How To Deal With Brilliant Jerks?

Brilliant jerks not allowed

Netflix has developed a work culture that doesn’t tolerate brilliant jerks. Quoting Netflix CEO Reed Hastings – “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.” Jerks destroy culture and teamwork. The not so brilliant jerks are easily disposable. But how to deal with brilliant jerks?

Reed says “fire them”. I without a doubt agree. But is it always the best solution?

How about brilliant jerks who work in an individual capacity?

Consulting firms have employees who work independently. There is no team work involved. What about super sales reps? The type that gets your business the big orders.

The answer lies in another question. What is your organization’s culture?

Do you strive for a collaborative, engaging, respect and equality for all work culture? If yes, there is no place for jerks in the team. Brilliant or stupid.

Do you want a highly competitive work environment where employees wrestle for titles and bragging rights? There are companies that don’t treat employees well. If the vision is outcome driven leadership where people are treated as disposable assets, then go on. Don’t just deal with jerks. You might as well go ahead and unashamedly hire jerks. Pit jerks against one another.

Being jerk at the workplace
Dilbert Comic Strip by Scott Adams

Realization of the culture you want to build answers this dilemma for you.

How to deal with brilliant jerks?

We are in favor of building happy workplaces. So the culture we promote is “collaborative, engaging, respect and equality for all”. And let me assure you, you are not one bit compromising competitiveness and business outputs.

Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.

Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Former CEO of IBM

As Louis said it – “the collective capacity of its people to create value”. Jerks kill the “collective capacity”.

Let’s all agree on the solution before we proceed to the “how” – Fix brilliant jerks or else fire them.

So how do we fix jerks?

Don’t rush to label someone a “jerk”

That has to be the starting point. A fair trial.

Let us not rush to a conclusion. Sometimes bad behavior is a product of the work environment. It could be contextual. There could be issues in an employee’s personal space that may trigger rude or bad behavior at work.

Hence we need to address the bad behavior. Question and investigate. The reason might be situational and the employee may need counselling and help.

Offer to help.

What if the bad behavior is not situational?


Okay, here we are dealing with a jerk. A habitual jerk.

Time for an honest one on one discussion. Someone with authority needs to talk to the person. The message has to be crisp and clear – no ambiguity.

Remember that the meeting is a set up to fix the jerk. Firing the person is not the desired outcome yet.

Let the “jerk” know the bad effects and consequences of his or her behavior. Without mincing words, you should convey that brilliance at work cannot be the excuse for tolerating bad behavior at work.

Put the offer on table – “We are here to fix the situation. We value your contributions to the firm and we are willing to work with you. Are you?

Most would say “Yes” even if they are unwilling. When fix or quit are the only options, the brilliant jerks would want to buy some time by expressing their willingness.

What next?

In my personal experience having fixed some jerks at work, additional responsibilities and recognition are the best antidotes in such situations.

Identify the strengths of the person. Leadership? Project Management? If the person is indeed brilliant at his or her work, there would certainly be a few other notable qualities you will find useful.

Positions of strength often bring out positive changes in people. This is especially true when the person has a trusted guide and coach. Be the guide to fix bad behavior.

Recognize early results and success. Celebrate immediate achievements and progress with the team.

Keep a close watch on the changes in behavior. Ask for regular feedback on the progress from colleagues.

Continue if there is desired progress. You have a winner if you could reverse bad behavior of exceptional performers at work. These usually go on to become effective leaders and achievers.

What if the progress is not as desired?

This is when we jump to the next solution.

Fire the Brilliant Jerk

As Arianna Huffington, cofounder of the Huffington Post says – “No brilliant jerks allowed”. The cost to the company is too high if you do.

When you fire, it is important that everyone including the person is aware of the reason to fire. That sets the expectations with every other employee. Good performance will not be tolerated as a cover for rude and bad behavior.

The real competitive advantage in any business is one word only, which is ‘people’.” – Kamil Toume, Writer and thought leader

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By Nitesh Verma

Founder - Business Management Blog. I am an independent business strategy consultant, helping companies take data driven business decisions. My mission is to find and implement simple solutions for complex business problems.

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