Untenable Workplace Hotshots

When Smart People are Bad Employees” offers up three types of hotshots in the workplace:

The Heretic:
“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 Flake:
“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.”
The Jerk:
“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.”

I’ve seen these, if we’re to buy Horowitz’s trichotomy of troubled genius employees. According to his take, the person really has to be a genius for any of this to be applicable.

Ben Horowitz writes in the article, “You may decide that you will personally mitigate the employee’s negative attributes and keep them from polluting the overall company culture.” I don’t think that lasts long. So far, I’ve always seen there be a turning point with folks that fit the Heretic and Flake labels: there’s a point where even a stretched thin manager will realize that the impact on the culture has become greater than the value of the contributions.

What is that turning point? Is it when the company finally has one unavoidable, cohesive data point to examine–one big project that was double or triple budget or timeline due to the Flake? Is it when another highly-valued employee leaves because of the abuse of the Jerk? It is when the Heretic’s tooth-sucking and pouting is so obvious as to be distracting in company meetings? Horowitz doesn’t address that.

Horowitz offers up some easy causes of these, ranging from immaturity to bipolar to drug abuse. Bipolar? Drug abuse? Really? Are these the real, core issues at hand here?

There are a couple of problems here, once we look past the superficiality of the article overall. (And, you know, the Kanye quote.) The first is the support of the mania bullshit in the tech industry: how awesome it is to have an employee work 72 hours straight and really come through for you. The second is the picture he paints of the management of these employees, which is to pick your favorite outrageous genius on the team (and only one!) and bust your ass to keep them from ruining your company. I’ll leave aside the issues of using “genius” as the important measure of an employee’s value.

…Except for that sentence, which I hope carried a bit of my opinion on that.

Mania Is Not Cool or Healthy. Period.

It’s sick, it’s dangerous, and it’s detrimental to your business culture. Do you expect your other employees to do work 72 hours to finish even a project in trouble? Are you okay with this person doing this? If you tell all your other employees that, “No, no, don’t worry. I don’t expect that of you. She just likes to work like that,” then you’re kinda an asshole and other employees will pick up on the idea that this is what it takes to get accolades.

Fix the project management process that failed (if one did), work through that person’s disabilities and work-life balance issues, and don’t for a second suggest that this is a good thing. Because after that 72 hours straight of coding, that person may possibly be debilitatingly sleep deprived, suffering from caffeine intoxication, or be set up for a horrific crash.

How’s that project success feel when your bipolar drug-addict genius star employee has to take 2-3 weeks off to recover (or is hospitalized or dead)? How long are you going to hold the bus?

I don’t support a work culture that suggests people should go and get drunk every day after work, but I thoroughly enjoy working at a company that holds both orchestrated and informal events: getting drinks at a bar before going home on Friday, having the team to go out to lunch randomly, checking in on folks working late, and incorporating employees’ families into the workplace culture.

I love that. I’ve seen that approach really develop into something cool, and the formation of those shared social experiences really makes a team gel. Sharing other aspects of your lives encourages people to cherish them, improving work-life balance all around.

Managers Need Sleep Too

The idea that managers need to accept this behavior as-is and work around it to prevent the pollution of the work culture strikes me as something only a bigger company can absorb. Until moving to Big Corp, I’d worked exclusively for small organizations and companies, and watching managers worry about the very livelihood of their company on account of the downsides of some of these behaviors isn’t a fun thing to watch.

Does the PM ruining the management of her projects with her every vicious word know that she’s doing so? Does she have any idea of how much rougher her projects go compared to the other PMs on the team?

Does the developer who flaked on a project understand the impact of his behavior? Does he have a real, concrete idea of the financials or reputation involved in the situation?

The writing being on the wall for everyone else doesn’t mean that it’s on the wall for the problem person. Remember, these are your genius star employees, who you love because they think so differently from everyone else. Can’t have it both ways.

Leaving the person an island–either by not talking frankly with them, or by working around their foibles–can easily keep you from improving your company’s culture as a whole. You’re on the defensive now, responding to criticism from everyone, juggling schedules and personnel to compensate, and either wrestling perpetually with the keep-or-hire decision or resigned to babysitting for the rest of this person’s time at the company.

How can you be proactive in that situation? How can you have any creativity left to try new things and grow everyone else if your bus is standing still, waiting for that one schmuck to show up?

Finally: Goofy Taxonomies

I really liked this article when I first read it. I was like, “Yeah! I so know that guy! Maybe he’s a drug addict!” I was also like, “Screw the bus! Fire those fuckers! They ruin everything!”

But why the Heretic, the Flake, and the Jerk? Why not the Silent, the Precocious, and the Wanderer? Why not any number of other problems that these beloved “geniuses” can have?

Why no focus on assessing the individual’s needs? After Horowitz had this bipolar drug-addict genius star employee come through with some 72-hour stints, (who “was the best employee that we had and we immediately promoted him”), the problem became that the BDAGS employee (bipolar drug-addict…) started missing days, then doing sloppy work.

Maybe a furlough was in order. Take ol’ boy off the schedule for a couple weeks, let him decompress and get himself stable again. Unpaid, paid, short-term disability, whatever in the hell you can finagle.

One commenter on that article at Forbes suggested “holding this man in reserve for situations where critical problems needed to be addressed and only using him in that role.” Also a great idea. Put him on a contract basis and make him your surgical strike team.

Neither of those will always work for a company, of course, but my point is that broad-stroke categorizing and dismissing as incurable is a fail-fail solution. You’re going to lose the full benefit of their work, and they’re not going to leave any better than when they entered.