It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

4th January, 2018 by Sarah Brennan

“Oh isn’t he just amazing? He can do no wrong. Oh look at what a superstar he is. Yay.” I was annoying myself with my own sarcastic thoughts. But it was true, Alan was like a cat; whichever way he fell, he always landed on his feet. And he always seemed to get the cream too; pay rises, recognition, praise, status. Eugh.

Having just read the above, you may find what I’m about to say difficult to believe, but I’m normally the first to be happy for someone to receive these rewards and recognition. The work I do is all about helping people to grow, develop and succeed, and nothing makes me happier than seeing people achieve their goals and reap the rewards. So what was so different here? Well, aside from it being earlier in my career when I allowed my immaturity to rear its ugly head, the issue was probably far less to do with Alan and more to do with his manager, I just didn’t project my frustrations in that direction at the time.

I’m not denying that Alan wasn’t good at his job, he was. In fact, he was brilliant at his job. He had worked in Sales for years so had tons of experience, he smashed every target, met every deadline and was closing deals at a ratio of 3:1 compared to the rest of the team. It was how Alan did his job that I, along with pretty much the rest of the business, took issue with.

Alan was a classic pitbull. Yes, he undeniably got results, but in doing so, he left a trail of destruction behind. He could be extremely charming, but was aggressive in his approach, swore (a lot), made inappropriate jokes that humiliated and belittled others, and he certainly seemed to think he was a gift sent from above that we should all be eternally grateful for. After all, we “all had jobs thanks to [him]”. Yes, he actually said that. If this guy had been a celebrity, he would have been Justin Bieber back when we could all see him digging his own grave as a result of believing his own hype.

This wasn’t the first time I’d come across a pitbull, but it was the first time I’d experienced this behaviour actually being tolerated in a business; in fact, not just tolerated, rewarded. The negative impact of the situation was two-fold; Alan annoyed everyone himself with his rudeness, arrogance and lack of respect for others but, perhaps more seriously, people were losing faith in the business as a whole, because no one was doing anything about this. The culture was on a downward spiral, with brilliant employees concluding that “this isn’t the business for me” and “you know how to get ahead in this business, be a total idiot” (or slightly stronger words to that effect!).    

In a bid to try to understand why Alan’s manager did nothing to nip this highly damaging behaviour in the bud (and why he always seemed slightly scared of him), I tried to put myself in his shoes and imagined giving Alan feedback.That’s when I realised just how hard it is to manage the Alans of the world. Try to give someone like Alan feedback on what they need to change, and they’ll hit you with a string of questions that force you to acknowledge just how good they are at what they do. “Have I ever not delivered? When have I ever missed a deadline? Do I add value to this company? Who’s your top salesperson?”. As Alan’s manager, what do you say? You can’t deny it, he’s good at his job! And when rewards are based on achieving targets, meeting deadlines and bringing in the money as opposed to how targets are met, people like Alan are encouraged to keep up this toxic behaviour.

A few years ago I came across Netflix’s approach to managing  Alans, who they aptly name ‘Brilliant Jerks’, and it helped me to realise that if a business wants a culture that engenders trust, positivity, support, no blame, AND success, then there is no place for an Alan. As a business, you have to empower everyone, not just one single manager, to challenge this behaviour and adopt a zero tolerance approach. If the business I was in back then had done that, I’m sure Alan’s manager could have dealt with the situation far sooner, bringing out more of Alan’s strengths and minimising his damaging behaviours.

So here are a few tips on how to stop pitbulls from negatively impacting on the culture of your business and how you can manage them effectively:


1) Review your company values and ensure you identify behaviours that accompany them

By identifying both positive and negative behaviours for each value, people will be clear on what is and isn’t acceptable. The most important part of this exercise is communicating clearly what is expected from people behaviourally, then embedding this through holding people accountable for negative behaviours and rewarding the positive.


2) Reward people for how they go about their work, not just what they achieve

A team of average individuals working effectively together will outperform brilliant individuals working independently, so review your reward structure. Do you encourage individual targets or team targets?


3) Act now!

Don’t put off giving feedback, do it at the first suitable opportunity and within 48 hours. Delaying feedback gives the impression that it’s not that important – this includes positive feedback too.


4) Role model

It’s difficult to hold others accountable for negative behaviour when you don’t role model positive behaviour yourself. Behaviour also breeds behaviour, so the more positive you are, the easier it will be for others to behave in the same way.


5) Be assertive

Pitbulls are, without doubt, challenging to manage. So be assertive and use the behavioural measures from 1) to help them to see how they can improve their behaviour. Be specific about what you need to see from them and clear about what the consequences of not improving are.

Now in case you’re wondering what happened to Alan, I’d love to end this blog by saying that his manager sat him down and used all of the tips above to give him specific feedback, from which he was able to make a miraculous turnaround. But that would, unfortunately, be a huge fib. Alan actually chose to leave; seems he grew tired of singlehandedly upholding the entire business and being the only source of income generation and success (*cough). And guess what, the business survived! Actually, the business thrived; the culture took a while to recover as the hangover of Alan’s behaviour remained, but it did slowly improve. The business also seemed to recognise just how detrimental Alan’s behaviour had been and adjusted how they recruited to make sure they went for people fit over capability – it really is amazing how much more a team working well together can achieve, than brilliant individuals working independently.

If you’re reading this and saying to yourself ‘I think I now work with Alan’, then forward this blog to your management team and allow him to get the feedback he should have had years ago!


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