The High-Functioning Executive Jackass

The challenges of working with or for a split-personality.

Posted Jun 30, 2014

Have you ever worked with or for a complete and raving maniac and wondered how he or she kept his or her job?  Then you may have worked for an Executive Jackass.  In our world, we love to rationalize irrational behavior, especially when the warning signs are right in our faces.  When it comes to drug-using movie producers, “Well, his last film did make a lot of money,” or CEOs who buy multi-million-dollar homes as the company loses billions, “He’s a visionary leader,” or the female executive who throws things at people during meetings, “But our clients think she’s great,” we like to look past the obvious point, which is they need to either change or go.

In the world of celebrities, sports, entertainment, or global business, we tend to admire excessive executive behavior, reward those who have horrible personalities but who entertain us, promote those who make us a lot of money, and write off their collision courses with others as eccentric, not fixable, or even charming.  “Yes, he did cost us $1.2 million for those multiple cases of quid pro quo sexual harassment, but we knew he was a bit of a rogue when we hired him.  Nobody knows our computer system better.”  

What seems clear in retrospect is ethically fuzzy in the moment.  Senior people get away with bad behavior in organizations because there are often no consequences for what they do or any support for the people they hurt or who make complaints about them.  Countless coaching meetings, pages and pages of Performance Improvement Plans, and even veiled or actual threats of termination (which is not always serious or taken seriously by the Executive Jackass) doesn’t create enough momentum for positive change.

The woods are full of these disease-laden trees, ranging from the “disruptive physician” (a phrase actually used by the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Facilities to describe doctors with outrageous behaviors) who throws surgical instruments at nurses during procedures, to the founding partner attorney who belittles his junior associates and paralegals with shouts and threats, to the IT Director who bullies her staff with sarcasm, hostility, and daily threats of termination.

As my dad, Dr. Karl Albrecht (a prolific blogger here), always says, “Your strength, when taken to an extreme, becomes a weakness.”  What makes a lot of irritable, irascible, and irritating executives so bad is actually what makes them so good in the opposite.  The strengths of their approach to business are what make them great at many valuable things.  This includes their creativity, energy, enthusiasm, passion, assertiveness, drive, desire for results, and workaholism.  They are good under stress, dynamic in front of certain groups, and they measure themselves constantly.  Customers often love them, and the company, its board of directors, or its senior leadership secretly or overtly admires their ability to make money and lots of it.  Their approach of putting results over people and dollars over empathy for others may even appeal to some technical or financial leaders in the organization who see the world in a similar way.

But the dark side is plenty dark.  They are not good team players, they seem to function in a constant state of anger and hostility, and as bosses, they enjoy “churn,” which is their way of keeping people out of their comfort zones by creating drama.  They cannot work in teams where they are not the true leader, mostly because their narcissistic entitlements get in the way if they are not in charge.  They are masters at game-playing and office politics, especially when it contributes to their scorekeeping and one-upmanship tactics.

While women can be Executive Jackasses too, men seem to have cornered the market.  Male Executives Jackasses often practice serial misogyny, belittling women at all levels and allowing glass ceiling limitations and pay disparities to continue on their watch.

A lot of this behavior is rationalized in others in mind-boggling ways: “He’s our best salesman.  She’s been here a long time.  What can we do about it now?  He’s related to the company owner or married into the family of the founders.  He has the most amount of technical expertise and our vendors love him.  We tried coaching her and it didn’t work.  The Board and our lawyers talked to him and he changed for a little while but then went right back to his old ways.”  It’s worse when their bosses are actually afraid of them and let these behaviors go on for years.  

Another hallmark of the Executive Jackass is his or her use of passive-aggressive behavior when confronted.  When they are actually challenged by courageous HR Directors, company attorneys, or company board members, they respond by stopping both their negative ways and their positive ones. “Fine.  I’ll just sit in my office with the door closed.  I won’t talk to anyone, including co-workers, colleagues, or clients.  That will show them for trying to break my spirit.”

This is the paradox the Executive Jackass creates: we want their strengths and not their weaknesses; we want their performance without the accompanying hassles that violate our policies, hurt the business, and cause other employees to sue us or quit.

Responding to the Executive Jackass takes courage, coaching, and the kind of patience necessary to lose weight.  We got fat one day at a time, so it’s going to take one day at a time to lose the weight.  Changing their hard-bitten personalities will take time and it will usually have to happen at the point of a sword.  It will take a coaching plan, senior executives or HR executives who can: confront their usual minimizing, rationalizing, denial, and blaming behaviors; run several structured coaching meetings to redirect their dominant personalities; and enforce consequences, including suspensions, transfers, demotions, or firing them.

Truth told, when company leaders get to the crossroads point where they finally terminate an Executive Jackass, they re-discover something they knew all along: things get better around here and people start enjoying coming to work once the serial disrupter is finally out of the building.

Dr. Steve Albrecht is internationally-known for his writing, speaking, and training on workplace violence and school violence prevention.  He manages a San Diego-based training and consulting firm specializing in high-risk human resources issues, organizational security concerns, and work culture improvement.  He holds a doctorate in Business Administration, an MA in Security Management, a BS in Psychology, and a BA in English.  He is board certified in HR, security, and employee coaching.  His 15 books include: Tough Training Topics; Service! Service! Service!; Added Value Negotiating; Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace (written in 1994 as one of the first books on this subject); and Fear and Violence on the Job.  He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years.  He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht