80. How do “Brilliant Jerks” fit into modern workplace transformation | Dr. Katrina Burrus Author of Managing Brilliant Jerks


Dr. Katrina Burrus | Author of Managing Brilliant Jerks



Welcome to Episode 80 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The Future of Work is NOW.

Everyone knows a “brilliant jerk,” someone who would be fired if they weren’t so technically qualified, and therefore indispensable.  They can be toxic, abrasive, and demoralizing. Our guest today, Dr. Katrina Burrus is one of the world’s leading experts on international leadership and the author of Managing Brilliant Jerks.
In this first episode with Katrina, we discuss her definition of a “Brilliant Jerk” and see how it fits into modern workplace transformation. And more importantly we ask, “Why should we care about this topic?”



Katrina Burrus web


Katrina is one of the world’s leading experts on international leadership.  She is a Master Certified Coach, and facilitates a mastermind for CEO’s of international companies. Author of three books: Abrasive LeadersGlobal Nomadic Leaders, and Managing Brilliant Jerks. She’s worked with Nestle, Novartis, and even the United Nations.  She is especially good at helping in Transforming Brilliant Jerks into Inspiring Leaders and/or helping executives succeed in a new assignment. 




[00:00:00] - Katrina Burrus
If you can help somebody realize and put light on their blind spots, that will help the company overall, I think it's well worthwhile.

[00:00:17] - Doug Foulkes
Hello and welcome to Episode 80 of Chaos & Rocketfuel, the Future of Work podcast. This is the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn. I am, as always, with Claire Haidar, who's the CEO at WNDYR. Claire, how are you today?

[00:00:38] - Claire Haidar
Doug, I'm really, really good. I have to share something with you, because both of us are mountain biking nerds, even though I haven't been on a bike in so long because of my pregnancy and and and. But on our farm here, we went and explored a trail that we've just cut into the mountain, which is just beautiful, pristine mountain biking. I need to get you to our farm in Virginia.

[00:01:02] - Doug Foulkes
Get your husband to get his drone out and send me some drone footage.

[00:01:05] - Claire Haidar
Okay, I don't know if we'll, because it's such a thick forest that it's almost fully covered, but I'll definitely, I'll try to get the drones up there. Yeah. So had to share that piece of news with you today. Good to be on the podcast with you again.

[00:01:20] - Doug Foulkes
So back to reality. Today, we are talking for the first time to Dr. Katrina Burrus. Tell me a little bit about why she's on the podcast.

[00:01:28] - Claire Haidar
Very important to note that she is a researcher in a very particular area of work, which she herself defines as brilliant jerks. The reason why I wanted to bring her onto the show with us is because it's a persona, a character in the workplace today that a lot of people do struggle with. When you get into intimate conversations with people over dinner, et cetera, these stories about people's interactions with what she's terming brilliant jerks often surface and yet there isn't really a strategy out there in terms of how to cope and deal with these people.

[00:02:09] - Claire Haidar
So I thought it would be really good, considering that we look at everything about work today, but also in the future, it's important that we wrap our heads around these characters and understand the role they play and how to work with them.

[00:02:24] - Doug Foulkes
What do we talk about specifically in this first segment?

[00:02:27] - Claire Haidar
So we actually go into her academic research and the definition of it. I jokingly said at the start of the conversation, I think a lot of people who work with me would call me, not necessarily brilliant, but they would definitely define me as a jerk on some days.

[00:02:44] - Claire Haidar
I think a lot of leaders who are very honest with themselves will say that, yes, there's definitive times with your team and your leadership peers feel that about you. So what makes the average everyday jerkish interaction different from somebody who is consistently a brilliant jerk? We actually ask the question, why should HR managers, leaders, and people and companies as a whole actually care about this topic today.

[00:03:12] - Doug Foulkes
Okay, so let's head on over and hear what Katrina has to say.

[00:03:16] - Claire Haidar
Katrina, I'm going to start us off. What I'd like us to do is before we get into the real heart of this topic, I'd like us to just take a bit of a step back and look at this more broadly in the context of what's going on in the world right now, but also just getting down to your personal definition so that we understand the framework and the lens through which you're approaching this topic.

[00:03:39] - Claire Haidar
This is something that you've gone into very deeply. You've written a book about it. You have done incredibly deep research in this area, and it's specifically what you've termed brilliant jokes. Starting the conversation off today, can I ask you to give us your academic definition of what a brilliant jerk is?

[00:04:03] - Katrina Burrus
A brilliant jerk is somebody that is brilliant because they're very good technicians or experts, are highly focused on a certain area. They have a leadership position, so they influence a lot of people, and they're interpersonally blind, that's their blind area, so they cause suffering in the workplace by their interaction with other people. They leave them feeling a little distraught or lack of confidence. So it's an abrasive type of relationship, mostly not all the time. It can have that long term effect on people.

[00:04:48] - Claire Haidar
Okay. That certainly sets up the conversation for us to understand what that academic definition is. I think it will really provide context that we can keep coming back to as we dive into multiple avenues, because this is it's a topic that touches people personally, but also really does impact work and how work happens. So, Doug, over to you.

[00:05:10] - Doug Foulkes
Thanks, Claire. Hi, Katrina. Nice to meet you.

[00:05:13] - Katrina Burrus
Yes. Hello?

[00:05:14] - Doug Foulkes
Why is this a topic that you considered important enough to do as much research and say write the book and get as deeply involved in as you have done?

[00:05:23] - Katrina Burrus
For two reasons. One, since they're in leadership position and they're interpersonally blind, they're intelligence is very focused on the cortex, fast thinking, technical, but the relational aspect is underdeveloped, let's say. And so because they have leadership position, they can cause a lot of pain interacting with other people, to a great extent.

[00:05:52] - Katrina Burrus
I thought it was important to, one, work with these people that are bright and valuable to their company because they are brilliant, they bring something to the company that they want to keep. I think it's worthwhile to really work with them so that they cause less suffering in the workplace.

[00:06:14] - Katrina Burrus
That's one. Second, on a business level. I've been in coaching for long, long time. I was a master certified coach by the ICF in 2002. I noticed that in the beginning, I had a huge amount of pressure because I was in this new business, and then people were giving schools and there were more and more coaches, and even my hairdresser became a coach, but she's a very good hairdresser, but after a week in course, I'm not sure she was as good as a coach. I thought, where is there a place where there's a blue ocean? The red ocean is highly competitive and there's a blue ocean.

[00:06:59] - Katrina Burrus
I thought, well, this probably is an area that's much more difficult. But with a lot of experience, I felt more confident doing it. There was also another influence is that as coaches were pretty expensive, more and more companies were having internal coaches. So they were developing their own coaches within the company. So that was another competition in the market that I was seeing.

[00:07:28] - Katrina Burrus
So I thought, yes, well, where even people internal to the company would hesitate to take a coaching contract to. For example, I worked a lot for Nestle. They developed their internal coaches, but they always called me when they had a very difficult person. So that's the business reason.

[00:07:49] - Katrina Burrus
The emotional reason to summarize is that, I think, if you can help somebody realize and put light on their blind spots, that will help the company overall, I think it's well worthwhile to help them, because if you fire them, they'll Just start all over again because that's all they know at that time. I doubt if without a real interpersonal development, they will change their ways.

[00:08:18] - Claire Haidar
Katrina, I want to go deeper into that with you because you've started answering the question that I want to ask is, which is why should we care about this topic? I like what you said there is that this is a necessary behavior to intercept in the work place, to bring awareness to the individual, but ultimately to also create healthier workplaces.

[00:08:39] - Claire Haidar
So how do you start the process of working with a brilliant jerk? What is the process typically look like?

[00:08:48] - Katrina Burrus
Okay, that would take another hour, but I'll summarize. First of all, what's important to know is that it's usually not the brilliant jerk that wants the coaching.

[00:08:58] - Claire Haidar
Yeah. I was thinking that, which is why I asked the question.

[00:09:02] - Katrina Burrus
It's usually their boss or their board members that decided that there's too many people that there's a higher turnover in a certain department of a multinational or there's higher turnover overall in a smaller company. So they asked for a coach to help this person.

[00:09:21] - Katrina Burrus
Now, obviously, they are not going to invest in somebody if they don't think they're valuable in other areas. That's why I say brilliant jerks. I find out what is the behavior, what is the cause of the behavior, how much it's costing to have this behavior? So that is with the person that is hiring me.

[00:09:42] - Katrina Burrus
Then I interact with the person, the cause of this coaching. My objective is only to bring them to be curious enough to know how they're perceived in the company, both in their brilliance and in their interpersonal behavior. So get them to be curious.

[00:10:03] - Katrina Burrus
I don't tell them they have to do anything. I mean, these leaders are very strong personalities, it's not for me to tell them. I just try to entice them by saying why they think I'm here, what do they perceive? Then that gives me an awareness of how much they're aware of.

[00:10:23] - Katrina Burrus
Then I said I could do some research work to see how they're perceived both in the positive and what could be make them more productive. I don't say strength and weakness. Where are they brilliant and where can the relationships be more productive.

[00:10:40] - Katrina Burrus
So that first session is not to tell them what to do is to get their curious enough to want the next step. Of course, usually I make sure that the boss or the person hierarchically higher has talked to them, and sometimes they don't because there's two things. I will ask, so what did your boss say or what did the board members say? There might be a big discrepancy between what they tell me and what they tell the person. Or it could be two things that they're in denial or the information wasn't clear.

[00:11:18] - Katrina Burrus
Then I need to make sure that they talk. Sometimes these are very strong personalities and their boss might be an avoidant leader. In that case, they're not really telling them in so many words what the issue is. If that's the case, I bring them together to have a conversation, the three of us.

[00:11:39] - Katrina Burrus
But usually I prep the avoidant leader to talk to his direct report beforehand. I talk to the brilliant jerk to make sure that this, for him, it's an information and that he is not to respond to it, is just collecting information. For the coach, what's important is to see how they interact and to see what is being said that the other person may not hear. So that's the first step. Then how much time they will give me to see tangible differences in behavior.

[00:12:16] - Katrina Burrus
The other thing that's very important because I would like more people to do what I do because I think it really makes a difference and it helps the [inaudible 00:12:24] be a better place, to have them make this first appointment and have clarity that it's not just an act that they're doing to have a good conscience, but they're already thinking of firing him because you don't want to be used as an instrument to get information to be fired, to fire your client to. So that's very important because sometimes they created so much pain and so much strife in the organization that people get together and do a coup. If that's the case, it's almost too late.

[00:13:01] - Doug Foulkes
Katrina, I just have a thought, the brilliant part, I would imagine, is more consistent that people are brilliant at what they're doing. But the jerk element, do you find that's much more on a continuum? Or does it have to get to a certain point before you get involved?

[00:13:17] - Katrina Burrus
Usually, it just gets to a certain point. For example, I'll give an example of a client of mine. He was brilliant at closing deals and bringing in a lot of money. So his boss was very protective because it made him look good, too.

[00:13:35] - Katrina Burrus
So sometimes they'll protect them until it becomes so obvious that there's an issue. That way you have to be sure you're not coming too late.

[00:13:45] - Doug Foulkes
That brings us to the end of the first part of our conversation with expert in international leadership, Katrina Buruss. To dig deeper into the topic of brilliant jerks and what to do when you come across one in your workplace, make sure to catch the next two parts of this conversation on Spotify, Google or Apple podcasts or on WNDYR's website, wndyr.com. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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