dr carl robinson
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The Currency of Success - Interpersonal Intelligence™

How to Deal with the Unintentional Jerk Executive

Difficult executives are the bane of their peers and a major drag on the energy of their bosses.
Unintentional Jerk

The “unintentional jerk” is a particular type of difficult executive. They have the best of intentions and firmly believe that they are doing what is best for their company or team. However, they leave 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.

Unintentional jerks aren’t necessarily passive-aggressive types (more on those executives in my briefing titled: The Insidious Executive) because they aren’t doing things behind peoples’ backs. Rather, they are blatantly pursuing their goals and running over people in the process.

The good news is 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 are guided and work hard. True jerks aren’t worth the investment.

Identifying the Unintentional Jerk

Genuinely unintentional jerks are frequently:

  • “true believer” types, who genuinely want to do what’s best
  • deluded by their own grandiosity and think their way is the best way
  • 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.”
  • can’t put themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine how their actions are impacting others
  • believe they have a license on brilliance
  • oblivious to how arrogant they appear.

Unintentional versus True Jerk

Several years ago, I was considered for a coaching gig to help a very narcissistic CTO. Unsurprisingly, he chose a different coach when I told him that I would require him to acknowledge to his peers that he had been difficult to work with. I advised his boss that they were wasting their money investing in him. Later, I learned that he quit two months into the coaching process …again, no surprise.

Unlike that CTO, unintentional jerks feel remorse and want to have a good relationship with others, but they need help. 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.

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.

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.

The Demands on You

Assisting your unintentional jerk is a tedious process because you have to:

  • provide real time examples,
  • help the executive understand how their behavior impacts others
  • work with them and model new behaviors
  • cover the same territory over and over to help them see the similarity between behaviors/incidents, other people’s interpretations of their actions, and the repercussions
  • be patient

What is the Unintentional Jerk thinking?

Most have a challenging time generalizing what they have learned from one situation and applying this to something similar. Each incident/example seems entirely unique.

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.

Therefore, it takes significant patience on the part of the coach and key stakeholders…especially the stakeholders because they will continue to experience problems as the coachee repeatedly takes two steps forward and one step back.

Key Suggestions

When 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. Clearly explain the repercussions of their actions on others. Don’t assume they can connect the dots.
  4. Have them team up with a good role model; someone who is more “interpersonally adept” and can provide real time observations and suggestions.
  5. Monitor their performance and reward successive approximations to the desired behavior. Don’t just wait to reward them when they hit the ultimate target because they won’t do so on the first dozen attempts. 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.

If this executive cannot develop, the cost to you and your employees’ morale will be too significant to retain them in their existing role. Their so-called productivity/creativity will likely not offset the toll they will take.