Weekly Wrap: Have You Ever Had to Deal With a Brilliant Jerk?

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Over the last few weeks, the You’re the Boss small business blog in The New York Times has had a series of posts on a type of employee that we have all seen, fretted over, and struggled to deal with — the Brilliant Jerk.

Boy, did that ever resonate with me, because it perfectly describes people I have occasionally worked with who were incredibly skilled and talented, but also, were frequently a lot more trouble than they were worth. I can remember thinking, or saying, on a number of occasions, “No one would put up with this person if they weren’t so damn good.”

As the You’re the Boss blog describes it in What Do You Do with the Brilliant Jerk?,

I define Brilliant Jerks as specialized, high-producing performers. They are not, however, brilliant business people, and that is what companies need during periods of rapid growth. There are a lot of hurdles to cross when companies move from start-up to growth, including dealing with chaos and changes in culture. But the biggest hurdle is dealing with the human factor — how you move, shift and replace people as the company grows into the next level of success. …

The growth phase required the addition of staff members, systems and structure that changed the dynamics of the company. While the brilliant talent was a high-tech genius, the new stars were being made in areas like sales, marketing and education. He felt left out. He was no longer needed in every meeting. He could not simply pop into the chief executive’s office four or five times a day like old times, and the new processes and systems hindered and even prevented him from being the savior. Right before our eyes, the brilliant talent became the Brilliant Jerk.”

How do you define a Brilliant Jerk?

Now, The New York Times‘ blog post dealt specifically with the phenomenon of superstar employees in start-up companies who seem to be able to do it all to help propel the organization ahead, but then turn into Brilliant Jerks as the organization grows, the number of talented employees expands, and the need for an individual savior who can do it all wanes.

My notion of the Brilliant Jerk is a little broader than that. It’s the superstar performer who not only knows it but also lets it turn them into an insufferable, petulant egomaniac. They become a Brilliant Jerk because they do mind-numbingly great work and are brilliant, but to everyone around them, they’re also a royal pain in the ass.

The rest of the workforce puts up with them because they have to, but a great many of the Brilliant Jerk’s co-workers secretly wish they would do something stupid and fall on their face — so management would quit putting up with their antics and give them a boot out the door.

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Not surprisingly, that’s the Who’s the Boss author arrived at, too, when it comes to dealing with the Brilliant Jerk.

So what’s the right answer? Get rid of the Brilliant Jerk as fast as you possibly can. …

I can tell you from personal experience that coddling the Brilliant Jerk — letting him work from home, consoling him, giving him special assignments — does not work. It just kicks the can down the road. At my company, I was worried about the impact his firing would have on other employees who had shown him respect. To my surprise, the reaction was, “What took you so long?”

One of the worst feelings I have ever experienced was looking at the Brilliant Jerk and saying, “We have a vision, and I have decided you are no longer a match for where we need to go.” One of the best feelings came the next day when everyone was moving forward together.”

Have you had to deal with a Brilliant Jerk in your workplace? if so, how did it go? I’d love to find out, and if I get enough posted responses here, I may put them together in another blog post about it here at TLNT, because dealing with the Brilliant Jerks in our midst is one of the toughest challenges any manager ever has to face.

Changing corporate culture is hard to do

Of course, there’s a lot more going on than dealing with Brilliant Jerks in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Baldness as a business advantage? This is a goofy story and maybe a sign that American management is going straight down the toilet, but The Wall Street Journal reported this week on a survey that indicates that bad men have a business advantage in the workplace. “Men with shaved heads are perceived to be more masculine, dominant and, in some cases, to have greater leadership potential than those with longer locks or with thinning hair, according to a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. … The study found that men with thinning hair were viewed as the least attractive and powerful of the bunch, a finding that tracks with other studies showing that people perceive men with typical male-pattern baldness — which affects roughly 35 million Americans — as older and less attractive.”
  • Changing culture is tougher than you think. Former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz has some words of wisdom for new Yahoo CEO Melissa Meyer,  according to The New York Times’ Bits blog, “One piece of advice I would give her is changing culture is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Ms. Bartz said. “It’s very, very hard to affect culture. And you can get surprised thinking you’re farther down the path of change than you really are because, frankly, most of us like the way things are.” Employees might nod when an executive suggests changes, she said, “then they go back to their cube and go, ‘I ain’t doing that.’ And so I think that’s important for all of us, is to realize how stuck individuals can be, much less 14,000 people.”
  • Sexual discrimination against Silicon Valley VC firm gets uglier. Discrimination lawsuits are always pretty difficult, and this one taking place in California’s Silicon Valley is not only rare, but getting uglier by the minute. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers said Wednesday that it is transitioning partner Ellen Pao out of the partnership, and denied she had been fired. Pao sued the firm in May, alleging Kleiner treated female employees unfairly by promoting and compensating them less than men. She posted a comment on Quora, a question-and-answer website, Tuesday that said she had been fired from the firm and was asked not to return” Kleiner Perkins says that Pao’s claims that she was asked to leave are “misleading,” and that “she remains an employee of the firm. … (but is working) to facilitate her transition, over an extended period of time, out of the firm.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.