attila the manager

Apple and Microsoft both ousted executives in the last few weeks for abrasive management styles. Scott Forstall was Apple’s head of iOS software and Steven Sinofsky ran Windows. Both managers caused a lot of friction, but their approaches were overlooked for many years because they got results.

The shakeups got me thinking about the management archetype of the “Brilliant Jerk”. Many organizations have this archetype. The big question is whether the brilliance outweighs the jerkiness.

The classic defense of the Brilliant Jerk is Steve Jobs. The argument is that Apple’s products couldn’t be so single-minded and uncompromising without a dictator at the top. The Steve Jobs argument is used to justify a lot of jerky behavior in many workplaces. Yet in many of those companies, the Brilliant Jerk is no Steve Jobs.

It is often easier to quantify the value of the Brilliance (sales, profitability, new product success, supply chain rates, etc.) than it is to quantify the cost of the Jerkiness (morale, employee turnover, restructuring, etc.). That can lead organizations to put off taking action.

Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote a book called “The No Asshole Rule” about this tension. He argues that the jerkiness never outweighs the brilliance. Sutton even outlines an economic analysis called the TCA (Total Cost of Assholes) to calculate the costs on the rest of the organization. It includes time spent appeasing, calming, and counseling the Brilliant Jerk and cooling out employees who are victimized, as well as bigger Legal and HR costs.

I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences on how best to address the Brilliant Jerk in the workplace.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

  1. Martin says

    Unfortunately we have created a culture where being cocky/jerk is rewarded or seen as being confident. My Mom used to say something like “The brave man lives as long as the coward allows.” In this sense the “brilliant jerk,” will continue until those under him continue to allow it, but in the end this management style would be fall of the brilliant jerk.

  2. Rob Cottingham says

    This came up in a recent episode of The Good Wife. One character asks another, Cary, to find out why a third is behaving like such a jackass. The answer? He’s been reading the Steve Jobs biography, and when a bunch of people at Cary’s last job did that, they were behaving like assholes for weeks. Not to worry, he adds; it usually wears off.

  3. Liviu says

    A jackass manager will be short lived if he doesn’t pack some serious expertise and knowledge. I’ve had my share of such managers, as probably many of us had, and only the ones that work harder than the rest, push themselves constantly and are actually better than anyone in the team survive.
    They have to put forward real knowledge to make the jackass method work. It’s probably a way in which you can get some respect that compensates for the lack of other forms of respect. Jobs and Gates were very good at what they did and I don’t think there are many people who would challenge this.
    And the results part is not to be left out either. Under such managers you ride an emotional and motivational roller-coaster. With big dives and pushes where projects seem to never end followed by quick, intense, exhilarating moments when you actually ship which make you feel that all the pain is actually justified.
    Real value, expertise and knowledge and these short moments of victory is what, as I see it, keep Atila the manager in his place. And you have to wonder if these people don’t actually get results faster out of the people they drive forward.

  4. Steve says

    Most big companies outline behaviours they expect staff to conform to. However if you get results, behaviours tend to be overlooked – and the “time spent appeasing, calming, and counseling” is overlooked.

    I should point out you can also get results through (sales) relationships, bullying and other ways, not all these jerks are brilliant

  5. Joe says

    You know, a leader at my company always says that execution is the only part of a strategy that a consumer ever sees. But if consumers only knew the destruction caused by asshole … oops I meant Attila managers, it would probably destroy the love of some timeless brands.

  6. Bill Carlson says

    “jerkiness never outweighs the brilliance” — company owners/stockholders (and senior staff accountable to them) might feel otherwise…


    However, while I am most definitely anti-jerk, I would actually (grudgingly!) rank jerks who deliver results lower on my hit list than others who deliver “death by a thousand cuts” from a lack of competence or poor attitude and work ethic or just plain poor leadership and management skills.

    We all kind of learn to work around jerks who get things done by tuning out their occasional jerkiness — just a sanity survival mechanism. But it’s those day-to-day poor performers (in general) who seem to survive well past their expiration date that create heartburn for peers and subordinates. And, in my opinion, have an even more negative ongoing impact on company results than the occasional jerk attack…

  7. Jeff says

    Everyone (except the jerk) knows they exist and yet they are excused for various reasons. “So and so’s been with the company for a long time….etc…” “Passion” is another easy out for bad behavior. So I think that Jerk to Brilliant ratio and the tolerance of the jerk in question often depends on the position of the jerk and if their brilliance is worth the stress. If it’s not and he or she is the president and CEO then try

  8. Mark says

    I had an asshole boss at a non profit organization for five years. She abused, harassed and drove out staff left and right. People kept asking me how I could work there, and for four years I could say, “well, she’s not fucking with ME so I’m OK right now.”

    After driving out 5 people (of a staff of 9) and replacing them, sometimes multiple times, she finally decided to turn on me. As she was driving me out, I went to the board of directors. Up to that point the board had been fine with her abrasive style: she got them to feel like she was doing important work: “shaking things up.” And despite churning through staff, we were still good at raising funds for the organization, so the cash flow was great. What are a few burning wrecks along the side of the road when the organization appeared to be flying high, basking in positive PR?

    I left for another job after about a year of intense harassment from her. On my way out I met with the board. They began to understand the depth of her assholery by finally asking current and former staff what was going on behind the scenes. She resigned shortly thereafter.

    I was encouraged to apply for her position. I didn’t bite. I figured any group of people willing to tolerate an asshole – especially in the low pay non-profit world – should not be trusted.

  9. Cory Walpole says

    I’ve seen a few of these types over the years. Unfortunately it’s wearing on all staff that have to deal with them. The culture sucks, because people don’t enjoy their work environment, they whisper about it with other co-workers and worse yet, tell family and friends that this person or company sucks. One bad apple can ruin a company. I generally don’t back down from this type. They usually decide to leave me.

  10. Hilary says

    We also have a name for them – the “Shit Bucket Wielder”. The SBW is usually waiting for the moment he can unload his bucket on your head. Its an extreme of the dominance/tell based culture that used to work down mill in t’ old days when the workers had no choice or say.

    Jobs seems to have been unusual – his control was inspired by a genuine passion – that’s just not normal for these guys.

  11. RP says

    Unfortunately, when ladder-climbing employees see their superiors rewarded for jerky behavior that gets results, they will emulate that, whether consciously or not. The result is a culture where jerks abound. Turnover rate will be high, and motivation will be low since many are looking for a new job. Social media ( & LinkedIn for example) has really opened up a window into the cultures of many corporations. It will be difficult for organizations to attract the right people when they pick up negative reviews and high turnover rates on the radar.

  12. Andy says

    Although some people are by nature obnoxious and hard to work with unless you follow the rules their way, in the workplace an Attila the Manager emerges when s/he finds a vacuum to fill. In other words, if the corporate culture is sufficiently weak and exposed, a dominant personality can occupy space and diminish the contribution and effectiveness of others as individuals and as a group.

    The management should be responsible for balancing the tension between performance and aggression!

  13. Peter says

    Entrepreneurial brilliance and vision when combined with dictictorial leadership works for some companies – where would Apple be without its ‘Jerk’? or Microsoft?
    Other companies follow different models of leadership and are just as successful (and a case can be made for different styles of leadership and examples of companies that fail)
    Its horses for courses – there is no single answer,just choice!
    Many a sales manager has employed ‘Attilla’ techniques for motivation and succeeded – “Make your numbers or ……”!

  14. Chris says

    I do not agree with outright “jerks” or any other version of the word, just for the sake of the person doing it because they are covering for their own shortcomings – but at the same time, I believe there needs to be a hard look at where the feedback is coming from and the circumstances that are generating the feedback.

    With that being said, we should look at why a person is being considered a “jerk”. I am a Project Manager, and have been labeled that (and worse) on more than one occasion. I have often found that it comes from individuals who do not like being held accountable for their work. These individuals don’t “appreciate” me asking for updates on their progress, or my “tone”, or any of a hundred other perceived slights that are part of working to accomplish a bigger goal – especially when it is coming with the sincere desire to accomplish a project.

    But therein lies the key – I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m being perceived that way because of the other person’s shortcomings – be it lack of time, ability, knowledge, skills etc. – and they are looking for a way to turn me into the bad guy.

    So my feelings on this are to be fair. Make sure you are looking at both sides of the coin, argument, situation etc. before you decide who the jerk is– because it may surprise you, especially if you put yourself into the “jerk’s” position.

  15. Andrew says

    The biggest issue for me in this space is whether the “brilliant jerk” is truly brilliant, or is just somewhere above average and loaded up with a big ego. Between years in both academia and the business world, I’ve had the opportunity to see and work for/with a number of both types. On net, I’ve had few problems with the truly brilliant jerks. Oversimplifying a bit, they are often just operating at a different level than “normal humans” — a lot of the jerkiness comes from seeing and relating to the world in a different way than the rest of us. It’s often a big part of what makes them brilliant, but can lead to the “jerk” perceptions even where there is no intent or attempt — they just don’t relate to people the same way.

    On the other hand, the people who just don’t care or try to be reasonable humans (and use decent success as their excuse), they are the ones where the costs virtually always outweigh the benefits, and are also the ones who can wreak havoc on an organization.

  16. DSprogis says

    I’m guessing that TCA was calculated before social media became a threat to workplaces. Social media makes it very easy for abused workers to move which raises the cost of jerkiness. Also, it helps identify the jerks.

    BTW, I have never met a jerk worth tolerating and I doubt I ever will.

  17. Mariana says

    There is no place for hazing, abrasiveness and jerkyness in the work place. If we stopped tolerating physical violence long ago, why not stop tolerating phsycological attacks too? The brilliant jerks have to be coached on basic levels of professionalism and civility.

  18. Jamie Resker says

    I have a paper that is downloaded from my website night and day; “Managing Disruptive Employee Behaviors”. It’s accessed by people across the globe who are trying to figure out what to do and say to put an end to bad behavior.

    The Bad Apple study by Dr. Will Felps shows that a jerk (as well as a few other undesirable personality types) on the team can drive productivity down by 30-40%. As an fyi; Felps describes the jerk as someone who “violates interpersonal norms of respect”. One of my favorite books is The Cost of Bad Behavior where the authors quantify the effect of jerk behaviors. Think of the performance review: the high results low behavior employee usually gets a rating of 4/5 out of 5 (5 being the highest). In fact more organizations are using a dual rating system where the “jerk” would get a 5 in terms of what he/she accomplishes and a 1 for behavior. When you’re in an organization that values results more than behavior it can be helpful to quantify the ultimate effect.

    In defense of the “jerk” most managers don’t give feedback about behaviors so it could be (and I say could) that he/she doesn’t know the impact they have on others. With some feedback and awareness could the person change? Maybe.

  19. Bill Carlson says

    Chris makes an interesting point about the need for evaluating the label “jerk” objectively from both vantage points (jerk and jerk-victim) before assigning jerk status.

    And Andrew serves up a similar thought about “jerkiness can come from seeing and relating to the world in a different way than the rest of us”.

    Of course, it’s all a little subjective. One person’s “tough” or “passionate” (or even a stern tone) is another person’s “jerk.”

    An attitude of “I’m not here to make friends and sing Kumbaya” is actually not objectively wrong but it can be projected in different ways and perceived in different ways (we all have our own personal filters — outbound AND inbound…).

    In thinking about this, also reminded of the problem of a situation where someone with power becomes “friends” with someone accountable to them (subordinate or some internal resource) and how they can be “jerks” when in fact just exercising that difference in authority.

    So there can be lots of factors leading to jerk-dom — which suggests that an organization’s leadership needs a clear understanding of some of these dynamics, needs to accept the realities (including the benefits trade-off, presumably) and consider how to finesse it to work to everyone’s advantage.

  20. CH says

    There seems to be a lot of commentary re how a company might succeed because of a jerk (I would suggest despite the jerk – or at least the jerk like behaviours they haven’t addressed)however how many companies have gone from good performance to poor performance because of “high performing” jerks, or never even got going because all the brilliance of the team was undermined by an unmanaged jerk?

  21. M says

    I have experienced real jerks…people who abuse others with their language and their actions without any considerations…people who no one can look up to and that my company – knowingly have perpetuated in their role. The bigger jerks in my experience are those who having the knowledge and the power to remove a person like that don’t do anything. Explain to me how come one of the biggest if not the biggest jerks in a company, someone without any knowledge or experience in marketing can become a Marketing Director in one of the biggest and best CPG companies in the world after being removed from a position in finance because of bad dealings? That my friend, I wish I could understand.

  22. carl_sf says

    One of the greatest memories I had working at a professional services firm many years ago … a contract management consultant told off the partner, told him “I quit my last job so I wouldn’t have to work for assholes.” Needless to say he was fired, but we all enjoyed the comment. It’s terrible when management’s justification is “the clients need it now” — when will management learn how to manage clients?

  23. Syed Abdul Haye says

    To counter this, many companies now have “likeability” as one of the key KPI in performance evaluation. The top down hardcore management style does not create passionate and dedicated employees. A “Brilliant Jerk” never benefits a company in the long run, since it ruins a company’s most valuable asset, it’s worth among current and potential employees.

    “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers”.

  24. Emily says

    What’s that saying? ‘What gets measured gets managed?’ If we’re only measuring the what (the results) and not the how, the system supports the jerk. What if we start evaluating not only the results, but how you got them? What would it say about your organization? The value it places on workplace respect?

  25. Chantelle Bell says

    A Jerk with vision has potential but a Jerk without vision is just an antagonist. Results never come from a Jerk without a vision…

  26. Lillie says

    The Jerk manager has very little value in a business environment where all team members must keep pushing forward to learn new technologies. The behavior stifles the necessary qualities for learning habits to take root: a willingness to share and mentor, well defined, realistic deadlines and most of all, a team spirit. Also, the management style is so 70’s and drives off younger people with fresh knowledge and a drive to succeed.

  27. Ted says

    Perhaps you’ll do a marketoon soon on “Being a coward” to address the disrespectful and completely inappropriate comment by Nat.

  28. says

    Hi all,

    Wow, this one really struck a chord. Many thanks to everyone for sharing your stories and insights with me. I agree with many of your comments that apathetic managers are just as problematic.

    This week’s print goes to Chris. He touches on an important nuance on what constitutes jerky behavior, and that the designation is often unfairly given by those who don’t deliver.

    Here’s Robert Sutton’s dirty dozen list from the “No Asshole Rule”:

    1) Personal insults
    2) Invading one’s personal territory
    3) Uninvited personal contact
    4) Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
    5) Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
    6) Withering email flames
    7) Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
    8) Public shaming or status degradation rituals
    9) Rude interruptions
    10) Two-faced attacks
    11) Dirty looks
    12) Treating people as if they are invisible

    Many thanks,


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