Are Brilliant Jerks Worth Keeping in Your Business?

Do you have an ultra-talented employee no one else can seem to get along with? Take these 5 steps to improve the situation.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
May 09, 2014

"Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it, in fact, trumps even strategy,” says Howard H. Stevenson, a Harvard professor of administration. Unfortunately, many business owners are so focused on strategic imperatives that they lose sight of the importance of having a positive culture until it's too late. One impediment to having a healthy company culture is what is euphemistically known as the "brilliant jerk."

"Brilliant jerks" are people who are amazingly talented but who are deficient in social and communication skills. They lack empathy, and they run roughshod over those around them.

Their brilliance comes with a hefty price tag: They end up dampening team spirit and wrecking havoc with team morale. And while people may tolerate the negative atmosphere created by the brilliant jerk for a while, eventually the best ones will flee to jerk-free places to work and, in the process, take their knowledge with them. Being on a team with a brilliant jerk unnerves people—life is too short to be a cat on a hot tin roof.

The term "brilliant jerk" was popularized by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings when he and his team issued a 2009 PowerPoint deck on "Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsiblity." In it, Hastings states: "Brilliant jerks. Some companies tolerate them. For us, cost to effective team work is too high."

In a New York Times article, Cliff Oxford, founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs, had this to say about brilliant jerks: They are "specialized, high-producing performers. They are not, however, brilliant business people, and that is what companies need during periods of rapid growth."

 

Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings

 

As long as a brilliant jerk has free rein at your company, any efforts you make to create a great company culture are just band aids. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, put it best: "CEOs can talk and blab each day about culture, but the employees all know who the jerks are. They could name the jerks for you. It's just cultural. People just don't want to do it." 

As a business owner, chances are you, too, know who the brilliant jerk is at your company, but you may have turned a blind eye to the situation because of the individual's contributions, and because these issues have a strong emotional component and aren't easy to face. In fact, dealing with the human factor is often much harder than dealing with technical or business issues. But, as the late business consultant Boyd Clarke used to say, "If you don't deal with the emotions, the emotions will deal with you."

You have a strong responsibility to create a place that's great to work at for everyone in your company. As a start, check out the positive cultures of some of the most successful companies that are featured in the 2014 Fortune 100 Best Companies To Work For. Here are just three examples to help you create your own great workplace. One could hazard a guess that a brilliant jerk wouldn't last long at any of these companies.

SAS

"SAS’ strength comes from its culture, which is rich in diverse people, talent and ideas," says Jennifer Mann, vice president of HR at SAS. In the video, "What's not to love," SAS employees talk about the happiness that permeates the workplace and how everyone feels like family. CEO Jim Goodnight puts it succinctly: "We have total respect for everybody." A small company may not be able to provide all the perks that a large company like SAS can, but respecting everyone is priceless.

Genentech

The rallying cry at Genentech is that "People make Genentech what it is." In this "Science" video, watch how the smartest people talk about what it's like to work at Genentech. Whether it's the person discovering a new drug or the ones packaging the drug, everyone is important. As the "Science" video points out, "No one person is more important than any other person."

Ultimate Software

A "people first" culture drives the attitude of everyone at Ultimate Software and is a clear statement about its workplace. Treating coworkers with honesty and respect is engrained in the fabric of daily life here. This company statement sums it best: "Walk through the halls of our offices at any time, and you’ll see something that’s often lacking in corporate America today: happy, smiling employees."

Working With the Brilliant Jerks

If you happen to have a brilliant jerk in your company, what can you do? Here are five ideas:

1. Diagnose the reason. Try to find out what's causing your brilliant employee to display dysfunctional behavior. Was it a wrong hire from the start? Or did this employee deteriorate because of evolving circumstances, such as rampant politics, cumbersome workplace rules that hamper creativity and inept management? Putting your house in order may be the first step in resolving the situation.

2. Seek their opinion. Have a heart-to-heart conversation with this employee. Sometimes, they're not even aware of how they come across or how poisonous their influence has been on the rest of the team. Let them explain the reasons that drive their behavior. As Stephen Covey famously said: Seek first to understand.

At the same time, lay your cards out openly on the table, and make it very clear that, no matter how brilliant the person is, no matter how much they contribute, they also have to be able to work well in a team. Explain the culture you want to create, and simply ask them if they're prepared to support the culture. They have a choice: If they don't want to support a more positive, healthy culture where everyone is respected, then you have no other option but to part ways.

3. Provide coaching and training. Help brilliant jerks raise their self-awareness in a number of critical areas: their personal brand, as in, how others perceive them; their blind spots; any detrimental impulses; and, above all, their communication style. Assign an emotional intelligence coach to help them with self-management issues, such as controlling impulses and managing their temper. A good coach will also help them develop a more empathic approach, become a better listener and increase their organizational awareness. Send them to a good course where they can acquire conflict management techniques and learn effective teamwork and collaboration. In other words, give them an opportunity to raise their EQ (Emotional Quotient) to the level of their IQ. That's a winning combination.

4. Find alternative solutions. If your company is big enough that you can use this employee to do solo work, from their house, as a contractor or consultant, and if the employee is amenable to this arrangement, give it a try. They might be only too happy to do great work on their own. This could end up being a win-win situation for everyone.

5. Pay attention to the culture. Make it a priority to pay as much attention to your company culture as you do to your strategy. Set ground rules for respectful behavior by everyone, no matter their function, title or contributions. Lead by example. Periodically, conduct a culture survey or seek feedback. Frequently speak about the culture and remind people of the important values that need to guide how all employees treat each other. (If you need help on creating a healthy company culture, see my article, "What Culture Is Right For Your Business?")

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Read more articles on company culture.

Photo: Thinkstock, Getty Images

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.