How to Wrangle a Jackass

March 4th 2015

Ah, the jackass. If you’ve been working in a professional knowledge firm for more than a half hour, you’ve probably already met at least one.

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Jackasses are characterized by one or more of the following traits: yelling, slamming, stomping, harrumphing, shirking, snarking, bullying, interrupting, backstabbing, diva-ing, and generally unleashing unhappiness on all who encounter them. The question is what to do with them. How do you wrangle a jackass? Here are three approaches I have found useful.

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Option One: Confront

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This requires a strong backbone and a position of authority within the firm. You have to be specific in your confrontation, succinctly and thoroughly describing the unproductive behavior and its consequences. Don’t negotiate or equivocate. “Jack, your constant argumentative approach is affecting the team’s morale. I expect you to work harder at keeping your ears and mind open and your mouth closed. I’ll be watching you like a hawk. If you don’t dial it down a notch, we will be having a much tougher conversation in the next couple of months.”

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As a leader, particularly if you prefer to uplift rather than squash, you may have to tap into your own inner jackass. But a softer approach to the issue will not work with this particular breed. They’ve likely behaved poorly their entire careers and have been allowed to get away with it. They may view their behavior as fundamental to their success, both past and future. Your job as a leader is to let them know that while being a jackass may have served them well in the past, it won’t any longer.

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Option Two: Ignore

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This is a particularly pragmatic option, because it removes the imperative to change someone else’s behavior. 

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If you’re a peer or an underling to the jackass, and you can’t impose consequences on her, and you’re not likely to change anything about her behavior. When you choose to ignore it, you are rising above her jackassery. You are controlling your response, and that’s always useful. 

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When you find yourself in this position, take lots of deep breaths, stay completely grounded in the work rather than the behavior, let go of how you think things should be, and block that jackass out of your mental space. It can be quite liberating. And remember you can always report your concerns to a firm leader who has the authority to act.

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If you’re a leader, I think you ignore jackasses at your peril. Yes, dealing with them is certainly unpleasant and time consuming. But ignoring them is fatal to morale and productivity. Jackasses can suck all the vitality out of your firm, and they are often effective at pushing good people out. Some jackasses are salvageable and some need to be shown the door. It’s your job to figure out which is which — quickly.

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Option Three: Redirect

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Here’s the trickiest approach of all: finding a way to harness the jackass energy and turn it into something productive. It’s really a combination of confronting and ignoring, which requires great wisdom, timing and creativity. Like the first choice, redirecting is best employed by one who outranks the jackass. 

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If you’re in this position, find a purpose for your troublesome colleague that: keeps him productive; limits his human contact to those who are relatively unfazed by his behavior; and keeps him on your radar, so he knows he’s being observed and so you remember to pay attention.

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While this approach does involve a lot of mentoring and almost superhuman patience, it may mean you get to keep a team member who has many talents and much to offer — but only if you can teach him to leave the destructive behavior behind.

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professional development, leadership, management, communication

Comments



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Matt Freeland
04/02/2015 9:30am
Was reminded today of this very blog...
Bryan Coleman, CPA
03/05/2015 3:28pm
There is such wisdom in your last paragraph on point 2. "A leader who ignores a jackass does so at their own peril." I love this and those leaders should prepare the results of having a jackass around.\r\n\r\nAccountants often conjure the image of a nerdy introvert, which can often be the case. It makes for hunkering down on a tax problem easier, but if you're a business owner you need to be able to let your employees know who is the boss and what is or isn't acceptable. Failure to do so will lead to good talent walking out the door.