82. How to communicate and collaborate with “Brilliant Jerks” in the Future of Work | Dr Katrina Burrus Author of Managing Brilliant Jerks


Dr. Katrina Burrus | Author of Managing Brilliant Jerks



Welcome to Episode 82 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.

In the past 2 episodes we have discovered 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,  Dr Katrina Burrus is one of the world’s leading experts on international leadership and the author of Mastering Brilliant Jerks. She is a Master Certified Coach and facilitates a mastermind for CEO’s of international companies.

In this final episode with her, we look more at the practical applications of dealing with “Brilliant Jerks” and their part in potentially disrupting workplace transformation. We learn how to communicate and collaborate with a brilliant jerk and whether you should accept their behavior or work around it.



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
Well, a lot of abrasive leaders don't develop their direct reports because they feel threatened that they might take their place. They're very insecure. So it's counterintuitive. Here they seem so sure of themselves, but underneath they aren't.

[00:00:19] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to Episode 82 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast. It's all about the future of work. I'm with the CEO of WNDYR and Pattyrn, Claire Haidar, my co-host. Claire, how are you doing today?

[00:00:38] - Claire Haidar
Hey Doug. Good to be on the show with you, and really looking forward to this third conversation that we're having with Katrina.

[00:00:45] - Doug Foulkes
Yes, just tell me a little bit about Katrina for those that maybe didn't catch the first two episodes and what we're wrapping things up with today?

[00:00:53] - Claire Haidar
Yeah. In episode number one, we really looked at her academic research and the definition of a brilliant jerk and how that is different from somebody who may just be having a jerkish day at work. Then in conversation number two with her, we looked at the broader political nuances where this persona is playing out in the workplace today. So we looked at wokism, the MeToo movement, et cetera, and how this impacts that.

[00:01:24] - Claire Haidar
Then in today's conversation, we're getting really practical. This conversation is very much centered on C-level executives, HR leaders, managers of teams, and just people generally who are wanting to work better with all the different personas that they find themselves interacting with in the workplace.

[00:01:45] - Claire Haidar
We're looking at questions like, how does my personal behavior need to adapt in order to work with a brilliant jerk? Where do I need to draw boundaries? How can I collaborate with these personas better? How can I communicate better with them? Also then the very important question of where do we draw that fine line? What's acceptable and what's not acceptable? How much should I as an individual give, and how much should I take?

[00:02:12] - Doug Foulkes
So we covered quite a lot today.

[00:02:13] - Claire Haidar
We did. We really did. Yeah.

[00:02:15] - Doug Foulkes
Okay. Let's head on over and catch up again for the last time with Katrina.

[00:02:20] - Doug Foulkes
If you take myself as an example, I'm working with a brilliant jerk, could you guide me through where my behavior needs to adapt and where I need to draw certain boundaries?

[00:02:30] - Katrina Burrus
Let's take a concrete example. Let's say a brilliant jerk starts screaming at you violently, using their body as a domineering. You can sit there and take at it quietly, or you can say, "Look, I see this is not the right moment. I'll come back when it's a better time." That is putting a boundary. Now, it could make him infuriated. That's possible. But that's also saying, "Look, your behavior is not appropriate. I'll come back at another time." That can help the other person bit more realized. It could make them even more furious. So that's another…

[00:03:12] - Katrina Burrus
What else an example? I would say, for example, a brilliant jerk was in the board meeting and one of the papers weren't there, and they were incredibly distraught. They came out of the board meeting and screamed at his secretary like crazy, and she couldn't take it. This is also what I put in my book. She rushes out in the bathroom and starts crying.

[00:03:39] - Katrina Burrus
Well, the brilliant jerk that comes out at the meeting is, the biggest theory he has is being perceived as incompetent. That's counterintuitive, you would think, but to being perceived as incompetent is like he doesn't exist, and I'll explain later. Then he comes screaming to his assistant. Now, if the assistant understands that the insecurities of the brilliant jerk and what triggers them, they can already preempt the situation.

[00:04:10] - Katrina Burrus
Now, will that situation change? Will he stop screaming? Probably not. But she will know that he has a huge fear because he doesn't have the right paper. Because technically, if he really wanted that right paper for the board meeting, he would talk to her in a very calm way so she has all her ability to find it as quickly as possible. To come out of the board meeting and scream at the top of his lung, shaking and excited is the worst situation for her to find the paper he needs. So it's non-rational. If the person understands that, it makes it a little easier, I would say.

[00:04:51] - Katrina Burrus
But let's go to a deeper level. In my book, Managing Brilliant Jerks, I show that there's a tremendous pressure in the brilliant jerk's upbringing to perform, to the detriment of being. Usually parents love their children for both who they are and what they do. What happens if your parents only gives you love conditionally on what you do? All of a sudden, you're only as good as whatever you do well. Otherwise, you're not loved as a person. I'm exaggerating a bit. But if you understand that, it's very conditional when they feel good about themselves.

[00:05:32] - Katrina Burrus
I'll give you an example of a case. There was an older brother and his sister, and the older brother was the star of the family. They were immigrants, wanted to integrate in the culture faster, and all their hopes were on their eldest son. The eldest son at one point couldn't take the pressure, and left and isolated himself in the country, doing something that would not be perceived as successful by his parents.

[00:06:04] - Katrina Burrus
His sister who wasn't very average at school, did do very well in sports, what do you think happened at that point in time?

[00:06:14] - Doug Foulkes
I'd imagine she would have taken over the role.

[00:06:17] - Katrina Burrus
Absolutely. She started having some of the light that the brother had, and she was put aside. All of a sudden, what did she do? She wanted to be perceived as the one that will take care of her family, provides the fulfillment of their parents hopes, and she started being an overachiever to the detriment of interpersonal relationships. That's one case, but it shows a clear case to what degree their upbringing has consequences of that.

[00:06:50] - Katrina Burrus
The other thing is, I've done many 360-degree feedback, which is feedback from the boss, the peers, and the employees, of how they're perceived in a different criteria. Let's say on the criteria of leadership employees, usually these brilliant jerks are very badly perceived because their employees are saying that the person's tough, that's difficult.

[00:07:15] - Katrina Burrus
Now, I had another case that received these reports always very underperformer in the team and group leadership for five years, but still did not know how to change. Coaching that is customized to the particular and that gives more qualitative feedback of exactly what the person does and how they do it, that provides that perception of abrasiveness so that the person can really know what they need to change if they want to change to have better relationships.

[00:07:53] - Katrina Burrus
Because the one, when I took the case over for five years, he saw that he was underperforming with his team, but he didn't know how to change. Because what got him there was his behavior. Then at one point, they have a glass ceiling, and they can't go any higher because you can't do things alone, and you have to have and delegate the task and the work to other people so that they can be performers, or they also have to have a succession plan and develop the leaders under them.

[00:08:26] - Katrina Burrus
Well, a lot of abrasive leaders don't develop their employees or their direct reports because they feel threatened that they might take their place. They're very insecure. So it's counterintuitive. Here, they seem so sure of themselves, but underneath they aren't.

[00:08:43] - Katrina Burrus
Then most of my clients are action-oriented because they're CEOs or they're highly placed in companies. If you give them information exactly and precisely what they do and say to give a certain perception that's detrimental to their career, then they understand that they can do something about it, because if you just tell them they're terrible and they don't see the action steps to improve, they get very distraught.

[00:09:14] - Doug Foulkes
Katrina, I've got one more question, and I'm going to hand over to Claire. Do you have any specific tips or words to help to communicate and to collaborate with a brilliant jerk? There's one thing to just be around them, but how do you actually collaborate and get things done?

[00:09:30] - Katrina Burrus
I care for the brilliant jerks. I really care for them. I really want them to succeed, very much so. I would do a lot for them, and they feel it. I get the best research and the most specific research I can give them so that they can improve. They're smart people. I have a good respect for them.

[00:09:56] - Claire Haidar
Katrina, get a little bit more specific. That's what you do as a coach. But for somebody listening to this who's an HR professional or who's dealing with a brilliant jerk in their own personal capacity as an employee and team member, give us some tangible ways in which you care for a brilliant jerk.

[00:10:14] - Katrina Burrus
Well, let's say they're overachievers and they'll do anything to overachieve. Let's say that because that's what their brilliance is. Recognize their brilliance, and show them the way that they can be even better at what they do if they were able to develop a certain area of their behavior, and then give them something very tangible to work on, because you don't want to leave them depressed that they're underachieving. You tell them that they're underachieving here after recognizing where they're brilliant, and then give them tangible steps of how they can improve. Let them decide, but give them consequences if they don't change.

[00:10:59] - Claire Haidar
For me, listening to this whole conversation with you between yourself, myself, and Doug today, there's something nagging in the back of my mind related to... This feels like a very fine-line issue, like you're walking a tightrope.

[00:11:17] - Claire Haidar
Because in my experience, having employed quite a few brilliant jerks in our present company and in previous companies, and having encountered a lot of brilliant jerks in client companies that we work with, they are often the catalyst to getting the company to a healthier and a better place. I would even go so far as to say that I think that some people may even label me as a brilliant jerk on certain days. I definitely wouldn't say that I'm that every single day, but there are definitely are times where I know for a fact my co-founder would definitely call me a brilliant jerk.

[00:12:00] - Claire Haidar
What is the fine line that as a leader in an organization, but also as a team member, there's a certain level where you have to teach yourself to work with a brilliant jerk because they create a certain type of momentum in a company, and because they get the team to reach higher levels of excellence. Where is that line where you draw the line and say this is not acceptable?

[00:12:25] - Claire Haidar
The reason why I'm asking this question is naturally, there's the very obvious topics, like sexual innuendos, sexual inappropriateness, all of those very clear black and white issues. Of course, those are hard lines. But there's a certain level of healthy friction that's needed inside a team to actually make a team effective.

[00:12:46] - Claire Haidar
If people are going to read your book and develop the mantra of they should make it their mission to go and get rid of every brilliant jerk out there in the company, I think we actually going to have the opposite effect where we actually going to remove the effectiveness of some teams in some companies because they're not allowing themselves to be pushed out of their comfort zones. Am I making sense?

[00:13:09] - Katrina Burrus
Well, there's several aspects to answering your question. One, everyone can get stressed and be nippy and difficult. What is the difference with a brilliant jerk is on a continual basis, over time. Now, the other element, which might seem like a contradiction, they can be charming with their client, and yet, very difficult with their employees, because they want them to perform.

[00:13:36] - Katrina Burrus
It's overtime distress. You can be stressed and be nippy, but let's say it's a continuous behavior with some moments with other people where the person is charming. The work with a brilliant jerk is, what is their objective and what are the consequences of their behavior, is a constant conversation, because is there a better way they can get what they want with a different behavior? That is an awareness that needs to be developed with a brilliant jerk because they're high performers and we want to keep them high performers.

[00:14:25] - Katrina Burrus
The mindset of the brilliant jerk is that if they're not nice, they won't get the outcome they want. It's like, "Okay, so this is the consequences you want. What are different ways that might be even more effective." See what I mean?

[00:14:41] - Claire Haidar
Yes. Yeah. No, that makes sense. Definitely, that's a helpful framework. Doug, feel free to weigh in here. That's a helpful framework because I want to really call out that as we're going through this era that we're going through in work right now where boundaries are being put in place, you know what I mean? Certain conduct, blinds are being drawn under it, is that we don't take it so far that we remove healthy friction, that we remove healthy conflict out of…

[00:15:15] - Claire Haidar
I think HR leaders and effective leaders overall, whether it be a team leader or a full-on CEO overseeing an entire company, the really brilliant leaders know that friction is necessary and healthy. That often comes from people who are often perceived as the troublemakers or the people who are willing to say the hard things that other people aren't.

[00:15:41] - Claire Haidar
That's the fine line, and I want to pull that out. The principle that you've just shared there in terms of focusing on the outcome but surveying the different methods of coming to that same outcome is a very useful framework through which a departmental leader, a company leader, a single-team leader can build a way through this to find their balance.

[00:16:06] - Katrina Burrus
I will add on two things. One, I interviewed the prior CEO and chairman of Nestlé, and he said, "One of my biggest objective is to reduce complacency. We are by far the biggest health, food, beverage company in the world, and therefore, I have to be sure that people don't get lazy and they keep striving even when we're by far the biggest in that sector." So that's one thing which is important.

[00:16:36] - Katrina Burrus
The other is that on a lighter scale, what is abrasive in America might not be considered abrasive in another country. I coach people from different countries in different places. For example, a European, I would have to make him aware that certain comments in the US are considered abrasive and judgmental. In France, to comment on a woman that she looks pretty, that being flirtatious is almost part of the culture to some degree. Coming over here, it will be totally misinterpreted. You see first the professional, then it's maybe a woman. Well, a lot of men in France might think you got to acknowledge she's a woman and also a professional.

[00:17:29] - Katrina Burrus
There is also like Black Life Matters is very important here in the US. Is it as important in some European countries? Well, there's less of an issue. There's less people of color in the company… In the country, excuse me. They haven't come faced with that situation. Now, with a huge amount of people coming from the south into the northern countries, there's more and more people of different races. The issue will come probably in Europe, but maybe at a later time. Plus, there's a big difference from people that are coming from Africa into European countries than African Americans in the US who have a different situation historically.

[00:18:22] - Katrina Burrus
Some of my work with working with the European is to understand the difference in the culture between what is accepted in Europe and what is accepted in the US, and to understand that some things would be perceived as abrasive.

[00:18:40] - Claire Haidar
Yeah, fully agreed with you. I can speak to that just at a personal level where I was born and raised in South Africa. I have a South African business partner. I'm married to somebody from the Middle East. Their whole family is here in the US. That's my dominant family culture. Then I'm working in a US-centric work culture.

[00:19:05] - Claire Haidar
Just from that, just pure personal lens of mine, I can tell you that the level of openness, transparency, and what you're terming abrasiveness that I see and experience in my family circle—because I'm married to a middle Easterner where that level of abrasiveness is very acceptable in their culture—is entirely different. I would not be able to bring that level of openness into my US workplace.

[00:19:33] - Claire Haidar
That's just me at a personal level. You know what I mean? But I know that when my Middle-Eastern family is being very abrasive and very loud, that there's zero US-version abrasiveness in it. I'm glad that you're adding that nuance in because these are really critical nuances that we cannot and should not ignore when we're dealing with these issues in workplaces.

[00:19:59] - Katrina Burrus
Also, I'll give you another example even. In Switzerland, where I grew up, mostly, they're very underplayed. If they can do 100%, they might say they can do 80%. Your modesty, humility is valued.

[00:20:17] - Katrina Burrus
Well, when I came to the western part of the US, people, if they can do 100%, they might say they can do 120 because they have a unique opportunity to say what they can do in a very highly mobile society. It's now you got to do the sale and not tomorrow because maybe that person won't be there. I'm exaggerating. But just to get the point across.

[00:20:40] - Katrina Burrus
In Switzerland, they're much less mobile. If you overextend your ability, sooner or later, you'll be found out because it's a much more constrained and less immigrant type of society. So these elements are to be taken into account.

[00:21:00] - Doug Foulkes
Katrina, we've just got some off-the-wall questions, just short answers, just to finish off, if that's okay. My first one is, could you tell us about a character trait in people that fascinates you outside of brilliant jerkiness?

[00:21:15] - Katrina Burrus
I love cross-cultural leadership, trying to work in multicultural environments. That fascinates me. I grew up, my father married an Austrian that lived most of her life in Italy. My mother remarried a Dutchman that lived most of his life in France at a very young age. So it was in a multicultural environment, dealing with people from all over the place because their friends came from different countries. I like that. It fascinates me.

[00:21:49] - Doug Foulkes
Yeah, it's a major… You can only but benefit from being in that type of environment. I'm also from the UK, lived in a couple of countries in Europe, and settled in South Africa, so I'm with you on that one.

[00:22:02] - Doug Foulkes
How did this research project change you?

[00:22:05] - Katrina Burrus
To be more understanding, to go deeper in trying to understand the motivation and the fears and how people feel threatened and how they can express it in a more constructive way.

[00:22:22] - Doug Foulkes
What are you researching now? You said you've got a new book, or you've got a title for a new book.

[00:22:30] - Katrina Burrus
Yes, it's really on international leadership, people leading across cultures. My next podcast, it'll be called Excellent International Leadership. I have one that's called Excellent Executive Coaching, which is professionals and experts that can help people in business and in their coaching or leadership position. This one will be really what it requires to have an international leadership and some of the challenges that they will be faced with and how to overcome it.

[00:23:03] - Doug Foulkes
That sounds interesting and exciting in the ever-shrinking world that we're living in now.

[00:23:09] - Katrina Burrus

[00:23:10] - Doug Foulkes
Lastly, from my side, Katrina, who did you write your book for?

[00:23:15] - Katrina Burrus
What a good question. I used to write for academic chapters and books and well-known publishers, and I really wanted to have Managing Brilliant Jerks, the book be for laymen, that easy reading a story. It's a story throughout with text and how the process is going to… How to do the process. But it's a story, and with real examples that I've had in my work environment. I would like to rewrite that kind of book again, real story throughout with things that could help people that are coaching international leaders.

[00:23:58] - Doug Foulkes
Katrina, we are out of time. Before I hand over to Claire to finish off, I'm going to say thank you so much for your time. It's been very interesting to talk to you and to meet you.

[00:24:08] - Katrina Burrus
Thank you.

[00:24:09] - Doug Foulkes
Thanks so much for spending the hour with us.

[00:24:11] - Katrina Burrus
Thank you for having me. I really appreciate.

[00:24:13] - Claire Haidar
Katrina, just echoing what Doug said there. Thank you so much for coming on. If you look at the topics that we usually discuss on this podcast, they tend to be less personal, if I could verbalize it that way. They tend to be more either team or company specific and less focused on individuals. When we got connected, and you and I had that initial planning conversation, I thought it would be a nice diversion, if you will, to actually really zero in on a very specific type of employee issue.

[00:24:50] - Claire Haidar
I really do hope that our audience benefits from it. I believe they will, because I think this is a topic that, said it multiple times on this call today, it's an important topic because these people are everywhere. At our very best, we're all brilliant jerks at some point. This is one of those things where we really should be talking about this. It's an important leadership skill set to be able to manage these types of people. So thank you for coming on today and being part of the show with us.

[00:25:21] - Katrina Burrus
Well, thank you. I'm sorry I'm jet-lagged like crazy, but hopefully I made sense. Thank you, Claire.

[00:25:29] - Doug Foulkes
That is the end of Episode 82 and our comprehensive look at brilliant jerks with the author of Managing Brilliant Jerks, Dr. Katrina Burrus. If you found this podcast of value, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Catch us on Spotify, Google, and Apple Podcasts or on WNDYR's website, wndyr.com.

[00:25:50] - Doug Foulkes
From Claire and myself, bye for now.

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