The Prophets of Rage

“You’re quite hostile,
I’ve got a right to be hostile,
my people been persecuted.”
Public Enemy

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?

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 three keys to managing these super high performing, super volatile personalities.

1. Don’t give them feedback on their behaviors, give them feedback on what their behaviors mean

If you tell a prophet, “It is totally unacceptable to scream at your peers in meetings,” he will hear: “It’s totally unacceptable for you to scream at people in meetings, but others can do it all they want, because I am out to get you.” In the prophet’s mind, everyone is out to get him, so this is the logical reaction.

A better approach is to focus on how the behaviors were interpreted by the other people in the room. “You have a very important mission, but when you screamed at Andy that his team was blocking you from your goal, his response wasn’t to work harder to unblock you. His reaction was to get you back for embarrassing him in public. Your method was totally ineffective.” He will initially bristle at the criticism, but when he thinks it through, he will realize that you were right and he will work extremely hard to fix it, because he is, after all, a perfectionist.

2. Realize that they will never be completely accepted in polite society

No matter how clearly and effectively you coach a prophet, you will be unlikely to completely transform her. She has spent her entire life getting to this point, so words from her manager won’t get her to the point of corporate acceptance. The more people don’t accept her, the worse the behaviors will become, because the rejection will reinforce her life narrative and increase her rage. The more effective approach will be to do your best to moderate your prophet while letting the rest of the team know that you expect them to accept her due to her incredibly high productivity. If they believe that you won’t flinch, they will meet her half way. It’s absolutely critical that they do this, because she will never be completely congenial.

3. Coach them on what they can do

If you keep in mind that your prophet is paranoid, then you will realize that giving entirely negative feedback will not work. Rather than focusing on what he is having trouble with or can’t do, spend most of your time working with him on what he can do. This will enable his true super powers to come out and take your company’s production out of the stratosphere.

Even with the best coaching, it’s quite possible that a prophet has too much rage to function in an organization as it grows. At this point, they become smart people who are bad employees and there may be nothing that you can do.

In the end, realize that a talented Prophet of Rage may be the most powerful human force in your company. Your challenge is to help that be a force for good.

This post first appeared in Billboard.