The common wisdom is to not put up with talented jerks in the workplace. Who needs to work with know it all jackasses whose behaviour is usually met with eye rolls in meetings? Yet you still find them in every organisation. There is a reason for their ongoing ubiquity and that reason is a lottery jackpot.
There are three genetic super lottery jackpots in life. Being physically more attractive to others, having a level of physical prowess beyond the ordinary or having superior cognitive ability (IQ). If a person cannot make a living from their appearance or from professional sports it is IQ that is by far the best predictor of their performance at other types of work.
In The relation between emotional intelligence and job performance: A meta-analysis (O’Boyle, Humphrey, Pollock, et. al, 2011) researchers examined more than 1000 studies to see if Emotional Intelligence (EQ) had an impact on job performance. Having examined EQ, personality traits and cognitive ability it was their conclusion an increased level of EQ did improve job performance. While their study identified interesting things about EQ, in the table below you should note the outsized performance resulting from cognitive ability, IQ, relative to what they were testing for with EQ.
While the social sciences are undergoing a replication crisis, studies whose results cannot be replicated correctly being tagged as being suspect at best if not out rightly fraudulent in other cases, IQ as a performance predicator replicates consistently. The higher your IQ the greater the chance you will be one of the few employees that makes a contribution so substantial to the organisation around you that it will be a lasting contribution.
Just as many of us do not look like models or movie stars, nor can we break sporting records, there are levels of workplace performance below extraordinary. The trick to optimising your performance is finding the best environment to do what you are good at and then do it consistently. This can be personally rewarding so long as you keep stretching yourself to do things currently just beyond your grasp.
The higher the IQ the more ambiguity you can deal with in your job and jobs with high levels of ambiguity at their frontiers pay quite well. As you move down the IQ scale it is unambiguous repetitive jobs which deliver the best workplace performance from individuals with lower IQs. Like those with higher IQs there is satisfaction from doing such jobs well, but repetitive jobs pay modestly or poorly.
Automation will decimate most repetitive jobs and there is no pathway to jobs with higher ambiguity for those of a lower cognitive ability. Last week in the US at the Dallas Fed conference executives from Fortune 500 employers admitted that they are targeting repetitive, low ambiguity jobs for elimination by automation.
Realising this means hard times for many there was mention of providing Nano-degrees to move people to higher skilled jobs, but we already have colleges pumping out as many highly skilled new graduates as the work market can absorb. Automation is the next major social problem looming on the horizon.
Now we come to the talented jerk. Books have been written as to why you should not hire super smart people with noxious personalities and those books raise good points. Jerks can wreak havoc with teams they are in and make cross team collaboration more like trench warfare rather than a mutually productive relationship. But here is the crux of it, while you cannot make substantial changes to a person's cognitive capability (IQ) you can make them much more rewarding for other people to deal with (EQ).
Properly designed coaching interventions focused on EQ have been found to improve the social and interpersonal skills of those being coached by about 25% (Peterson, D.B., Measuring change: A psychometric approach to evaluating individual coaching outcomes., 1993.) These results also replicate consistently making them science and not wishful thinking.
Accepting that a higher IQ does translate to higher workplace performance we can say that while you cannot take a talented jerk with a major psychological issue and fix them, you can take one and sand down the rough edges enough that they do not jab people when handled. Getting the talented jerk to accept the coaching is where you might need to use finesse but with those with a higher IQ demonstrably out performing others at work your EQ coaching investment today might pay off in measurable high performance for years.
Of course if the talented jerk does not acknowledge feedback from different sources telling them that change is required, does not accept the coaching or does not improve as a result of coaching they should be handed their hat and shown the door.
A tool that cannot be used effectively should be discarded, it only makes the worker harder.