How to Reform a “Golden Gut” (And What to Do When You Can’t)


You know who they are. They are the rock-star sales managers, the gifted product leaders, the creative visionaries. Almost everything they do is wildly successful.

They believe—and the company agrees—that they have a golden gut: flawless instincts, essential relationships, or uncanny intuition, and the confidence to act.

People with golden guts believe they are special, and they make sure everyone knows it. Their careers and incomes depend on that specialness.

They believe they can get away with things others can’t. They follow their gut, not somebody else’s rules: they expect to be forgiven and even admired when they go their own way. And though they can make their co-workers miserable, they are untouchable. Nobody wants the blame for scaring them away, so their managers swallow hard and cross their fingers.

But when you’re trying to build an inclusive workforce and a positive, supportive culture, the Golden Gut can block even your best efforts.

Fortunately, there’s one type of Golden Gut who can be turned around, and there are lessons from recent history for dealing with those who can’t.

The Newly Gilded

When someone in a new role is successful quickly, they can become pretty impressed with themselves. They get lots of positive feedback and may start thinking they are extraordinary. They forget their success results from many factors, only a few of which have anything to do with them. Add a healthy dose of ambition, and you have an employee who believes they are exceptional—and acts like it.

Are you dealing with a first-time manager, giddy with newfound power? Is it a new hire who comes in with fresh eyes and thinks their perspective makes them special? Someone early in their career who has yet to discover they are not infallible?

If so, there is hope.

Most people care what others think. They want to be respected and liked, and the nascent Golden Gut is no different. But they are self-centered. They aren’t always aware of the impact their behavior has on others.

A supportive but frank conversation with the Golden Gut at this early stage has a good chance of turning them around.

Let them know that they have a responsibility to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Ask them to think about the successful, grounded people they’ve known and admired. Let them know leaders demonstrate both competence and compassion, and for them to be truly successful they will need to do the same.

They might be surprised and even embarrassed to hear they have offended their co-workers.

They’ll certainly be shocked to receive negative feedback, and this will be such a distasteful experience it may take a bit of time for them to recover. But your message is likely to get through. And when it does, you’ll have helped a top performer avoid some serious pitfalls, and you’ll have improved the workplace for everyone else.

The Gold Leaf Lout

Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to deal with established Golden Guts. These people have been so full of themselves for so long, they’ve completely lost their perspective. They have no idea how others perceive them, and they don’t care. They believe they are so valuable they can do as they please regardless of norms, rules, or common courtesy.

Talking to these employees is not likely to work. They’re always prepared to list their accomplishments, deliver implied threats, and retaliate.

And they’re protected. Too often, business leaders will risk internal strife to keep the Golden Gut in place.

But here’s where recent history can help.

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, CBS CEO Les Moonves, talk show host Charlie Rose, musician R. Kelly, news anchor Matt Lauer—these are just a few of the hundreds of powerful people brought down by the #MeToo movement. Their downfalls damaged hundreds of companies, organizations, and institutions because leaders looked the other way while these people went about their destructive business.

In each case, those who could have taken action were afraid to do so. They feared they might hurt the business or hurt themselves, even as they watched these bad actors hurting their colleagues.

At any point, did they stop to ponder the cost of their cowardice? Did they put a price on investigations, litigation, settlements, the drop in employee engagement, the organization’s devastated public image?

And the cost of losing a Golden Gut is never as high as we imagine it will be. CBS still cranks out hit TV series, NBC’s Today Show still leads in the ratings, and the R&B industry continues to thrive. Losing Moonves, Lauer and Kelly was far less destructive than leaving them in place turned out to be.

But Weinstein’s company went bankrupt, and CBS and NBC have spent millions on investigations and damage control, and they continue to face scrutiny and allegations.

Does anyone think tolerating a Golden Gut is worth the price once they consider how high that price can be?

You may not have a problem of that scale, but what might it cost if your Golden Gut employee is exposed? Who else would be implicated for their own negligence and cowardice? Who would sue or go to the press? What would the price be in dollars, time, and reputation?

And how much would it really cost the business if you showed the Golden Gut the door? How much of their success is really due to the team rather than any individual? How many customers, vendors, and partners would be silently pleased that the obnoxious jerk is finally out of the way?

This is the discussion business leaders must have before they avert their eyes to the destruction caused by the unchecked, untouchable Golden Guts in their midst.


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