The answer is almost universally, yes. But there is a caveat.
And it’s a big caveat.
For any individual to make behavioral changes requires a significant amount of work. Stressful, challenging and in some cases emotionally challenging work. We’ve spent years becoming who we are and perfecting our persona, good or bad. Acknowledging that need to change is a challenge unto itself. And then actually deciding and committing to change who we have been is a huge decision and commitment. It’s bigger than deciding to leave our job, move to a new city, or start a new relationship.
It’s emotionally charged.
And it affects our self-esteem to our very core.
In many ways deciding to make changes to who we are is a contradiction, especially for some of our Brilliant Jerks. Because for most of their lives they have been rewarded for this bad behavior, promoted for their aggressive attitude, and even received awards for “getting things done”.
And suddenly they need to change?
So you really have three distinct challenges:
- Getting the Brilliant Jerk to acknowledge that change is necessary.
- Identifying the changes that need to be made
- Making the changes to the bad or improper behaviors
And if these 3 are not challenging enough, there is actually a 4th challenge as well. Getting those around them to acknowledge the changes, put aside their old views of the Brilliant Jerk, and accepting them for who they now are.
And this challenge may actually be the biggest challenge of them all.
People have become accustomed to the bad behaviors and while they may not like them, they actually do expect them. They are part and parcel of who the Brilliant Jerk is and are often inseparable from the Brilliant Jerk themselves. The consistent bad behavior is such a part of the Brilliant Jerk that people are numbed by it, expect it and have their defenses at full alert. In the presence of the Brilliant Jerk, or even while just hearing the latest gossip about them, they wear a suit of armor to protect themselves. This armor protects them from harm, fends off or reduces the pain of most blows, and insulates them from the attacks that are certain to come.
But that suit of armor also distorts their reality and may well hinder them from seeing the changes that the Brilliant Jerk is trying to make. They may not notice the steps being taken by the Brilliant Jerk to change their behaviors and therefore not acknowledge the very changes and sacrifices the Brilliant Jerk is making.
Let me give an example to clarify.
Let’s imagine that the “jerkiness” in question comes from an inordinate amount of attention to detail. Small details. Details that don’t seem to matter to anyone but them. For whatever reason they become aware of this behavior and decide to make a conscious effort to change it. Over the course of the next week 9 instances arise where the temptation to provide additional and (in their mind) very important details. But because they are aware of this perception and are trying hard to modify their behavior, they hold off. They bite their tongue until it nearly bleeds, holding back detail that no one else is thinking about. But because no one else is thinking about those details both the details and their lack of commentary both get over looked.
In the 10th instance they cannot or do not hold themselves back. The Brilliant Jerk announce to the group that they have missed certain details and they, quite naturally are happy to provide them.
That behavior, the inclusion of unnecessary detail is viewed as “normal” for them. And when they bring it up, people roll their eyes, look away, or do whatever is necessary to block this from their current reality. But at the same time they think, “Well, there he/she goes again. Like this is really important.” By providing that additional detail they have fulfilled their expectations, like always. And those 9 times they didn’t supply additional detail? Well, since no one was looking for them, the opportunity went totally over looked.
The only thing more difficult that changing your behavior is to get others to acknowledge the changes.
So what now? How do we get the Brilliant Jerk to acknowledge and change their behavior?
The first step is to get the Brilliant Jerk to even acknowledge that a problem exists. There are several things that might bring this behavior into the light of day. Here are a couple of possibilities.
- Direct feedback from their boss.
- As their boss that feedback might come directly from you. Sitting down one on one with the Brilliant Jerk and having that long overdue heart to heart conversation where you acknowledge their contributions, but at the same time address the challenges and insist on changes.
- As part of a group exercise that often comes out of team training. Exercises like DISC training, Johari Window feedback or other group exercises can sometimes cause the Brilliant Jerk to look inward and begin to question their own effectiveness. This is probably the least intrusive of the options.
- Similar to b) above the group exercise leads to “truth telling” inside the group and the Brilliant Jerks behaviors are called out by the group. While this can be an effective catalyst for change, beware because even Brilliant Jerks have feelings and their ego might be damaged.
- As the result of a 360 assessment. The 360 assessment is an effective but risky tool used by many organizations to uncover challenges or problems. When administered by an expert the tool provides feedback to the subject and anonymity to the respondents. When not administered properly the results may be used by the subject to “weed out” those that don’t agree with them.
There are other ways of course, or more variations on the items above. But seldom does it happen that the Brilliant Jerk just looks in the mirror and decides to change.
What happens next?
Once the problem has been acknowledged we move along to discovering the source of the issues, the number and types of bad behaviors being displayed, and the potential remedies. This is where Executive Coaching can help.
What does an Executive Coach do? A good coach works with the client where they are and helps them discover their own path to new behaviors. They help them identify the destructive behaviors and help their client create a path to change. The coach works side by side with their client not leading them to solutions, but helping the clients find the right path for themselves. The coach is there as an honest partner with their client and will call things exactly as they see them. This leads to a brief discussion about the 3 pillars of any coaching relationship.
Trust is the foundational piece in any coaching relationship. The coach and client must trust each other explicitly. The client must know that the coach will not judge them by what they say or do but instead be there to help them every step of the way. Likewise the coach must know that the client trusts their judgement and will accept the feedback provided in the exact way it was intended, for the benefit of the client themselves. When the coach and client do not trust each other the relationship breaks down and progress grinds to a halt.
The second pillar in the coaching relationship is honesty and it goes hand in hand with trust. The client must value honesty in their feedback from the coach and the coach must know that the client is honestly expressing not only their feelings but their words as well. If the coach is not honest with the client, if they sugarcoat the truth or fail to call out the behaviors of the client when necessary then they are not serving their client properly. Likewise when the client provides less than honest commentary to the coach then they are masking the problems that exist and inhibit their own progress toward their goals.
Last but certainly not least is confidentiality. The client must know that everything they say to the coach is 100% confidential and will not be leaked back to the organization or the client’s boss. Simply put, without confidentiality there can be no honesty. And without honesty there can be no trust. If the coach is feeding back information to the client’s boss (the sponsor), breaking confidentiality and breaking trust then the client will not be forthcoming in the coaching sessions and progress will be illusory.
Does that mean that the coach cannot provide progress reports on the client? Not at all. But it does mean that those progress reports will be based on high level progress reports agreed upon in advance by the coach, client, and sponsor. The sponsor should be able to measure progress based on the results they are seeing rather than upon details of confidential coaching sessions.
Let’s return for a minute to the 4th challenge listed above; getting credit for changing behaviors. This is a special challenge for a number of reasons including ego, emotional safety, and personal self-worth. For coaching to be successful and for the client to get credit for changing their behaviors they must first acknowledge the need for change. In other words, they have to be willing to tell their peers and subordinates that they have received the message about their behaviors and desire to change. They are in effect, publicly announcing their weaknesses. I routinely tell my clients to acknowledge the areas that we are working on and to ask for the assistance of their peers and direct reports in making the changes. As you might guess, this is a huge issue for many of our Brilliant Jerks. Acknowledging weakness is certainly not something they are used to doing and this can be a very painful process.
But the benefits far outweigh the pain.
Let’s go back to our example above where our Brilliant Jerk is overly focused on details. And let’s imagine that our Brilliant Jerk is now aware of the issue and working hard to resolve it. By acknowledging to his peers and direct report that this weakness exists and asking for their help, he is calling attention to the situation. Now when he sits in meetings people are more actively looking for those “jerk” opportunities. And when our Brilliant Jerk moves through those minefields and avoids blowing himself up, those around him will actually notice and give him credit for the changes. Then on that 10 instance when he fails to hold back the details he can be gently reminded by the team and make the necessary corrections. I often recommend code words or phrases as a way to call out the residual behavior. Code words are simple reminders or hints that raise the awareness of the issue without being antagonistic. So instead of saying, “Bob, you are way too much into the detail again” the peer group might simply remind Bob that “rain is in the forecast”. It’s non-obtrusive and non-judgmental but helps Bob become aware so that he can adjust.
Yes, your Brilliant Jerk can be saved. But he can’t do it on his own.