Brilliant Jerks, Part 2

In the first part of this article I characterized brilliant jerks—those highly regarded people who treat others poorly.  In this part I will focus more on the handling of any jerks you encounter.   By the very definition, somebody believes those jerks are brilliant.  This means that any attempt to work with, around, or against these people must counter this perception.  This battle can leave you dispirited, demoralized, and defeated.

If you work at a company full of jerks you should strongly consider moving on.  I promise that there are a lot of great companies out there, full of people you would want to work with! 

To Be or Not To Be

One common counter argument to this whole idea of brilliant jerks is that: Nice guys finish last. Silicon Valley has a surplus of driven, aggressive entrepreneurs focused on the big picture, and not worried about the little things. Some of these folks are doing pretty well. Many people thought Steve Jobs was a jerk, and he had amazing success. So maybe being a brilliant jerk can be a good thing…

It’s a fascinating topic with no lack of research. Whether or not you read Dr. Sutton’s book, take a look at this relevant (and interesting) article: Why It Pays to Be a Jerk. Spoiler alert: It depends. For some people, in certain situations, being a jerk, in some ways, can pay off; for most it does not.

There are times when it is necessary to be direct, driven, even aggressive—I wrote about this in Sometimes You Have to Sell. But this does not mean you have to be mean-spirited, insulting, two-faced, or rude. Positive passion can give energy to those around you, whereas negativity can sap their morale. If you cannot couple your drive to succeed with care for your impact on others, you are a jerk. Any value you add will be diminished by the harm you cause.

Your Brilliant Jerks

If you are in a leadership position, you will have to deal with any brilliant jerks on your team. But first, you must be able to identify and address these people.

It can be hard to recognize jerks in your organization for a few reasons:

  1. If you are senior, they may not be jerks to you.
  2. Your particular biases may blind you to their faults.
  3. As mentioned previously, there is a tendency to see their value (brilliance) but not fully appreciate their harm.

Your best resource for getting a better insight into potential brilliant jerks is the other people on your team. Less senior folk are more apt to have experienced any abuse and able to relate the negative consequences.

You need to have established trust, and a reputation for discretion with your team if you expect to get honest feedback. People often hesitate to give negative feedback for fear that it will not be considered seriously, or that it will make them appear to be a complainer. They don’t want to risk getting targeted by the jerk, if word of their feedback leaks out. And they may even avoid contesting with a “brilliant” person, for fear that, even though that person is a jerk, they will be the loser.

Once you have identified any brilliant jerks, you need to figure out what to do with them. For moderate shortcomings, mentoring can help. If the jerk is unaware of the negative impacts of their behaviors and willing to change, coaching can produce positive outcomes. If your coaching abilities are not strong in this area, contact your management and/or Human Resources representative for assistance. Consider adding personal interaction goals to this person’s reviews. The possibility of losing status or money can help focus the person on the seriousness of the changes required.

People who are unable or unwilling to change present a more difficult problem. In the perfect world, you would ease them out, and remove their poisonous influence. But in the world we actually live in, you may need time to find a replacement, or may not be able (or allowed) to remove them at all. This can often be the case at a startup, as the company may be built around one or more brilliant jerks. Lose them and you lose the company!

When you are faced with a situation where you cannot change or remove a bad actor, you must do what you can to mitigate the problem. As much as possible, isolate the individual from the rest of the team, so that he or she can focus on their valuable work and have controlled interactions with others. Talk with the people on your team about your intended approach, so that there is a better chance for this to succeed. Attend meetings and other interactions to help prevent (or possibly record) bad behavior. Work with your management to convince them of the need to replace this jerk!

Dealing With It

If you are forced to work with brilliant jerks, you will need patience, a plan, and good luck. This is harder than dealing with any jerks who are subordinate to you, as your options are limited and your risks are higher. It is also likely to be disheartening—according to research Sutton references, negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions.

If the jerks you have to deal with have been around for any length of time, management may well be aware of their flaws, or conversely, may have been unable to identify them. In either case, you face an uphill battle. The situation can become even more complicated if the jerk is in a position of power over you.

Confronting a brilliant jerk can be risky, so proceed with caution. Your management may resolve the situation by removing part of the problem, and in their estimation, you may be the part that should be removed!

There are some strategies you can attempt to mitigate or favorably resolve the situation, but they put the onus (and risk) on you, with no guarantee of success:

  • Keep a detailed record all of the problematic interactions. You may need these to defend yourself in the future.
  • Consider inviting “participant witnesses” to meetings with jerks to help prevent issues or to attest to the behavior.
  • Limit your interactions with abusive people as much as possible.
  • Be on your best behavior with any jerks, so that situations are less likely to escalate.
  • Avoid the urge to stoop to the same bad behaviors—you will lose credibility and any moral high ground.
  • Proactively keep your management informed of your own status and accomplishments so that you are less susceptible to slander and any counterattacks.
  • Cautiously feel out the state of affairs with management and others. Is the jerk (or jerks) recognized as such? Are other people affected? Is anything being done about the situation?
  • If possible, band together with other victims for support, and for evidence gathering.
  • Immediately report actions that cross legal or ethical lines to HR. Consider working with HR if you witness or experience bad behavior, but always remember that HR represents the company.
  • Talk with family and friends to get advice about other approaches to this problem. Do this outside of work to avoid accidental disclosures.

If your management team will not help to resolve the problems and the poor behavior escalates, you will be faced with some hard choices. Working with jerks is one of the most demoralizing situations in the working world. You might be better off making the decision to move yourself to another environment. As Reed Hastings stated, you should not tolerate brilliant jerks.