Shift Happens: What to do when a good worker has a bad attitude

The "difficult genius" may be tolerated in some industries, but they can have a toxic effect on the entire firm.


Credit: iStock

The “difficult genius” may be tolerated in some industries, but they can have a toxic effect on the entire firm

You’re the head of an online media company. Your creative director has been key to your success, but her “aggressive” management style has spawned consistently high attrition rates, and exit interviews indicate the possibility of abusive behaviour. When you raise this, she says that creative types are simply “overly sensitive.” You don’t want to lose her, but the status quo is poison. What can be done?

It has been over a decade since the death of Steve Jobs, Apple’s mercurial and visionary co-founder. His legacy lives on, imprinted in the DNA of beautifully designed tech—and in cautionary tales of his management style, which is often held up as a textbook example of how not to treat people.

How bad was he? Especially early in his career, Jobs could be candid to the point of cruelty, something that hardware designer Bob Belleville experienced firsthand. “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit,” Jobs told Belleville—incredibly, while trying to recruit him away from a blue chip competitor. (Equally incredible? Belleville decided to jump.)

Today, this would make most HR directors cringe. Yet, in some industries, the “difficult genius” is tolerated because, well, genius can be difficult. But there is a point where one prima donna can have a toxic effect on an entire firm—as the head of our fictional online media company is beginning to suspect. So, what should our boss do?

“The first thing I would recommend,” says Rachel Rabinovitch, a human resources consultant with Coquitlam-based Spraggs Law, “is to confirm that the allegations of aggressive behaviour are true.” To do this, says Rabinovitch, the company should interview employees who are planning to leave, as well as those who are currently working under the creative director’s umbrella. From those who register a gripe, the company needs to ferret out specifics.

“I would ask, ‘What does aggressive behaviour look like? Give me an example—what has she done?’” The goal is to create the most objective possible snapshot of the workplace environment. But what if the CD’s team is reluctant to talk?

Rabinovitch suggests a couple of options for those cases when getting honest feedback could be a problem. First, they could initiate an anonymous survey. If that goes nowhere, they could always engage a neutral third-party HR provider—someone from outside the company fold. “They can collect the data and provide it anonymously, with a summary or with specific comments,” she says. (The comments would be stripped of any identifying information to ensure anonymity.)

Let’s assume that, after all is said and done, it’s determined that the creative director has crossed lines. The dilemma, still: on the one hand, the company wants to staunch the outflow of dissatisfied employees; on the other, they want to keep their Napoleon. What can be done?

The buck stops at the boss. “As the head of the company, their responsibility is to lead, manage and coach their employees,” says Rabinovitch. “I would say to this person, ‘It’s your responsibility, but I’m here to work with you. We can partner on doing this together, and I’m here to walk you through the process, but it’s your responsibility to coach and manage.’”

However, if the boss isn’t up to the task—and some bosses simply aren’t—going outside of the company could again be the answer. “If the person coaching her doesn’t have the skills, then it’s not going to go well,” says Rabinovitch. “Then you can again look at an external party who can help with emotional intelligence training or leadership training—really, it depends on what the ‘aggressive behaviour’ looks like.”

In his early career, I’m not sure how Steve Jobs would have responded to leadership training. Probably not enthusiastically, considering his record. “The most creative people in Apple who worked on the Macintosh,” said Steve Wozniak years after Jobs’s death, “almost all of them said they would never, ever work for Steve Jobs again.”

Quite the indictment. Jobs’s final words may be unintentionally appropriate: Oh wow.

Fictional scenario. Not intended as legal advice.