Brilliant Jerks

“Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.”

—Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix

In the current tech scenario, with the spotlight on empathetic leadership turned up to the max, it is only logical that the role of teams and work culture also be examined.

As the lens zooms in on the internal team dynamics and its impact on team motivation, companies are now awakening to a new reality: that hiring brilliant jerks can cost them dearly.


Brilliant jerks: High on performance, low on collaboration

A ‘brilliant jerk’ is someone who is an exceptionally talented employee, and “can be” highly productive, except, they don’t work well in a team. Brilliant jerks are generally rock-star performers, have great insights, and are brilliant problem-solvers, but they rarely get along with other team members.

Since these employees are performance-oriented and never fail to deliver, most managers turn a blind eye to their lack of team spirit. Some even indulge this awful behaviour, at the cost of other team members, unaware of how it undermines the collective team spirit.


Brilliant jerks can undo years of hard work

Often, given their exceptional job skills, companies let ‘brilliant jerks’ get away with their bad attitude and lack of collaboration. By condoning this kind of behavior for a long time, a company stands to lose competent, consistent performers, who might not want to work in such a difficult work environment.

Not only do ‘brilliant jerks’ push away other top performers, but they also cause a deep rip into the cultural fabric of the organization. Ignoring such employees or tolerating them for the sake of results amounts to validating bad behavior, and reinforces it as a part of the organizational culture. If ignored for long, such behavior becomes so engrained in the organizational system that it risks becoming a toxic and unproductive workplace, devoid of innovation.

With collaboration and teamwork gaining prominence in business world, many software giants are now taking a firm stand against brilliant jerks. Netflix has a clear-cut policy as to what kind of people it wants to hire:

“On a dream team, there are no ‘brilliant jerks.’ The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that.”

This begs the question: what do companies do in order to promote a healthy work culture? Changing workplace culture is a two-fold process, which involves a) choosing the right people and, b) keeping them aligned with company’s vision. The following measures can help companies create a positive work culture:

  1. Overhauling the hiring process

Companies must overcome their fixation with job skills and evaluate the candidates on the whole. Simply put, it means forgoing the talented-but-difficult rock-star performer in favour of someone who is, perhaps a tad less productive, but a team champion and shares the same values as the company.

  1. Setting new metrics for employee evaluation

Companies can look at replacing the traditional result-oriented metrics with a new system which blends on-the-job performance and teamwork initiatives.

Recently, a top software company based out of Australia announced its new employee appraisal model, which combines job productivity as well as teamwork skills. By tying in the employee bonuses to these appraisals, the company has taken a step towards incentivizing good behavior and collaborative spirit.

Overall, the business world has evolved today, and human element (both customers and employees) is at the core of business operations. Companies are now beginning to understand that the road to healthy profits passes through a positive workplace, and brilliant jerks have no room in such an environment; that they might bring in temporary results, but a company’s vision and future cannot be compromised for short term profits.

It’s time companies took a tough call on ‘brilliant jerks’ and told them to either “shape up or ship out”. The change, however, begins at the top. It’s up to the leaders to set the tone for the organizational culture, and clearly define what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Do you have a Brilliant Jerk? You know who they are.

We always look for ‘Brilliant-folks’ who have the right mix of passion and compassion. Send us your thoughts at