what to expect very well.

        1. Jaydee*

          Prestige. Money. Or he overheard his parents haranguing his older sister about her decision not to become a therapist after completing her MA in psychology and to work in marketing instead, so he decided he had better become a doctor to avoid a similar fate.

    4. AcademiaNut*

      For academia, the best solution is to not hire them in the first place, because once someone has got tenure, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them, or have influence over them. If you’re interviewing candidates for a tenure track or staff position, and their publication list is great, but they show evidence of being a jerk, or aggressively arrogant, or really abrasive, or clueless of basic social interaction techniques, then go on to the next candidate.

      My field is highly collaborative, and I do think that hiring committees in general have become less tolerant of jerks over the past couple of decades, unless they are genuinely top of the field brilliant. I’ve seen more than one candidate with an excellent publication record be passed over for jobs because of their poor soft skills.

      The only cases I’ve seen where action has been taken against tenured faculty is for things like sexual misconduct, or falsifying data. If they’re tenured and not productive, then they tend not to get students or research funding, but if they are a top researcher, even the sexual misconduct may well be ignored.

  1. Cajun2core*

    This is an excellent article and makes a ton of sense. However, this can be very difficult to do when the person is a tenured faculty member and brings in thousands of dollars of grant money ever year.

    1. SelenaAcademia*

      As a department chair in academia, I deal with this on a regular basis (and am dealing with it right now.) I read AAM regularly and find it extremely valuable, but as a department chair, I have no “teeth.” I can’t impose consequences on tenured faculty members (or indeed untenured ones, not really) and can’t offer them incentives, either. I can make suggestions, offer guidance or vision, and can ask the dean to intervene if absolutely necessary, but if one of the members of my department is seriously dug into bad behavior, there’s frustratingly little I can do. Sigh.

      1. Artemesia*

        If there bad behavior involves lack of scholarly productivity you can sometimes increase their teaching load; tenure doesn’t guarantee the cushy teaching loads designed for productive scholars.

      2. Wanna-Alp*

        There are more and less attractive administrative/service jobs…

        Ugh, that doesn’t look explanatory. Try again. The sorts of service/admin jobs that academics do around the dept, for example organising of student projects, student work experience, chairing committees, doing certain academic audit work: these vary considerably in how much time/satisfaction they bring. Also there are nicer/nastier marking piles. There is also shedding a more public light on certain bad behaviors that otherwise would be fairly hidden.

  2. Not Going to Say*

    I wish this article how been titled “How to Manage your Boss when She/He is a Brilliant Jerk” because that is really the information I need today.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Annnddd… “how to know if your coworkers think you are a jerk and why you should care”.

  3. Kyrielle*

    Yep. Also, if you are keeping them on because you can’t afford to lose them, you need to fix that. Not just so you can get rid of them if you must, but because you can’t afford to be in that position with regards to anyone. What if they get hit by a bus? What if they pay Alison to review their resume and get a new job? Their coworkers may be relieved or they may not, but you’ll need a game plan.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Agreed. No one should be irreplaceable, not only because of the problems it would cause if you suddenly lost them for any reason, but also for the last reason in this article. You need to be able to replace them if they are causing problems.

    2. Clever Name*


      That last point in the article is so key. So many managers are blinded by the jerk’s “brilliance” that they overlook how they are pulling down the team overall. I’ve seen situations where the brilliant jerk is the favored golden child and can do no wrong in the manger’s eyes. People have left because of the jerk and those teams are no longer teams and it’s just the manager and the golden child, and the manager is now wondering how they are going to finish their project with nobody left to do the work. Don’t be that manager.

      1. Unconvinced*

        John figured out how to manage Rodney pretty well. Weir wasn’t too bad, in the end. But Caldwell and Woolsey never quite figured it out.

    1. Matt*

      I immediately thought of Sheldon Cooper, but after reading the comment about the doctor telling his patient she’ll be dead within 48 hours of course House came to mind too ;)

  4. Brett*

    Anyone else find that “brilliant jerks” also have tendency to become poison pills who set themselves up in situations where getting rid of them will be excessively damaging and costly?

    1. Ama*

      Yes, but I’ve also seen more than one brilliant jerk whose downfall was ultimately that they pursued a project that was an absolute disaster for their employer — and since they’d isolated themselves as the only person who could run said project they couldn’t avoid taking the blame.

  5. AnonAcademic*

    Oh man, I could write a book on this, I’ve worked with many of these in academia. For me the key distinction is whether they are acting like a jerk due to lack of social skills/low EQ, versus acting that way due to an active disdain for others. If someone is actually mean spirited I avoid them at all costs, but if they are just really dense socially there are almost always work arounds.

    I had one mentor who didn’t realize that when he gets excited about a topic, his vocal volume raises until he is yelling which makes him sound angry. When really he is just revved up, often in a positive way. He 100% was not aware that 1. he did this or that 2. other people found it offputting, but he was open to feedback and his lab members essentially trained him to stop doing it.

    1. Sascha*

      There’s a professor at my university who is basically on a black list – he is so mean to everyone that he has been banned from calling several departments for assistance with things, mine included. If he needs something, he has to go through managers – he’s not allowed to talk to support staff because he is impatient, rude, and calls people horrible things and swears at them. But he’s kept around because he gets internships for students at high profile companies.

      I can definitely handle low EQ – often those people are very open to feedback. But true jerks, there’s just not a lot you can do.

      1. Anx*

        As I was reading this, I was thinking…”Ugh, can’t you just make room for new blood at this point? Is anyone really that great a researcher or teacher that they’re worth the trouble?” and then I got to the internship part.

      2. afiendishthingy*

        That really sucks because while it’s great the support staff don’t have to deal with him, to him it probably seems like things are as they should be – rather than wasting his time on lowly Support Staff, he gets to deal directly with people In Charge. As befits one of the greatest minds of his generation.

        1. Chalupa Batman*

          So true. We had faculty that were so persistently nasty at OldJob that my boss (a student affairs department head) always handled their requests. However, there were three of us and one boss, and Boss was insanely busy-one of the reasons I left was that Boss was so overextended that it made the department a dreadful and ineffective place to work-so faculty requests often went to the bottom of the pile. That meant that if faculty contacted one of us, they’d get an answer in a day or two tops, but if they contacted Boss, they *might* get an answer before the problem became irrelevant. Some of the difficult ones adulted up and adjusted their attitudes, at least to our faces, but I was surprised at how many refused to admit that their Issues could be resolved by anyone lower than Boss (rarely the case), even to their detriment.

          1. Chalupa Batman*

            Clarification: it was “rarely the case” that only Boss could resolve the issue. In fact, for certain techie things, Boss was clueless and would send the question back to me.

      3. ineloquent*

        I think I want to implement this for the truely unprofessional gentleman who, after months of not getting my department the information we needed to process his work, berated us to our senior management for delaying his project and informed us that we ‘needed adult supervision’.

    2. the gold digger*

      So was my father in law socially inept or just mean when he told my smart, sweet, hard-working niece who was considering majoring in elementary education that teaching elementary school would mean she was wasting her potential? Because we sure don’t need good elementary school teachers.

      I am going with mean, probably because he told her when she was ten that she was getting fat and needed to watch out because both of her parents were grossly obese.
      1. It wasn’t true – she was not fat then and is not fat now
      2. Even if she were fat, who says that to a little girl?

      1. Anx*

        I really wish there wasn’t so much stigma about wasting potential by going into teaching.

        As a former very bright student, I was guided away from teaching early on. And now most of my jobs have been related to education. I wish I had considered it earlier.

        1. Artemesia*

          I taught high school in the 60s and my colleagues were among the brightest most stimulating people I have ever worked with; lots of really sharp people, men and women, went into education. I have worked on college faculties with very bright people, but they weren’t brighter or more interesting than the teachers I knew back then. But I have also worked with public school teachers in more recent years and while there are some stars, I think the overall quality is lower partly because bright people are discouraged by others and by the pay and because women now have more options. The schools used to be buoyed by all those brilliant women who were discriminated against in business and the professions. When I graduated from high school this discrimination was open and legal and even after it become illegal, it was still the norm.

          1. BeenThere*

            This. I was coming here to point out that in a certain era the brightest women were restricted to teaching positions as they couldn’t access other careers.

            IMHO teachers should be paid so much more than they are.

        2. zora*

          My mom is an elementary school teacher and she’s amazing. The reason I didn’t go into it is actually the opposite, I think it is really difficult and I don’t think I would be able to hang.

          1. Artemesia*

            The 4 years I taught high school for barely subsistence pay were the four toughest years of my 45 year work life. You are ‘on’ all day and that means every evening and every weekend is spend planning for class and grading papers and such. Teachers aren’t paid nearly enough.

        3. Jaydee*

          I wish there wasn’t so much stigma about “wasting your potential” in general. Just because a person theoretically *could* do something doesn’t mean they have any desire to do it. And no one “owes” the world any particular use of their time, energy, or talents.

      2. Case of the Mondays*

        I think it is a very real concern though to make sure young girls don’t feel like they have to go into “pink” professions. If you want to be a teacher, nurse or secretary, great. If you want to do it because you don’t think you could be principal, doctor or lawyer that’s a different issue.

        1. Jaydee*

          I think the flip side of that is true as well. We shouldn’t push girls into STEM fields or professional fields if they aren’t interested in them just because we “need more women” in those fields. And we shouldn’t (whether purposely or not) perpetuate the perception of “pink” careers as “less than” by perpetuating the perception of traditionally male-dominated careers as “better.” Doing so doesnt really help either women or men. Everyone should be encouraged to find a career that is a good fit for them based on their interests, skills, and lifestyle rather than their gender.

      3. CMT*

        That’s such a, I don’t know, weird, response to AnonAcademic’s comment. He or she is saying that there are, in fact, two different types of jerks. I don’t know why you’re trying to argue.

      4. Oui*

        He’s right though, but it’s not teaching that’s the problem, it’s our country. We can talk up teaching all we want, but until things change, we’re throwing talented young people into a meat grinder of low pay, low respect and insane amounts of scrutiny (look up any case of teachers being fired for putting innocuous photos on Facebook). I will advocate for my positions on education (improved teacher pay, more school level control of curriculum, etc.) til the cows come home, but until I see things in in this country changing (they aren’t), I would actively discourage any loved one I know from becoming a teacher.

        There’s no justification for his other comments though, he’s a jerk.

  6. Allison*

    I’ll add to that: as with any issue, address the situation early – as early as you can! And if you’re addressing the issue late in the game, acknowledge that and prepared to explain why you’ve been quiet about it for so long. They’re going to wonder why you’ve said nothing about the behavior for this long, and suddenly act like it’s an issue, and it may seem unfair, like they’ve been allowed to act that way for a while and now all of a sudden they’re on thin ice and they need to turn things around right away! They’re gonna wonder, “what changed?” The longer a habit’s been allowed to continue, the harder it’s going to be to change, and you need to be realistic about that if you give them a time frame for improvement.

    1. AnotherFed*

      Exactly, and if they can’t figure out what changed, then they are going to assume the stated reason you’re reprimanding them isn’t really why you’re reprimanding them. It won’t be their fault, it will be that the manager feels threatened by them, or they are misunderstood, or even that the manager is discriminating against them because of age/race/gender/other protected class.

  7. Been there*

    There are many ways for a person to be a jerk. The main common denominator seems to be not seeing things from another person’s point of view.

    I also think that delicate flowers who can’t handle disagreement, feedback, or discussion are also jerks. For some people it doesn’t matter what the tone of voice or approach, they don’t respond to constructive comment in a constructive way. For someone under me, I repeat “this isn’t about you as a person it’s about how xyz appears to John & Jane Doe.” Or, “Our customers aren’t stupid or uncooperative. We need to change the way we do things to make life easier for them.” For my boss… relentless negativity and pettiness really wears me down. Even if it’s said with a smile and a calm voice, it’s still destructive. It quelches optimism and innovation. If I get a dressing-down for leaving the period off the end of a sentence, how many documents am I going to write? Only as many as I absolutely have to.

    1. jmkenrick*

      There was a thread here a few weeks ago where the OP was describing not being able to bring something up because the other person was “sensitive” and bound to be upset. They were walking on eggshells.

      I wish I could remember which commenter said it, but someone sagely pointed out that those people are sensitive, they’re selfish. If they were truly sensitive, they would be aware of how they came off and would care about other people’s feelings. Instead, by blowing up and getting emotional, they’re (intentionally or not) manipulating people into accommodating them.

  8. louise*

    I have one I have to deal with in a volunteer position. She’s the leader of the volunteer group, unfortunately yet I love and support the group’s mission so much that I can’t just not participate. The one who has the power to replace her happens to be a jerk whisperer so he just smooths things over.

    Just a few days ago, we all found out our brilliant jerk has a terminal illness. The jerk whisperer went to the dr with her and verified it’s a very grim prognosis, not much time left. It’s hard to know how to support someone who is such a porcupine. We’ve all grown so accustomed to making it work, that I’m not sure what we’ll do now that we must replace her.

  9. DatSci*

    I have to say that I don’t agree that this advice would work in many situations. Most of the people in my field (and I will include myself in this) do act like brilliant jerks. Due to the nature of the job market for our field, it is practically impossible to replace us easily. There are just many, many, many more openings than there are qualified candidates. Also, it is such a small universe of people who are great at this, that we all know each other and do talk about employers amongst ourselves when considering moving to a new position. This situation has resulted in our ability to remain/grow in our positions despite the typical consequences applied to employees in more commonly found fields for this behavior.

    It’s easy to find a new/better job at any time, so even if an employer were to follow AAM’s advice and actually replace people in this role (for any reason), they’d be spending an incredible amount of time and money to do so, while any one of us will be on to the next job immediately. Most companies have concluded it is just not worth it outside of truly egregious behavior (sexual harassment, stealing, etc.).

    What I would advise for managing a brilliant jerk seems counter intuitive. Every time I’ve seen this done well I find it astonishing, I know what is happening and I don’t even care. When approached as the authority, with respect and reverence the brilliant jerk will back off. They’ll see you as someone who recognizes their brilliance and will attribute that to your own intellect. It is easy to want to put jerky people in their place, and I agree it sounds distasteful to do the opposite, however, it will get the best results at the lowest expenditure of time/money/sanity.

    1. Jake*

      As a coworker I’ve found that to be an affective approach, but never as a manager. Whenever I’ve seen a manager try this the jerk just runs wild, becoming even more of a jerk.

      1. DatSci*

        I haven’t seen that behavior pattern myself, but it’s a possibility so I’ll keep an eye out for it from now on. I’ve found the best thing a manager can do is coach the staff who works with the jerk to respond & interact with them in the way I’ve mentioned above. It helps give the other staff members tools to use, rather than just getting upset/offended/frustrated.

        1. PlainJane*

          That’s a good way to lose–or at least disengage–the rest of your staff. Those of us who know how to treat others expect that those who don’t will be held accountable – not that we’ll be asked to kiss their you-know-whats in order to keep their tempers in check. I highly recommend Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule. He articulates far better than I can why these people aren’t worth keeping around, no matter how good they are.

          1. DatSci*

            If the rest of the staff is competent, they won’t view this approach as “you know what” kissing. It will simply been part of how they work with that colleague – an approach that works to achieve their end goals. I can understand that some people expect that certain behavioral expectations are universal across all positions, but that just isn’t how things work in reality.

    2. HM in Atlanta*

      Only if you allow it to be a problem. If you are working with a field that draws these kinds of jerks, the business has to organize the work so that the need for jerks is minimized. It’s often worth more in real dollars to have more, less-skilled staff in an area that you have to upskill or to buy the skill from a third-party than to have these poison pills in the organization.

      I speak as someone with a team of people in a field where there are thousands of jobs to every 1 potential candidate; I don’t put up with the jerks. That means that the people who aren’t jerks in that field flock here.

      1. DatSci*

        Not at all, that is basically a (condescending) gross misinterpretation of what I’ve written.

        1. Blurgle*

          I think it’s perfect.

          These people are not best described as jerks: they’re really abusers. Your suggestion amounts to appeasing abusers and facilitating abuse.

          Many organizations do this, probably because it does work for a time. A there comes a day, though, when it stops working, and the repercussions can be destructive enough so as to destroy any benefit hiring the jerk created.

  10. Jake*

    Brilliant might be a stretch, but I can definitely be a “competent jerk” when a job turns sour.

    When I gor that way it was caused by 3 things,

    1. I’m a blunt individual that needs to learn some tact. As such I say things far more aggressively than I mean to. I’m working on improving this by paying attention to body language, tone of voice and phrasing before saying anything.

    2. I feel that coworkers and/or managers are not being held accountable for their lack of performance.

    3. I feel overworked either in general or because I’m picking up the pieces from number 2 70 hours a week.

    Overall, it takes several months of all three of these for me to go “jerk mode” but once I’ve made that turn, the only way to bring me back to normal would be to follow AAM’s last piece of advice. For some, once we’ve reached this point, there is no going back. However, I do think this article is great advice for managing people that are just always jerks.

    1. AE*

      The most competent people think that what they do is easier than it is. The least competent people think that they are more competent than they are (Dunning-Krueger effect). The people around you may not be incompetent but merely satisfactorily competent, which looks incompetent to you.

        1. afiendishthingy*

          This article inspired a lovely little ctrl-click Wikipedia spree for me, so thanks :)

      1. Jake*

        While I agree with you, there are limits to this. Alison always writes about making sure your employees are awesome and that many managers don’t set the bar high enough.

        I’m not asking for a superstar performance here. Don’t sleep during work, submit paperwork when you say you will, don’t just dump the unsavory parts of your job on somebody whose role make it literally illegal to do those tasks, follow federal contracting law, etc. I’m not asking for anything ridiculous, and I can verify that by having been a part of teams where none of those things were an issue.

        If I encountered this at every job, then I’d have to look in the mirror, but when this only happens less than half of the time I don’t think it’s unreasonable to blame incompetence (in addition to my natural bluntness that I make a concerted effort to improve).

    2. Ad Astra*

      Ok but, like, it’s not anyone else’s responsibility to make you not be a jerk. The fact that you not get fired for being a jerk doesn’t mean it’s ok to be a jerk. The rest of us find a way to treat people with basic respect and kindness, and so can you.

        1. Jake*

          That entirely depends on how “jerky” we are talking. Bigotry, racism, screaming, yelling, etc.? Then I agree.

          Giving short answers, bluntly calling out underperforming workers, not socializing at work, etc.? Then I disagree. If you want me to not do those things, then run the office decently and I won’t, or fire me and I won’t. One option is not to run me into the ground, allow others to not do their jobs and still have me be a bundle of joy.

          1. AcademiaNut*

            This reminds me of a former coworker. Decent guy (and a personal friend), good at his job, but not great at the little social niceties. When you talked to him, you got a stream of complaints about the incompetence and idiocy of other employees. It was never his fault when someone got insulted because he publicly called them stupid and incompetent for a decision he disagreed with, or when he got mad and yelled at people. His view was that if other people just did what he wanted them to, he wouldn’t have to be a jerk. He was the victim.

            The thing was, all of this was from his own very narrow view of the situation. He was incapable of looking at the larger picture, or understand other points of view, or how policies affected other people. If he didn’t like something, the other person was obviously incompetent. And he was pretty easily annoyed.

            Ultimately, it did cost him a chance at a permanent job. His job performance was fine, but he wasn’t enough of a superstar that people were willing to put up with the attitude problems.

            tldr; In many situations, being able to behave in a non-jerk like way when you’re irritated and overworked is significantly more important than being nice when everything is going well.

            1. Afiendishingy*

              Yes! Everyone has to deal with annoying and stressful situations and people. Not everyone deals with it by treating their coworkers rudely.

      1. DatSci*

        The issue with this argument is that it rests on the assumption that the behaviors attributed to respect and kindness are universal. They are not, some (like myself) find incompetence, slowness and over-sensitivity to be disrespectful and waste of time. It is important not to project your biases onto others, it results in misguided expectations and incorrect conclusions.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          This. I’ve been called a jerk for refusing to help someone after I explained everything, gave them my checklists, and even created special procedures for them. They wanted me to do their job for them and my boundaries were seen as jerkiness.

  11. Engineer Girl*

    I’m disappointed in the article because it is missing a key component. The manager never sits down with the “jerk” to find out about the behaviors and find out the “why”. This is critical in finding out if the jerk is a mean person, or a frustrated person, or merely low on the EQ. The “why” is critical to solving the issue. Someone on the spectrum will only be frustrated by a directive of “stop being so blunt” because they can’t see it.
    A jerk could be a jerk for the following:
    * They are continuously being interrupted by less competent team members to the point where they can’t do their own job. Managers need to find out if others aren’t performing. Perhaps give the expert office hours where others can interrupt. Also give the person do-not-disturb hours.
    * The other team members may not have the competency to see real problems that the negative person is seeing. Management needs to listen to why someone is negative. Ask for specifics and see if they can be fixed.
    * The jerk is expected to hold up the non-performance of the rest of the team. Resentment follows. Management needs to manage non-performers instead of shoving the problem on to the shoulders of high performers.
    * The person could be on the spectrum and truly blind in some social interaction areas. Coaching is good, as well as some classes.
    * Is there gender bias involved? Are people complaining about behaviors in a woman that are OK with a man?
    * Just because the whole team is complaining doesn’t mean it is one person’s fault. I’ve been on a team where I’ve been the only competent person (this only happened once in my career). I was not being unreasonable for holding others to the standard norms. Management was being unreasonable for holding me accountable to their bad hiring decisions and forcing me to compensate for it. Hey, I’m a good engineer but not THAT good.
    In short, the “why” question is critical. Without it you may lose a great performing employee and end up with a mediocre team.

    1. VictoriaHR*

      Thank you, from a person on the spectrum. I was only diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 39, and I had many, many hard times at workplaces and, as a result, became a job-hopper because I couldn’t seem to get along with people. If managers had been more open to helping me figure out WHY (and thus leading me to get a diagnosis sooner), my career would have gone much differently.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        Yes. I had one manager accuse me of being willfully obtuse when in fact I really couldn’t see the problem. It didn’t help that the offended person got offended with all of the senior tech women (didn’t find out about that until a year later when we compared notes). I think it was a combo of Asperger’s bluntness colliding with gender bias. There are a lot of Aspies in Aero.
        Unfortunately, most managers are extroverts. What a collision!

      2. AE*

        As a manager, I wouldn’t presume to try to diagnose someone. Even if I have my private thoughts, all I can do is provide feedback and be a role model. If things are outrageously bad, then I can send my report to Employee Assistance. Even if someone knows why they have difficulties, it’s no guarantee they will do what they need to accommodate themselves — yes, I said it’s up to them to do what they can. Until HR & the doctor order me to make a specific change in the workplace, there is a limit to what I can do for someone with a diagnosable disorder.

    2. AE*

      * Is there gender bias involved? Are people complaining about behaviors in a woman that are OK with a man?

      Bingo! I have been in a situation where I had to be more outspoken, more stubborn, and more jerkish just to be heard because the boss paid more attention to the men on the team than to the women. I used to bring up an idea in a meeting, be ignored, and then hear a Man bring up the same idea and be praised. It was infuriating. Fortunately, I no longer work there but the effect lingers on.

    3. Jake*

      I’ve been there. I worked 3 positions and 70 hours a week while a coworker was asleep several hours a day and my manager got increasingly frustrated with my attitude instead of trying to solve the problem of being under staffed and underperforming employees.

      Sure I turned into a jerk.

    4. anonForTodayOnly*

      What are some coping strategies a jerk could use to handle frustrating situations like the above?

      1. Engineer Girl*

        They need to bring it to attention to management. They need to draw boundaries. And they need to leave if things aren’t addressed.

        1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

          Well, theoretically, yes. But I’ve worked places where all of Jake’s three situations for becoming a jerk were in play for me, and the first two of Engineer Girl’s suggestions repeatedly fell flat despite best efforts.

          Sometimes it’s hard out there for a jerk.

    5. jmkenrick*

      I completely agree with this. Hopefully this conversation would be a part of addressing an overall issue (after all, certain behaviors can be unacceptable even if the reason behind them is understandable).

      But I think you hit the nail on the head. When it comes to creating a solid culture, and especially when it comes to making long-term positive changes, we need to understand the reason behind the issue itself. Coaching someone who just doesn’t understand some social norms is helpful. Coaching someone who is just increasingly resentful because of an incompetent manager is…misdirected at best.

    6. SanguineAspect*

      You bring up some very good points. I worked with someone once who came across as blunt, unapproachable, and forceful. As a team lead, he was so matter-of-fact and aggressive in his opinions that he basically shut down his very brilliant (but very non-confrontational) fellow developers. The other really brilliant people on the team were afraid to bring ideas to the table for fear of being constantly shot down, and project managers hated working with him and being saddled with a low-performing team. After going through my other 3 coworkers, I was called in to try and help. When I sat down to talk with him about how his actions were hampering the team, he TOTALLY didn’t know that he was coming across in the way that he was. It took quite a long time for him to work on it, but with time and feedback, it improved a great deal. It was SO AMAZING to watch a dysfunctional team become a fully-realized, collaborative unit. It was a pretty painful process, but ultimately, worth it.

        1. Windchime*

          Sometimes it doesn’t help to have backbone. I worked with a brilliant jerk on a team where management basically left us to our own devices. Jerk decided to step in and be the leader. The tough thing was that he was about 50% brilliant, funny guy and 50% insufferable asshole. And I liked the brilliant, funny part but couldn’t live with the asshole part. Many of us on the team went to management and they simply Did Not Care. They thought Jerk was irreplaceable. The team fell apart and now most of us, including Jerk, are working in other places. He is probably still making people miserable, but I’m happy because now I work at a place where managers actually manage and Jerks are not allowed (for the most part).

        2. Sarahnova*

          It’s a manager’s job to get the best from their people, bearing in mind the dynamic where they have more power than their reports do, which usually means that they have to actively work to make it easy for the reports.

          It’s not a direct report’s job to develop a rhinocerous hide to deal with a jerky boss, although yes, a reasonable amount of managing and adapting to your boss is a good thing to do in all jobs.

    7. Been There, Done That*


      A short time into my new job, managers (plural) handed some of their responsibilities off to me. The boss’s favorite, who applied for my job but didn’t qualify, complains that I’m not doing enough of the lower-level work (which is actually her job) , so I’ve wound up in hot water for not easing her load as I get loaded down myself from above. I guess she has more EQ than I do; she’s the best damn kiss-up I ever saw. Nice to know what management truly values.

  12. afiendishthingy*

    Yeah, I have a colleague like this, and with a couple of people in upper management leaving recently it’s looking she’s probably going to be my supervisor. To be fair I don’t think she’s really a jerk, but she does seem to have the attitude of “Well my way is the RIGHT way but if you want to do it YOUR way I guess that’s your choice”, which can make it a little intimidating to ask her for advice. A lot of it’s due to some deficits in social and communication skills, I think, but it can still be tough to deal with. I’m trying to start scheduling time with her to consult on my cases (which she is currently supposed to do, but she hasn’t really been given any break with her other duties to take on consulting on mine and the other team member’s cases) rather than the drop-in. she’s also always in crisis mode so asking her if she knows where the double sided tape sometimes seems like it’s going to be the request that broke the camel’s back, SHE IS A VERY BUSY CAMEL.

    um. yes. and that was my vent about the uncertainty of the future of my department…

    1. AE*

      Not being intimidated is also a coping mechanism. You are in your position for a reason. You are competent, and you can stand your ground (just choose your battles and be sure you really are right)

  13. Emma UK*

    I know I was a brilliant jerk. I have been trying to learn from the example of people I respect and admire. I often think, how would so-and-so handle this? Just taking the time out to think for a moment before reacting is often the most beneficial thing for me.

  14. NicoleK*

    It’s interesting to hear from the “jerks”. I fear that I may be going down this route (not so much becoming a jerk, but a problem child). New coworker has been at the organization for two months and has not worked on anything I need her to. I’ve tried addressing it with her. I’ve tried addressing it with our supervisor (twice already). I really don’t have any expectation that things will change. I don’t want to be the problem child that continually goes to the supervisor and become a thorn in their side. That is my current struggle. I’m ready to just throw in the towel and move on.

    1. Wanna-Alp*

      You might consider telling your supervisor that you’re planning on throwing in the towel. They may suddenly find that they do have some motivation to fix this after all.

      (Of course this may be disadvantageous to you, depending on your employment situation, but it’s worth at least considering.)

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