How To Deal With The Unintentional Jerk Executive

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. © 2010

Difficult executives are the bane of their peers and a major drag on the energy of their bosses. There is a particular type that I will call the “unintentional jerk” who has the best of intentions and firmly believes that they are doing what is best for their company or team, yet leaves a trail of destruction as they plow through the organization trying to achieve their goals. And, when confronted about their behavior, they are shocked to hear that people are upset with them. They aren’t necessarily passive aggressive types (see my briefing titled: The Insidious Executive) because they aren’t doing things behind people’s back…they are blatantly pursuing their goals and running over people in the process.

These executives are frequently the “true believer” types, who want to do what’s best but are deluded by their own grandiosity and think their way is the best way. They think and act in a way that conveys the message: “I know better than you so get out of my way because I’m doing what’s best for the company.” They just can’t put themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine how their actions are impacting others or that they might not have a license on brilliance. They are oblivious to how arrogant they appear.

The good news is, however, that the unintentional jerk is often open to change, whereas, the true jerk could care less. The challenge for a boss is to determine where their subordinate fits on the jerk continuum. If the person truly is an unintentional jerk, then they may be able to adjust their attitude and behavior if they work hard at it. True jerks aren’t worth the investment.

Several years ago, I was considered for a coaching gig to help a very narcissistic CTO. I knew it was unlikely that he would select me primarily because I told him that I would require him to acknowledge to his peers that he had been difficult to work with and he said he wouldn’t do that. I told his boss that they were wasting their money investing in him. Not surprisingly, he ended up choosing someone less confrontational than me. I later learned that he quit two months into the coaching process with the other coach…again, no surprise.

Unlike that CTO, unintentional jerks feel remorse and want to get along with others but they need help. It’s a tedious process because you have to provide real time examples, help the executive understand how their behavior impacts others, and then work with them to try new behaviors. Frequently, you have to cover the same territory over and over and help them see the similarity between behaviors/incidents, other people’s interpretations of their actions and the repercussions. Most have a hard time generalizing what they have learned from one situation to something similar. Each incident/example seems entirely unique. It takes significant patience on the part of his/her coach and key stakeholders…especially the stakeholders because they will continue to experience problems as the coachee takes two steps forward and one step backwards repeatedly.

You might ask, “Why bother? Why not just fire the executive?” If the executive is someone who has risen through the ranks, you’ve invested a great deal in their development already. If they are committed to changing, and can make the changes, they are likely to be very grateful and even more committed to your company’s success. On the other hand, if the executive is fairly new (less than one year on the job), it’s probably better to cut your losses and cut them loose. Keep in mind that changing long-standing behavior takes time. Generally it takes a minimum of six to twelve months to make the necessary changes.

Key suggestions for working with and helping unintentional jerks:

  1. Don’t assume ill intent or you’ll set them up for failure. They will never be able to overcome your prejudice. 
  2. Provide specific examples … in detail.
  3. Explain the repercussions of their actions. Don’t assume they can connect the dots.
  4. Have them team up with someone who is more “interpersonally adept” who can provide real time observations and suggestions. A good role model.
  5. Monitor their performance and reward successive approximations to the desired behavior. Don’t just wait to reward them when they hit the target because they won’t do so on the first dozen attempts but they will inch closer if given useful feedback and encouragement.
  6. If they don’t make the attempt to change or simply aren’t able to learn after repeated coaching (6 months max) . . . move them out of a leadership role or out of the company. The cost to you and your employees’ morale will be too significant if you keep the executive in a management position. Their so-called productivity/creativity will most likely not offset the toll they will take.