Disruption … Cognitive Diversity – What’s in the Middle?

By Guy Higgins

My noble editor sent me a link to an article, How To Identify The Most Dangerous Person In Your Company, recently. It’s a pretty good article and reminiscent of Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule. The author discusses disruptive people – disruptive people are important today because they tend to introduce new ideas and changes. These are critical to organizations striving to stay relevant in a rapidly shifting world (you know, shift happens). The problem is that some people are disruptive and help the organization keep up with “the times,” but others are disruptive simply because they are jerks (Doctor Sutton’s “assholes”). Of course some people are both – jerks and sources of new ideas.

What is the relationship among people with these kinds of characteristics? Let’s take a look:

  • Cognitively diverse people – these are all kinds of people: introverts and extroverts, engineers and poets, men and women, people from different cultural backgrounds and more. Some of them will be disruptive. Some of them will be jerks. Some of them will be high performing “stars,” and some will not. There’s no guarantee that they understand or take advantage of their own or the cognitive diversity of others, but they can work as members of a cognitively diverse team.
  • Disruptive people – these are people who actively challenge the status quo. They have new ideas or “import” ideas from outside the organization. They aren’t big fans of standard processes (and they may or may not recognize the value of those standard processes). Some of them will be high performing “stars,” and some will not. They are certainly cognitively different than many people, but they don’t necessarily understand or take advantage of their own or the cognitive diversity of others. They may or may not be able to be an effective member of a cognitively diverse team. Some of these folks will be jerks.
  • Jerks – these are people who, as Doctor Sutton observes, always (or almost always in my expanded definition) make people feel worse after encountering them. They are certainly disruptive, they may be high performing “stars” and, while they are cognitively different, they are probably incapable of behaving in a way that leverages the power in that diversity. I’ll assert that they are, effectively, not cognitively diverse because they can’t/won’t/don’t “play well with others.”

I tried to capture this in a Venn diagram:


Many cognitively diverse people are disruptive, but not all of them are. That would be because they are (ahem) cognitively diverse. Some, but not all, disruptive people are able to work as members of a cognitively diverse team – they are effectively cognitively diverse. Other disruptive people, while not making others feel badly, don’t work well as members of a cognitively diverse team. Jerks, by their nature (and by Doctor Sutton’s definition) not only can’t work as a member of a cognitively diverse team, but they actually destroy the team as an effective force. These jerks are not only disruptive, they are destructive.

I agree strongly with Doctor Sutton that the only reason (and he and I agree that it is a poor reason) to keep the jerks around is to have them provide an example of how not to behave.

That leaves a question that the author of the blog that inspired this post addressed directly – what do you do with a jerk who is a high performer? My answer, and the answer of the author of the blog, is that you get rid of them as quickly as possible. The price, in terms of organizational disruption/pain, is not worth the high performance. A cognitively diverse team will outperform the star jerk every time (bold assertion on my part), so it’s simply not worth the pain of keeping jerks around – not even as examples of bad behavior.

Question – Was George Patton a disruptor or a jerk?



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