Do you have a “brilliant jerk” problem?

When I read this blog post in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago about a doctor with magnificent troubleshooting skills but who manages to antagonize everyone in his path and destroy all attempts at teamwork, I had flashbacks. Vivid memories of support engineers and development engineers with awesome technical skills, an amazing ability to continuously add to their vast store of knowledge, a fearless habit of performing heroics to save customers and situations that seem hopeless — and a propensity to throw their weight around, to bully others, and to squash any attempts to bring them into a formal process. My memories were, in some cases, 20+ years old, but I could see the faces and remember the names. (And no, I will not name names!)

The brilliant jerks I remember had protection from above. Their callousness was explained away; their lack of soft skills dismissed as irrelevant compared to their technical ability; their impact on morale ignored. The argument for the status quo was always the same: the organization/customer base/product would crumble without him (the brilliant jerk can be a woman; my flashbacks are male).

Brilliant jerks are a significant drag on any organization. I remember talented people asking to be pulled off interesting projects so they would not have to work with the brilliant jerks. I remember tears behind closed doors. I remember many requests for cubicles changes to get away from the explosions. So whenever I had the opportunity, I was not shy about calling the brilliant jerks to task on their manner (I must say that a nice quality of brilliant jerks is that their oversized egos allow them to listen to criticism, even blunt criticism, quite well). With some, I got through by convincing them that their lack of soft skills was impeding their professional success. After all, awesome technical skills + awesome soft skills = awesome power, right? Others were less amenable to change, and if I had the authority to do so I moved them along. Each time, there was a collective sigh of relief, and interestingly enough no project crashed as a result, no customer was lost, and other contributors rose from the ranks to provide the skills that were lost as a result of the departure.

Do you have a brilliant jerk on your team today and what are you doing to change the situation?

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1 Comment

  • David Kay (@dbkayanda) Reply

    Wonderful observations. I’m a big fan of Robert Sutton’s book, named approximately “The No Jerk Rule,” although be warned that he uses a somewhat earthier word than “Jerk” in the actual title.

    I think your approach is right: coach, then cut. Life is far too short, and it’s amazing how replaceable irreplaceable people turn out to be, especially if they’re busy driving everyone else crazy.

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