Tolerating the Talented Tyrant

You’ve met him or her in hallways of tech companies, creative agencies and law firms. You’ve heard the yelling and seen the tantrums. Maybe you’ve also witnessed the moments of genius or felt the queasy feeling when the much-lauded employee made another snide remark.

For the team members of one tech company, the tyrant is a software designer. While the rest of the team develops B2B SaaS solutions in the common room and bonds over personal lives, the tyrant resides in his private corner office. Every few days, he emerges, and small groups of his colleagues scatter.

“Who’s responsible for these title ideas? They’re atrocious!”

“Is this supposed to be a plan for our new soft launch?”

The tyrant, who goes by Bill, is sure he’s brilliant. Unfortunately, so are the people who hired him, and HR has indicated he’s here to stay. After all, he helped create the company’s flagship software. But, he’s also made the new intern cry and calls the company coaching offerings “wastes of time.” He never shows up for feedback meetings and is completely out of alignment with the team.

Now what?

Talented tyrants are present in just about every industry. Sometimes they are tolerated because, as a culture, we think great genius somehow pairs naturally with dysfunction. Thankfully, that doesn’t have to be the case.

Understanding the role of the worker helps us understand what he or she brings and can instill a glimmer of appreciation, even in difficult situations.

If you’re in the sightlines of a talented tyrant -- or just working in the same department -- you may want someone else to see the harm the misalignment is doing and then sweep in to vanquish the ogre. It rarely works that way.

If the ungenial genius is someone with tenure or contributions the company cannot afford to let go, it’s time to re-slant the discussion. It’s easy to make endless complaints about the latest outrageous demand, but it’s more productive to ask: What is this person doing here? What does he or she contribute? Understanding the role of the worker helps us understand what he or she brings and can instill a glimmer of appreciation, even in difficult situations.

It’s also useful to ask what the situation is teaching. Can this situation help team members excel in new ways? Consider the gift or lesson this person offers. Dealing with someone difficult can be the push some team members need to find new work opportunities elsewhere. This sort of circumstance also invites leaders to ask what sort of workplace they stand for. Often, someone who bounces up against our boundaries creates some soul-searching thought about who we want to be, now and in the future.

Each member of a team can move inward. What will it take to succeed personally, even in this environment? In some cases, this may mean speaking out about a toxic work environment, moving departments or changing a work approach. When individuals start asking “What can I do?” they stop focusing on the problem (and feeding the tyrant’s ego) and instead move into a more creative space to explore possibilities. It doesn’t mean the tyrant is off the hook, but it does mean that, on an individual level, team members start looking for viable solutions.

It can also be instructional to explore tolerances. Why is the talented genius tolerated? Is it a scarcity mindset -- an assumption there aren’t others who can do the work? If so, it might be useful to examine the validity of this assumption. Has the true scope of the bad behaviors and their impacts not been discussed? This may be important feedback to pass along.

Leadership can also examine tolerances and ask what the team gets from tolerating bad behavior. There is often an underlying benefit to allowing the tyrant to rage. Perhaps it feels safer not to seek other talent. New workers, after all, mean change, and change is scary. Firing a contracted employee can also lead to financial losses or the threat of a lawsuit.

It’s easy to take things personally when a talented genius rages, but taking a step back and evaluating can help you break through the obstacles such an employee poses

It can be useful to consider what the team thinks will be lost in eliminating the drama. In some workplaces, a diva employee provides a rush of adrenaline, and team members may inadvertently be blaming the tyrant for everything that goes wrong. It can be uncomfortable indeed to consider what else may be contributing to dramatics. Once we eliminate the tyrant, there may be no one else to blame. Then what?

Once these conversations take place, a team can discuss ways to shift from tolerating a tyrant to creating a plus. Maybe it is time for a new team member -- someone who aligns with the team. Or, maybe leadership can make self-development absolutely mandatory for all employees. Shifting to a coaching culture may make even tyrants more self-aware or at least push teams to handle challenges more effectively. Or, perhaps it’s time for flex-work arrangements to allow team members to work from home and enjoy better work-life balance and space.

In some workplaces, tyrannical behavior rides the razor’s edge of emotional or verbal abuse. Drama morphs into a toxic workplace. At this point, it’s important to consider one’s own leadership journey. Which fights do you consider worth fighting? Hone your discernment and define what fighting looks like for you. Does it mean meeting with leadership or seeking legal help? Does it mean asking for more support, maybe from a coach who has experience in shifting toxic work environments?

When the tyrant is back in the lair and everyone on the team is reeling from the latest outburst, it may be a good time to start getting curious and having the impactful discussions. It’s easy to take things personally when a talented genius rages, but taking a step back and evaluating can help you break through the obstacles such an employee poses. You may find that there are many pathways to working with talent that don’t involve egos, headaches or drama.

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