What do you do when someone who is unquestionably brilliant is also a jerk?
We all work with someone who is unquestionably brilliant. You know the type: the person who consistently comes up with great insights and ideas and who can cut to the quick far faster than anyone else in the organization. It’s hard not to step back and admire how the person’s brain works.
At the same time, such people can begin to think their gifts place them above everyone else in the organization. They tend to hog all the airtime at meetings by intimidating and maybe even ridiculing those who might have the audacity to offer their own take on a situation-thus suppressing collaboration and participation throughout the rest of the organization. They also follow their own rules and are even abusive to the rest of the staff. They aren’t nice people to be around. In other words, these people are jerks- which creates real issues within your organization.
But since they are brilliant, what should you, as the leader of the organization, do about it?
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been very clear about what his organization does with its brilliant jerks: It gets rid of them. As he has said in the past about them: “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.”
What Hastings came to realize is that regardless of how smart or even how productive such employees might be, they can actually begin to rip an organization apart from the inside if they don’t buy into the organization’s values and embrace working collaboratively.
In my book, Great CEOs Are Lazy, I call these folks “cultural terrorists” because of how destructive they can be to an organization. Certainly, your first option should potentially be to use coaching as a way to polish a brilliant jerk’s prickly edges. Obviously, you can”t make anyone a nicer person, but perhaps you can make the person aware of how damaging their behavior is to peers and see if they are willing to make changes accordingly.
If these folks are unable to change their behavior, however, then they leave you no choice but to exit them from the organization. By doing so, you’re making a powerful statement to the rest of your team about how important your culture is- what is tolerated and what is not. The longer you let them remain, the more damage they cause inside your culture and to your own reputation as a leader. People will lose trust in your abilities, which can undermine all the hard work you’ve done to build a strong team in the first place.
When you exit a cultural terrorist, it should be known within the organization that the person is no longer with you because of their behavior, not due to their performance on the job. This will set a tone about the kind of culture you want to build and the kinds of behaviors you’ll accept- and the kinds you won’t.
There are organizations where brilliant jerks are welcomed and where they thrive. For example, I know of several prominent consulting firms where individual contributions are valued more than teamwork. And that’s OK if that’s the kind of organization you’re trying to build.
But if you’re like Netflix and believe there is greater collaborative power through teamwork, then you need to act now when it comes to dealing with your brilliant jerks. You can’t afford to wait until after the damage has been done.