As Public Enemy said: "You're quite hostile / I've got a right to be hostile, my people been persecuted."
A while back I wrote a post called "When Smart People are Bad Employees." In that post, I wrote about employees that you think will be incredible, but turn out to be destructive. The other day, my partner Lars and I were talking about the opposite: employees who appear to be destructive, but if properly managed can be spectacular. In reference to hip hop's great prophet Chuck D., I call them "The Prophets of Rage."
If you've worked in a company for any length of time, you've probably seen one of these prophets. People refer to them as glass breakers, cowboys, toe stompers, or just plain assholes. Yet it's difficult to get rid of them, because they produce massive amounts of high-quality work. Beyond that, they have indomitable will. No obstacle is too great, no task too large, no problem is too hard and they do not care who they offend, upset, undermine, or piss off to get the job done. In fact, they are so self-righteous that it's difficult to even have a conversation about the right way to do things, because in their minds if they are doing it, it must be right. If you are not them or not on their team, you are very likely "a lazy idiot" or worse. Even if they don't call you names outright, they will deliver searing, totally impolite insights that will cause you to question your own motivations. They specialize in making people uncomfortable.
Their backgrounds are almost never consistent with the typical hiring profile. They do not come to you right from central casting. Often they grew up poor and went to the wrong schools. Or they were the “wrong” religion, sexual orientation, or skin color. In general, they believe that they grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and everybody is judging them on that all the time. They will walk through fire to prove everyone wrong. They have to succeed and are willing to do whatever it takes.
This is not to say that everyone with this background is a Prophet of Rage, just that Prophets of Rage tend to have this background.
These employees are the corporate version of W.M.D.s. The ultimate weapon in any arsenal, but their deployment can lead to highly unpredictable consequences. How can they be used as a force for good? How can you prevent them from destroying your culture and possibly your company?
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When managing a Prophet of Rage, the first thing to understand is that they often dish it out much better then they take it. While they won't hesitate to viciously attack their peers and bring them to tears, even the slightest criticism from a prophet's manager may cause him or her to go into a deep funk and become incredibly depressed. Most managers will find this behavior to be totally ridiculous and give up when they see it. Most managers will forfeit greatness at that point.
Prophets of Rage are perfectionists. They work harder than anybody in the organization and expect total perfection from themselves and everyone around them. When they see others deliver sub par work or sub par thinking, the Prophets become enraged and lose all control of themselves. But it's the same dynamic that enrages them and causes them to stomp on other people's toes that makes them recoil at any criticism: they have dedicated their entire life force to doing great work; any rejection of their work is a rejection of them personally. Keep in mind that a prophet's background makes her a bit paranoid about you wanting her there in the first place, so if she doesn't become depressed, she will certainly question your motives.
In my experience, there are at least 3 keys to managing these super high performing, super volatile personalities.