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  • Writer's pictureMax Wenneker

How one asshole can kill a whole company’s culture

Recently I had a conversation with a startup leader who told me that it took her a long time to realize just how connected her job satisfaction and the company’s culture were. We discussed our shared (and universal) experiences of working in what seemed like a good job but ultimately wasn’t because the company’s culture was problematic. And we discussed the ways in which company cultures can be problematic. The most common and most impactful one, we agreed, was when the company hired assholes.


Why would a company hire assholes?


First of all, I think very few hiring managers intend to hire assholes. I’ve never heard a leader say to me “I think we should fill this role with a major jerk” (cue Major Jerk salute by How I Met Your Mother fans). In my own experience, having myself hired assholes, it’s not necessarily clear that the person you’re interviewing is one. Sometimes people are good enough at interviewing to keep hiring managers from realizing. Sometimes hiring managers simply don’t ask the right questions. There can also be external pressures that result in hiring managers being willing to overlook certain red flags. I once had a manager complete most of an interview process with a candidate for my team before I even joined it, and I felt pressure to rubber-stamp the candidate because my manager wanted me to build the team quickly. Despite having personally heard concerning stories about this candidate’s previous internal roles, I made the person an offer, only to end up having to fire them 3 months later. Suffice to say, while companies don’t intend to hire assholes, it happens anyway.


How even one asshole affects team dynamics


The hiring of the team member I mentioned above resulted in a near-perfect case study of how one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch. Almost immediately after they joined the team, I received a complaint from their direct manager that this person had complained about the job level into which they were hired. The person felt they were deserving of a more senior position, despite having presented no evidence to support that in their couple weeks on the job. Their manager came to me both confused and concerned about why I’d hired this person into their team, and the trust between the two of us began to fray almost immediately despite us having barely worked together.


The next complaint I received was from one of my team’s key stakeholders. She told me that in a meeting with this particular individual, this person became very defensive when she asked them about some of the details of their project and made some very reasonable recommendations on how to improve their plan. Fortunately this stakeholder of ours was a friend of mine and knew I had definitely not intended to hire a jerk, hence she was willing to bring me this feedback and was comfortable doing so. In another world, I might have never heard about this bad interaction, and my team’s relationship with that stakeholder might have simply deteriorated.


Around the same time, we started receiving very negative feedback from another key stakeholder (one who I didn’t know personally) in our recurring survey my team sent to our stakeholders. I hadn’t interacted directly with this stakeholder all that much, and had no idea prior to reading these survey results that they were having such a bad experience with my team. Unfortunately, at the same time I learned about this situation, so did my senior leaders, as they received the results of this survey too. Suddenly my team was being perceived as not doing its job of effectively connecting and supporting different parts of the organization.


I reached out to this stakeholder to see if he would be willing to tell me what caused him to be having such a negative experience with my team. He hadn’t proactively reached out to me about the problem, but I thought he might be willing to discuss it if I asked him about it directly. When I asked, he told me that his team had come to him very concerned about this team member of mine. Apparently the team had been told by this individual that, despite reporting to someone else, they had to take direction from the individual on my team for a certain project they were working on together. Neither I nor this individual’s direct manager had agreed to this, nor did we think it made any sense. But the stakeholder didn’t know that. Nor did the stakeholder’s team. So they were left just confused, annoyed, and thinking my team was a bunch of jerks.


After several rounds of feedback with this individual, it was clear that they would not take any responsibility for how they were coming off to others, and we decided to terminate their employment with the company. Their direct manager was incredibly relieved, and our relationships with key stakeholders started improving immediately. Despite being down a team member, our team and our stakeholders were all delivering far better work than had been done when the individual was still on the team. It was truly addition by subtraction. I later learned that there were a number of individuals on other teams who chose not to join our team because they didn’t want to work with this person. The impact of this one person’s behavior was truly extraordinary.


How to effectively deal with assholes in your organization


The above example is a great illustration of how one jerk’s behavior can reverberate across an entire organization. As a leader in that organization, despite my genuine desire to avoid hiring people like this person, I both ended up doing so anyway and did not even know about the extended impact this individual was having for far too long. It’s possible that the same thing is happening in your organization without you being aware of it.


Looking back on this situation, there are a few things that went well, and a few things that I wish happened differently, that I have since applied in dealing with assholes in my organizations.


Don’t ignore interview process red flags

As I mentioned earlier, no interview process is foolproof in filtering out jerks. There are ways to minimize the number that get through, though. I’ve participated in many interview debriefs where someone either brought up a concerning professional experience they’d previously had with the candidate in question, or where the candidate behaved in a concerning way during the interview process itself, but the desire of the manager to fill this role led them to ignore those red flags.


Be cognizant of how you ask for feedback from your organization

I once worked in a team where my manager was the asshole in question. Despite all of my teammates agreeing with me, none of us brought it up to our senior leadership. That was true even though our manager’s manager did direct check-ins with us to see how things were going. None of us were comfortable attaching our name to these concerns because we worried about the repercussions if it got back to our manager. The manager was only let go after they scored poorly on the anonymous manager survey that was sent by the company every six months.


As a leader, it may be hard for you to gauge what level of trust and confidence you’ve developed with your organization. That applies only more so to individuals in your org who don’t directly report to you. Creating opportunities for anonymous feedback may be helpful in identifying jerks who people otherwise would not be comfortable speaking up about.


Have a short leash

When it comes to skills and competencies, I am very much in favor of giving a team member the time, space, and support to develop. Not, however, when it comes to treating others poorly. Helping people develop and making them comfortable that they’re not going to get fired if they don’t develop quickly enough is an important tool for building trust and great organizational culture. Keeping jerks around is a great way to destroy those things. I saw with my own eyes the damage done by the extended run that the asshole had in my team in the example above. The next time I had an asshole on my team, I took a very different approach.


I once joined a role where the team was already in place and I was taking on the management of a team that already had people managers. On the second or third day, I was made aware by both my boss as well as some team members (multiple of whom literally teared up in our first interaction) that one manager on my team had proven themselves to be a very incapable people manager and they were exhibiting all the classic behaviors of an asshole. Since I was new, I had no way of knowing how much of what was going on was due to lack of managerial training or simply lack of self-awareness on the individual’s part, but I knew based on previous experience that I had to take action quickly.


I gathered the feedback that I’d received and sat down with this manager to deliver it. I prefaced it by saying that my goal was to help this person be successful, and in no way was I assuming any negative intention on their part. Then I delivered the feedback in the style of “this is the perception your team has of these actions” rather than “you’re upsetting people”. I said that good people management was at the core of any successful team, so this situation needed to improve quickly, and I would work on a daily basis with this person for the coming two weeks to see if we could make enough progress to turn the situation around. Unfortunately, even in the first few days after providing this individual direct and specific feedback, they continued exhibiting multiple behaviors that had been specifically called out to them as being unacceptable for a manager. My boss and I agreed that we needed to let this person go, and I did so.


Even though my past experience indicated to me that not taking action would turn out poorly, letting this person go so early on in my tenure felt incredibly uncomfortable. Fortunately, the decision was quickly vindicated. The team members reporting to that individual were universally relieved by this person’s exit, and the level of buy-in that I gained as their manager was evident in how quickly we were able to build close working relationships and how much trust they placed in my approach as a manager. Another case of addition by subtraction.


tl;dr


Assholes cause extensive ripple effects across organizations and, in my opinion, need to be removed very quickly if their approach does not improve with direct feedback. Whatever potential they have in their work, the costs in company culture and productivity are simply not worth it. Despite a leader’s best intentions, though, all of us are going to end up managing an asshole at some point in our careers. We might even accidentally hire one. The key to avoiding organizational harm is to take quick and decisive action.


P.S. There is a fantastic book on this topic called The No Asshole Rule. Highly recommend.

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