In The No Asshole Rule (2007), Robert Sutton describes—often in excruciating detail—how badly behaved adults can poison a work environment. Among other things, he recommends that you get rid of these types as soon as they show their true colors—viz., after the first blow-up, shouting fit, or temper tantrum. What Sutton says makes perfect sense to me, so long as the person we’re firing is mediocre or incompetent. And they are. Most of the time. Probably 95% of the time. But not all of the time. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the difficult diva in question really is the best.
Sometimes the prima donna really is the best person for the job. For instance, Dr. Gregory House drives everyone nuts on the popular TV series House—he’s precisely the kind of employee that Sutton says you should fire in a heartbeat—and yet House’s boss, the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, deals with his bullshit because House really is an amazing doctor. Likewise, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles drives Agamemnon insane with his arrogance and insolence—and yet Agamemnon is forced to deal with his bullshit because Achilles really is amazing. People put up with Sherlock Holmes for many of the same reasons. Same is true of Dr. Temperance Brennan on the hit show Bones. She’s incredibly arrogant, hard to get along with, and shockingly deficient in empathy and tact. But her boss, Dr. Camille Saroyan, puts up with her bullshit because she’s a genius, because she’s the best.
Humble people who selflessly devote themselves to the common good of the organization are rare. If you happen to have a few of these silent saints in your organization, treasure them, for they are indeed worth their weight in gold. But alas, these would-be Atlases cannot bear the weight of the world, nor can they bear the weight of your organization. If you want to get things done, you’re going to have to involve the loud-mouthed egotistical show-offs—you know, the pushy people who love to listen to themselves talk. You’ve got to engage these people, let them take over an existing part of your organization, or create something brand new.
These Type A’s won’t give you their all, and they’ve got a great deal to give, unless they feel that they’re in charge. You can’t micromanage them; they’re touchy, and don’t take criticism especially well. They’re going to claim ownership of territory within your organization. And you’ve got to let it happen if you want to realize their potential. But, and here’s the big BUT, these pushy people have a tendency to grow more and more arrogant over time, especially if their endeavors prove successful. The hot air of their hubris propels them to ever higher heights of delusion, until they come to see their little part of the organization as the most important part of the organization. Indeed, they may even come to view the organization as itself unimportant. They may come to believe that the entire organization’s raison d’être is to serve and support their particular needs. They may lose sight of the common good altogether.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself at a meeting, wondering what to do. Some will say squash them, put them in their place, fire them, defrock them, or humiliate them. Though these options may provide sadistic satisfaction to some, they’re rarely good ideas. The real question—rooted in a perennial problem that has bedeviled organizations since the beginning of time—is this: How do you knock these puffed-up buffoons down a couple of notches without losing their valuable contribution to the life of the organization?
I have no problem with show-offs, so long as they put on a good show (by being interesting and entertaining), just as I have no problem with bossy people, so long as they’re good at getting shit done once they’ve taken control. Most families would fall apart if it weren’t for the bossy matriarchs and patriarchs who make the trains run on time. My problem isn’t with difficult people per se; it’s with boring show-offs, and control freaks who desperately need to have power but don’t know what to do with it once they’ve got it.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)