In using the term artists, I don’t mean people who have an art degree—or the archetypal designer wearing a black turtleneck and a beret. I’m referring to the indispensable artisans who energize and uplift an organization, helping transform it from the merely average to the excellent. These people may be researchers, interaction designers, visual designers, information architects, creative leads, or prototypers. Whatever their roles, they are the people who carry us. There are times when artisans may seem prickly or arrogant. Often that’s because they have such a strong sense of what is right, it is difficult for them to do something that opposes the integrity of their vision. Their way feels like the right way. When we listen to them, they make us better. I’ve found such artisans often have a vision for change that is powerful—even though perhaps disruptive. Such disruption is always for the better though.
Mind you, I’m not saying everyone who’s stubborn is an artisan. Far from it. In my experience, only one in ten good researchers or designers is a true artisan. Though, perhaps eight in ten think they are. It’s your job to figure out who is and who isn’t. I, for one, have learned to identify the artisans, listen to them, support them, and give them the room to exercise their abilities. Often, that’s the primary motivation for an artisan: They want room to exercise their vision, so they can deliver ground-breaking work that delights users and makes their group thrive. They have an almost palpable need to do so. As a manager, you need to defend, coach, and promote these individuals, and you need to do so unapologetically and publicly.
By the pejorative asshole, I am referring to individuals who suck the life out of any organization. They can, at times, seem indispensable, because they may deliver value. They may, in fact, be among the smartest people in the room. But they are a destructive force that creates distrust, animosity, and tension among team members. They reduce creativity and make people feel uncomfortable contributing or even walking into a meeting. Rather than building trust and confidence, they undermine it. Sometimes they can even be subtle. I’ve seen such people build allegiances and cliques that polarize a team and subtly sow seeds of distrust, whether with other team members or with management. Some assholes hide their actions in passive-aggressive behaviors: They show one face to the manager or larger group and another to their clique.
No matter how valuable these people seem to be, you have to fire them. Let me repeat: You have to remove them as decisively as you would eliminate a cancer. No matter how valuable you think they are, you cannot let an asshole stay on your team. Like any manager, I learned this the hard way, by having made the mistake of keeping highly skilled assholes on my team against my better judgment. Every single time I’ve made the wrong decision, it has caused me and my teams heartache and diminished the value of everyone on the team.
Other managers I know who have dealt with assholes unanimously agree with the basic premise of this column: Always, without hesitation, fire your assholes, and reward your artists. In addition to showing how to differentiate assholes from artisans, this column later discusses how to reward and coach employees in different performance strata.
How do you know the difference between the prickly artisans who uplift versus the assholes who cause harm? The key to recognizing most assholes is easy: They focus their aggression on those who are less powerful, make their coworkers feel bad about themselves—often in the guise of honest communication—and cause friction that often causes your most highly skilled employees to quit. They cause division. I recommend you read The No Asshole Rule and assess your people—and yourself!—against the 20 characteristics that identify people as assholes. In some cases, though, an asshole can be very subtle, and—no surprise—those are the most dangerous assholes of all. If you have employees who pull energy from your organization, even if they seem to contribute more than they drain, remove them. Don’t try to weigh their value or hope they’ll change. I can’t say too much about how important it is to remove them. Unfortunately, most managers just aren’t willing to admit how damaging assholes are and take action to eliminate them.
Shouldn’t We Promote Open and Frank Conversation?
When I recommend promoting artisans and firing assholes, managers often ask me how to deal with employees who stimulate us to face difficult issues and have frank and open conversations. The book Crucial Confrontations  highlights the effective ways in which a person can bring up difficult issues a team needs to address. The first thing effective communicators do is make it safe for you to hear what they have to say. They make it clear—through word and deed—that they are there to support you, and they show you they have your back. You can feel whether someone has your back. People who support you show it through their every interaction with you. If someone’s words say one thing, but his actions suggest another, you don’t trust that person, and you can’t have an open, trusting dialogue with him. As a manager, it’s your job to help employees understand how to confront one another in a safe fashion, foster trust, and constructively build relationships. Really, everything depends on trust.
Thus, if you have an employee—or a colleague or a boss—you’ve tried to educate on how to constructively approach sensitive and difficult issues, but who still continues to confront you and others in a negative fashion, chances are that person is an asshole.
You can have an honest, frank dialogue only in an environment where employees trust one another. On occasion, I’ve had employees who have raised issues, under the guise of trying to help, but in a highly negative fashion. They might say, “Look, I’m just being honest.” Such people may challenge other members of the team or even their manager in an assertive fashion, suggesting nothing is more important than the truth as they see it. It is, in fact, true that groups need to talk about and resolve difficult issues. They need to confront brutal facts about themselves and their working environment and work together to solve problems. But therein lies the crux of the matter: They need to solve problems together, not by berating or confronting one another in a way that diminishes trust or by dividing the team.
As the leader of a team, a manager’s responsibility is to first build an environment of trust and open communication. To do this, you have to be genuine and, yes, even vulnerable. Having just a single asshole on your team can shut down all open, honest communication. Such people prevent others from expressing themselves and contributing in ways that might make them feel vulnerable. The reality is that a person can be honest without being aggressive, harsh, making other people feel bad, or creating division. If you have an employee who cannot refrain from behaving badly toward others, what do you need to do? That’s right: You have to help that person move on.
But Aren’t Artisans Sometimes Assholes?
In short, no. Artisans may have strong opinions, and they almost always have a strong vision. The difference is that assholes are destructive in their approach. They criticize, belittle, and undermine in an attempt to get their way. On the other hand, artisans find a way to show the power of their vision. They understand that enrolling others in realizing their vision and working together provides better results than working solo. Artisans also produce artifacts that others get excited about and can get behind. Artisans may argue their points, but they do so in a constructive fashion, not by making others feel bad or by diminishing their confidence. An asshole doesn’t care about the value of an idea to the team or the organization. If an idea doesn’t make that individual look like a hero, the asshole will find reasons to criticize it. In fact, in an environment where there are assholes, many artisans simply stop conveying their vision and instead spend their time looking for a new job or find other outlets for their talent.
On the other hand, there are artisans who have yet to learn how to channel their constructive energy. Consequently, earlier in their careers, some artisans can have abrasive personalities. In such cases, you need to spend a great deal of your time coaching them.