The Heretic

I am reading a friend’s book which is still in proofs and so I’m not going to talk about it yet.

But there is one part of the book that really rang true for me and that is when he talks about certain kinds of problematic employees, particularly one he calls The Heretic.

This kind of employee, and we have all seen this up close, is negative about the Company and disses the management, coworkers, the board, the strategy, the workplace, and everything else under the sun. But for some reason the heretic prefers to stay and be miserable than to move on and find another place to work that is more to their liking.

My friend states in his book that you have to part ways with heretics in your company, regardless of how talented they are, how connected they are, and even if they are protected in some way. You have to find a way out of the heretic mess.

I agree with this advice and I have seen this play out in many ways. The worst way is to let this behavior go on unchecked. As painful as parting can be, and it can be incredibly painful depending on the circumstances, letting this behavior stand is worse.

#life lessons#management

Comments (Archived):

  1. jason wright

    There’s isn’t an ‘a’ in heretic.Are you sure ‘heretic’ is the right word for what you and your friend are describing? I don’t agree that it is. Naysayer maybe, but that’s not heresy. Look at synonyms for ‘heretic’ for a better understanding of its meaning.

    1. fredwilson

      That is what he calls this person. I like it

      1. David Gobel

        I think of them as Mordreds (as in King Arthur). They believe they are right and noble…and thus proceed with covert insurgent’s zeal to dismember from within.

        1. jason wright


        2. Vendita Auto

          Marin Luther & Mordreds I f!!King love Berlin !!

      2. jason wright

        I always thought the startup entrepreneur was the heretic.

    2. Dan T

      I think the term works for startup environments where passion helps fuel a mission to win . . Based largely on faith. Those that don’t support the mission and leaders are heretics. Works for me.

      1. jason wright

        Maybe. I just associate the word with a long tradition of dissent that leads to progress and improvement. Martin Luther was a heretic.

        1. Dan T

          I’m not sure the term has to mean someone is good or bad . . It’s someone that is dissenting from the beliefs of a specific group. That kind of person has a choice:1. leave, because they are not in synch with others2. try and change everyone else’s mind3. just complain and opinethe ones they are talking about are #3. not offering a path to a better good, simply bitching about what it is . . .gotta get rid of them.Again, I think it resonates for start-ups because everyone has to be in synch to win against all odds.

          1. jason wright

            Not bad. Better.

          2. Vasudev Ram

            >the ones they are talking about are #3. not offering a path to a better good, simply bitching about what it is . . .gotta get rid of them.They should mention that then (that by heretic, they mean #3). Otherwise, it’s sort of like being sentenced as a heretic without the specific nature of the term and “offence” (like your 1 vs 2 vs 3 above) having even been defined and broadcast – within that company.And that’s like being sentenced without accusation, let alone trial.As JLM says (paraphrasing part of his oft-repeated MIssion / Values / …. stuff – which I think has great value), you have to define the playing field and the rules before scoring the players”s efforts.

    3. Vendita Auto

      : ( good example

    4. LaVonne Reimer

      The point I was going to make and I don’t think it’s “just” semantics. For centuries (and maybe more), a heretic has been one who challenges orthodoxy. Even when orthodoxies co-opted a heretical movement (think big companies consuming a disruptive idea and turning it to mashed potatoes), the heretic played an essential disruptive role. The great challenge, and opportunity, for a startup CEO is to “herd” heretics. That includes recognizing when a difficult employee (often 20-somethings, go figure) has huge potential. It brings out our best mentoring skills. Align said heretic with the goals of the startup whilst not putting out what might be your brightest light. I think the author means the malignant employee. How and why they get that way is helpful to know but neither here nor there. They gotta go.

      1. JLM

        .I get what you are saying. I appreciate it, but the idea of hiring “heretics” is a CEO hiring fail in my book.I don’t mind getting fooled, but I am damn sure trying to hire people who solve problems, not cause them.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. LaVonne Reimer

          And I get what you are saying. It’s the nature of a startup to have to move super fast. No time to be a kindergarten teacher or a hall monitor. I earned a reputation for being brutal at culling out troublesome employees. Partly because the city in which we launched coddled people far too much. Still, there is something heretical about doing a startup anyway. Having the insights to detect the gem and knowing what to do (efficiently) is a great skill. I had two youngsters like that and with just a modest amount of shaping and encouragement from me personally, they turned into the absolute best and hardest working team members. Each went on to greater career success. I find that satisfying. Not all CEOs can or should try that approach but I found joy in the work and still find joy in remembering how they evolved.

          1. JLM

            .Who hired the “troublesome employees?”JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          2. LaVonne Reimer

            Hmmm. Language matters for sure. In my comment I was referencing senior executives. It was an issue in the city of my first startup because most of the guys (and really it was mostly guys) who had tech exec experience came out of hardware companies and often big ones at that. Unless we relocated execs, I worked with what I had. A totally different problem than the youngster I recognized as the right kind of heretic.

    5. Tiffany Washburn

      I have to agree. Using “heretic” in this context (to denote a problematic personality that’s actively undermining progress) is not aligned with the connotations of the word used elsewhere (to denote a person who stands against (generally false) orthodoxy, challenges the status quo, is usually “progressive,” and is (unfairly) punished for it). This terminology brings to mind Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, and the like – people who are widely considered to have contributed positively, despite being “heretical.”Using a term to mean something different than people expect it to mean (and without thinking of historical context) isn’t really “semantics” – it’s just being confusing. You can see from the comments here that folks are pushing back on the idea that people who disagree (and say so publicly) should be let go, which doesn’t seem to be the author’s intention. It doesn’t seem like the person being described is a “heretic,” but rather a grumbler, a gossiper, a sower of discontent, etc. Using an inappropriate and confusing label muddies the conversation. I’d suggest finding a better word.

  2. awaldstein

    Since I’ve never worked for a large company that I didn’t build myself, I have a different variation.People, gunslinger types on the sales side mostly, who you hire early, are amazing and difficult, yet can’t fall into the structure of the company.Invariably refuse to report to anyone but their original boss.Need to change this and move on.Never easy, always right thing.

  3. iggyfanlo

    I am a “converted Heretic” from my Wall St days and I couldn’t agree more. Even though I was generating very solid profits for the company, I should have been asked to leave. I wasn’t doing myself or the company any long term good.It’s a variation on the old theme; take A “attitude” and B “skills” over the opposite.I wish I had the maturity in my 20s to understand this…

  4. pointsnfigures

    Do it nicely. Stay classy. Do it quickly. Speed of exit makes a difference. Then don’t look back or second guess yourself.

  5. Tom Labus

    A lot depends on the “heretic’s” personality. A good natured one can be very insightful and productive while someone more subversion needs to go ASAP. Some people also reject the culture of the company and become out of place.

  6. harris497

    There is a fine line between being a heretic and being the devil’s advocate. Group-think, particularly in a small group, would seem to be dangerous. But then, being a silent assassin, disrespectful, arrogant and constantly displeased with the current situation eventually drags the morale of the entire team down. There is a happy medium, and it is for leaders to identify it and to hold their people to it. A shared manifesto may provide guidance on what is acceptable.

    1. Vivek Kumar

      This is the key – disagreements are fine, being a silent assassin is not. Red Hastings captured it pretty well in his ted talk – To disagree silently is disloyal.

  7. kirklove

    Haters gonna hate.

    1. Vivek Kumar

      How do you differentiate between haters and people who have unique perspective and are critical against group think.

      1. kirklove

        I was being cheeky.Though to answer your question: Critical thinkers apply rigor and discipline to their questions and empathize with the other side, thinking of all facets of a decision and/or direction. Even good Devil’s Advocates theorize all sides of an equation to strengthen a decision/direction not piss on it.Haters (aka Heretics in this example) just shit on stuff and complain daily for no reason other than they enjoy being sourpusses.

        1. Jamie Ippolito

          in other words, critical thinkers will pound the table when something is wrong, but also have a solution in mind that they can articulate. Heretics just bitch and complain and pull everyone down…. A players, B players, C players…. if you are not an A or B+, you are what Harry Potter and Co. would call a Dementor.

        2. jason wright

          “Haters (aka Heretics in this example)…”This is not right. Haters are not “aka” heretics. Heretics, like the Cathars, had a vision of their own for a way of belief and living. The Cathars were… hated… by the Catholic Church because they were seen as a threat to unitary power.

  8. David A. Frankel

    So true — reminds me of a blog post by Mark Suster I share all of the time entitled “Lead, Follow or Get the F*** Out of the Way.” While strong cultures allow room for constructive disagreement and friction, there is definitely no room for heresy, particularly in small companies or on management teams.If you don’t like how things are going, you can choose: lead to a better solution, follow begrudgingly but trust the process, or get the f*** out of the way. If you are talented, this should be no problem. However if you can’t choose, a good leader will choose for you….

  9. Ales Spetic

    Quite often the dissing comes from an internal need for recognition, or latent feeling of rejection. In most cases, when you address that, you get a highly loyal individual. But it needs to be carried out discreetly and quickly. In my experience only 1 in 4 can’t be changed.

    1. Girish Mehta

      Yes, I have seen this (not to such a high level as 3 in 4, but yes).

      1. Ales Spetic

        It depends slightly on the cultural background as well. In Europe we tend to stick slightly longer with ‘problematic’ employees, so probably that counts for a bit of a difference. Although my estimate was not scientific, purely personal.

  10. Girish Mehta

    People who question and think independently in a company are invaluable and should be preserved in cotton wool. A company stifles people’s ability to question and speak truth to power. The more successful a company, the worse this gets.When such people come from a position of what is good for the org, and questioning that which doesn’t make sense, they also realise that destroying a company’s morale does not make sense. There is a way to question and to disagree without being negative.If they don’t see their negative impact, its worth investigating if there is insecurity /lack of appreciation behind their behavior that can be addressed through positive reinforcement. That can work sometimes.If not, they need to go. The trick for a leader is to let somebody like this go while encouraging the independent thought in the team. This is very difficult to do.I do believe the bigger issue in organisations is people who don’t question, than people who do.Over the last few years I have come to believe that Wilful Blindness is a highly under-recognized and under-addressed issue in the high-tech space (both companies and investors). What is needed is to question more, not less.

    1. Amar

      Well said. The trick here is making sure management does not use the label “heretic” as a way around hard questions. Heretics in a company where senior Management and board are accountable and transparent is unhealthy. Otherwise, it bears deeper analyst before the label heretic is applied.

      1. Girish Mehta

        I think words matter and I don’t think “heretic” is the right word to characterize this behaviour at all, but @jasonpwright:disqus already said that below, and Fred says that he likes it..I don’t want to go there. The bigger point is that when you create labels (noun), people start to label (verb). So, your point about not using labels as a way around hard questions is super-important. And, once somebody in a org acquires a label, they acquire baggage that comes with that label and it is very difficult for them to turn that perception around. This applies at the other end as well – a label like “Champion”.This behaviour that has been described in the blog post is better characterized as toxic or malignant to an organisation. Have the individual address the behavior, or address the individual by having them leave. Ask yourself if it was a hiring mistake, an on-boarding mistake or if the individual behavior is a symptom of a broader cultural issue simmering in the team.But don’t create labels. Such labels are useful in books, but useless (and possibly deleterious) in the real world management of teams.

        1. JLM

          .OK, funny story. I had a kid in my unit who was a machine gunner. He was 120 lbs. maybe 5’6″, and could hardly tote the gun.His name was McJimpsey and he was from Newark, NJ.He told the First Sergeant that he wanted to be known as “Killer.” I have no idea why.The Top Kick (what you call a First Sergeant) said if the Old Man (what you call a 25-year old Captain who is the Company Commander, me) says OK, then OK.Top comes see me. I tell him to tell McJimpsey if he shoots the highest on the MG qualification course AND is the best in the battalion, Top will call him Killer whenever we have roll call.Kid practiced and practiced. I knew he was working hard because he went through a million dollars worth of ammo. I told the supply sergeant that McJimpsey gets however much ammo he wants. I used to let my jeep driver take him to the MG range in the evenings.McJimpsey shoots the top score in the company and the battalion. The next time the company has a roll call — payday — I go out there.The First Sergeant is going through the roll, gets to McJimpsey, puts the clipboard at his side and says, “Killer?”The entire company roars and roars. Killer marches to the front of the company. I give him his certificate for firing EXPERT.His assistant gunner demanded to be called ASSISTANT KILLER thereafter.The Top even let the soldier change out his name tags on a couple of sets of his BDUs (battle dress uniforms, used to be called fatigues) to Killer.I had forgotten that story until I read your comment. I wonder what Killer is doing today?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        2. Seth Godin

          @girishmehta:disqus is absolutely right. I wrote about heretics as a key changemaker in LINCHPIN, and I hope we don’t lose the magic of this word.Most organizations need a few.

    2. JLM

      .Really good CEOs provide a forum — it could be a brainstorming exercise — in which to allow the best ideas and the best criticism to bubble to the surface.http://themusingsofthebigre…It is mechanical.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    3. Brian Manning

      Disagree and commit.

    4. Vasudev Ram

      >Over the last few years I have come to believe that Wilful Blindness is a highly under-recognized and under-addressed issue in the high-tech space (both companies and investors). What is needed is to question more, not less.Right. Roughly equivalent to NIH syndrome, which, although we have known about it for decades, is still alive and well, as I said here recently in an HN thread:https://news.ycombinator.co

  11. CJ

    Just be careful that your heretics aren’t your Cassandras. Seeing the future, uttering warnings, and being ignored as the ship breaks against the rocks. I’ve seen that happen more times than not because bad management is almost universally incapable of acknowledging its own flaws and Cassandras almost universally incapable of shutting up when they see failure or bad decisions on the horizons.So yeah, definitely get rid of real heretics, but ensure that your heretics aren’t hidden Cassandras first.

  12. ErikSchwartz

    Sometimes, heretics are right. They stay (for a while) because they believe in the mission of the company or the product and they do not want to see it get screwed up.They become heretics because no one is listening to them.

    1. Mark Gavagan

      Good point. I suppose it’s important to separate what they disagree with from how they go about conveying their disagreements.It may be worthwhile to (A) discuss the unacceptable attitude and behavior and that the person is on the verge of being dismissed; while also (B) asking the person to write out specifically what they are unhappy or concerned about and ideas for how to address them. Of course, pay them for this time.

  13. JLM

    .Any organization of any size and complexity is going to face this problem. Period. It is part of being a CEO.It falls under the classification of “Your generation did not invent sex or business.”It is also easy as pie to deal with.Here is all you have to do:1. Check that the company has a clear Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives (particularly the heretic), Values, and Culture. If the company is not squared away, how can you expect the personnel to be squared away?2. Look at the heretic’s Performance Appraisals. Is the problem noted? Has anybody worked with the person? You cannot dance around the situation without bringing it to the person’s attention and feel good about it.Here is what a useful Performance Appraisal looks like:http://themusingsofthebigre…3. Conduct an Anonymous Company Survey to ensure you are not dealing with a systemic problem and the heretic is not just the messenger. This happens.Here is how you do that:http://themusingsofthebigre…4. Order up a one time Performance Appraisal and on the performance appraisal form identify one of the following four:a. Could be fired within the next 90 daysb. Could be fired within the next 12 monthsc. Could be promoted within the next 90 daysd. Could be promoted within the next 12 montshIf the person is salvageable, and you pick option “a.” above, you will have a conversation. I promise you.4. Write down exactly what the heretic’s complaints are. Do they correlate with the ACS? If they do correlate, then take a step back. You have work of your own to do.5. Make an Energy Source v Energy Sink assessment — does the person generate more energy than they consume? Does the person consume more energy than they generate.Read this — http://themusingsofthebigre…6. Act. Fire the person or create a special set of objectives, lay out the boundaries, and have someone monitor them on a weekly basis.In 33 years of CEOing, 5 years in command of Army units of some size, and 7 years of CEO advising, my instincts tell me that most such situations are not salvageable, but you have to touch all the bases.I do ascribe to “hire fast, fire faster” when there is a smoking gun. I was never good at missionary work and I do not recommend it.Personally, I had a guy headed to the dustbin of employment who became my third best hire ever when I told him he was going to be fired within the next 90 days.I had a woman who ran a division with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets who was bitingly acerbic — and correct every single time. My number two best hire ever.We used to have what I called the Whine Line. She would tip toe up to it and I’d say, “Hey, Whine Line.” She’d back off and we would move on down the road. [Her Dad was a Marine so I understood where she was coming from.]As a CEO, the more comfortable you are in your skin the more comfortable you will be in dealing with these kinds of situations. I see the transformation in CEOs with whom I work constantly.I had a guy who conducted a huge layoff, reorientation of the SaaS product, and ended up with a better, stronger company with the way he reoriented things including a big layoff.This is something that any competent CEO can do. It is not brain surgery. It is just garden variety CEOing.You got this.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. CJ

      Funny. I had a CTO tell me that I’m great, incredibly skilled, smart, whatever, but my rep was irreparably damaged there. He told me I had options, I could quit and go make more money and have a better career elsewhere or I could stay and do the hard work of rebuilding my rep.I debated it and chose option 2. I outlasted him, was promoted, twice, and left a promotion on the table when I left.My point here is that his candor helped turn around a situation where I’d just gotten way too comfortable. A lot of the reasons why my rep was burned were false and perception issues, but I fought to change the perception and in doing so learned SO much more and enabled my current career – owner/operator of a consulting firm.I’ve thanked him many times for that conversation and he doesn’t understand why it was so impactful to this day. He was right, I could have left and made more money. But in staying I built character that I was missing even though I didn’t notice it.Something in your post reminded me of this – I think it’s how great employees can be hiding in plain sight and just sometimes need a good, candid, conversation.

      1. JLM

        .We all need a good kick in the ass from time-to-time.Only the really smart people see the good in it. Like you.A really good performance appraisal system, done in a timely manner can play that role.Well played.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    2. Frank Traylor

      Dealing w/ a similar issue now. Thanks for the excellent and timely advice.

      1. JLM

        .Good luck. I’ve gotten a dozen calls from people who have an oar in the same water. Ping me if I can help.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  14. Richard

    ForbesJul 1, 2019The Guts Of Success: Be A Fearless Heretic

  15. Dan Conway

    Same can be said for heretic clients.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      They too must be fired.

  16. Kirsten Lambertsen

    It’s tough, too, because I think a culture of heresy still exists in tech. Being the “BS filter” is considered a sign of strength, so it can be difficult to tell the heretics from the coalmine canaries. But I do think someone who hates pretty much everything is the former.Unrelated: remember all the times I said here on AVC that Twitter should use AI to nudge people when it looks like they’re about to post something offensive? IG beat ’em to it. They must read AVC 😉

  17. cavepainting

    Much to disagree here. There are two types of heretics:a) the ones who are truly heretic — obnoxious, negative, and driven by their ego to prove they are right and others are wrong.b) the ones who are made to look heretic but are not. These are independent minded people seeking the truth; they are asking pointed questions of the status quo and speaking truth to power.By branding them all with one brush as heretic and not understanding their specific intent (ego-driven or truth-seekers) does both the individual and the company a great disservice.I have come to view very negatively books, posts, and opinions that call for the indiscriminate culling of heretics. It ends up as a tool for the powerful and egotists to suppress dissent and reframe genuine questions and debate as negativity.As Feyman said, better to have questions that cannot be answered and make you squirm than answers that cannot be questioned.So, how do you know a heretic who is a drain on morale and culture vs. a freethinker who needs to be encouraged and nurtured? At the risk of over-generalizing, here are some broad rules.1.Heretics solve for ego. Freethinkers solve for truth.2.Heretics will not change their minds and want to be consistent with their earlier proclamations. Freethinkers will not hesitate to change their minds if they see data or arguments that are convincing.3.Heretics are motivated by wanting to be seen as “special”. Freethinkers are driven by curiosity and a sense of wonder; they seek to delve deeper into everything and see if something is as claimed or fake.4.Heretics are fake non-conformists. They will non-conform for the sake of it. Freethinkers conform or not based on first principles.5.Heretics often deploy cunning and manipulative techniques to carry out their agendas. Freethinkers are typically open and direct.6.Heretics take little joy in others’ successes. Freethinkers are joyful beings and are great people to hang out with.As a general caveat, there is risk to labeling and stereotyping. People are complicated and their behaviors span a spectrum.

  18. RichardF

    You are talking about toxic people, they need to be removed as soon as possible (from all aspects of your life, company or personal).The difficulty is that in a start up situation founders/management are often young and/or inexperienced and rarely have the experience or maturity to recognise that toxicity and deal with it quickly. In larger organisations middle management either don’t care because they have no intention of being around long or they are too jaded to care.Toxicity is very common in my experience in start ups when they are maturing and the vision is changing, the company quite often outgrows the original employees who remember the “good old days”

  19. Sierra Choi

    This is interesting, because at some large corporations, all the employees can be considered “heretics” which I think is particularly reflective of a kind of toxic company culture (ahem…Samsung, Uber, eBay, Snapchat and many others).It could be that one heretic is a bad egg, but many heretics can be indicative of bad management.

  20. Tolstoy77

    Have some friends who worked at a really well funded AI startup in NYC focusing on computer vision apis for developers. The CEO who is a young guy and kind of the face of the company seems to also really resonate with this heretic idea.If anyone spoke poorly of company strategy set by the CEO. Doesn’t matter how they backed it up and what steps they can enact/enacted to fix the problems. They would eventually get fired or be forced to leave. The company in the last 2 years has gone through 3 VPs of Products, 2 VPs of Marketing, on their 3rd head of sales(previously had CCO who got fired), on their 3rd head of legal(exec team role at this company).All of them at some point and their respective teams have respectfully and privately disagreed with certain parts of making the CEOs vision a success.What’s the point of hiring smart people if we encourage CEOs to view everyone who disagrees with strategy as a heretic who must leave.This company has since had no successes and was forced to have layoffs letting go most of the company. The CEO has successfully let go of all the “heretics”. Unfortunately for the company to truly succeed and turn around it needs a more mature leader who is okay with an exec team of leaders who might disagree with him.For other CEOs and leaders who read this blog post. Please don’t be like the CEO referenced in my comment. Everything in moderation. Not everyone who disagrees with strategy is the enemy especially when they bring solutions to the conversation.