As a software engineer, I worked on a small team of mostly less experienced engineers on a new product. As part of our process to ensure the highest quality, we agreed to review each others code before allowing any of it to go out to customers. This was both a teaching opportunity and a chance to have a second pair of eyes on a complex product. Nobody minded the process, because we knew it would help us be more consistent and improve over time.
One of the engineers on the team was someone (like me) who had quite a bit of experience. He knew how things should be done, and was absolutely brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that he often coded circles around the rest of us. He was what I would consider a brilliant developer. He could crank out significantly more well-structured code than as any of us could in one day.
The problem was he was a huge jerk. Its not that he was wrong — he rarely was — but he was a complete jerk about it. Every time one of us would post our code for review, he would slaughter it. Where a normal review would often contain a handful of comments and suggestions, he would regularly end up in the hundreds. Most of the comments were opinion and personal preference. He had good reasons, and he was more often right than not, but he never even tried to be kind. He never took the opportunity to teach or mentor. He just stated his opinions as fact. It was clear that he saw the world in black or white — no gray areas — and we were all wrong.
It was exhausting and it wore us down. At first the rest of us tried to have constructive conversations, then we often just gave in, then I realized that we were actively avoiding him altogether and skirting our process. It wasn’t healthy.
He was so good. Was it worth even arguing or talking to our manager about him? Surely if we just put up with his attitude, we’d accomplish more because of the sheer volume of his contributions.
The problem was that work was no longer enjoyable. We dreaded any interaction we had with him. In fact, we avoided it. Morale was low, and our team was going down in flames because of this one person.
Our manager did the best he could. He gave him regular and honest feedback about how he was affecting the team. But to him it was never his fault — we were just sensitive.
After it got so bad that several of us threatened to leave, he was moved to another team and eventually fired. A funny thing happened almost immediately after he left: morale increased steadily and we actually began to meet our goals even faster with one less person on the team. It seemed counter-intuitive that the guy who previously produced ten times as much code as anyone else was dragging our productivity down so much, but it was true.
We were a whole new team, and work was fun again.
You Are Absolutely Murdering Your Team
Poor morale is just part of the price you pay for putting up with a Brilliant Jerk. Time and time again, I have seen the same pattern. A person is hired who is clearly brilliant. It is fairly obvious from the interview that they lack some important social skills… but wow, the things they could accomplish if we just get used to their quirks!
The problem with Brilliant Jerks is that they are often used to being the smartest person in the room. They don’t have to worry about being nice, because they are the top dog, and people need their natural talent. They have no incentive to try to improve, because they can simply go somewhere else. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that they often bounce around from place to place. They know they can get away with it.
Meanwhile, your loyal and teamwork-oriented employees suffer. Unless you run a company where you can truly isolate individuals, the Brilliant Jerk will cause more harm (both long- and short-term) than good. If you require any sort of collaboration in order to create a produce or service (and what company doesn’t?), the Brilliant Jerk may as well be a bulldozer.
If you insist on keeping the Brilliant Jerk around (<sarcasm>I mean hey, they’re a 10x-er!</sarcasm>), you’ll have to incur the cost of lower productivity for anyone around them, and onboarding new employees to replace the ones that just can’t deal with it any more and leave.
It is simply not worth it. The Brilliant Jerk as someone who is worth the trouble, if you can only find a way to deal with them, is a myth.
A “No Jerks” Policy Must Be Built Into Your Culture
It is entirely possible to be extremely passionate (and even brilliant) without being a jerk. A “no jerks” policy must be preached and practiced from the highest levels. You don’t need to avoid the difficult conversations or be a pushover to not be a jerk. Being a jerk means lacking empathy and consideration for the concerns of others. You can empathize and still discuss the elephant in the room without beating around the bush. In fact, the best managers are those that are able to be completely honest and frank, while also making sure individuals know they are appreciated.
Do you want to be respected, or feared? Being respected out of fear is a load of crap. Its an oxymoron. If you’re feared, you’re just feared, not respected. It may feel like respect because people simply avoid you or try to appease you to keep the paycheck coming, but they will not go above and beyond for you.
Be explicit about the “no jerks” policy. Talk about it in your interviews. Set the expectation with your teams and direct reports. Most of all, you have to be the emotional anchor that the team needs. Don’t avoid the difficult issues, but keep the discussion about the facts. Personal attacks of any kind have no place in the workplace.
Consider this math: The typical employee spends 9 hours per day (including lunch) at the office. They probably spend 30 minutes commuting each way. That’s 10 hours each day, or about 50 hours per week. If you get home at 5:30, you probably spend about 3 hours per day with your family. On the weekend, you get around 14 hours per day (time awake) with family. So on average you spend 43 hours at home with family and 50+ hours with the people you work with.
You spend more time with your co-workers than with your own family. That’s crazy! Its not so much insane math as it is insane that you would be willing to spend that much time with someone you don’t enjoy working with.
Before you subject your team to a Brilliant Jerk, consider that math. Its simply not worth it.
Edit: I removed some of the emphasis around this particular Brilliant Jerk being a “10x developer”, because people were taking that way too literally and trying to turn it into a simple math equation. I don’t believe that literal “10x developers” actually exist, but the phrase is a good metaphor for someone that is so brilliant they pump out significantly more work than anyone else. There is no doubt that this guy was absolutely brilliant.
Whether or not 10x-ers exist or not isn’t really relevant. The point here is that no matter how brilliant someone is, being a total jerk has a net-negative effect on any team.
Howdy. Glad you're here! A word of advice: If you’re looking to pick a fight in the comments, don’t bother. I welcome disagreement because it encourages healthy discussion, but I’m not going to allow personal attacks or angry trolls to distract from the message.