Brilliant Jerks Cost More Than They Are Worth


No Jerks

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.


Crazy Math

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.

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30 Comments

  • True brilliance includes self-awareness, which inspires the recognition that egotism and selfishness is damaging and unproductive. Maybe those we label as brilliant really don’t have everything figured out when they act like jerks as you described.

  • concerned nitpicker says:

    your crazy math is wrong. The commute time does not count as spent with co-workers.

    • bryan says:

      You’re right. I should clarify that. I was going for time away from home from family. I think time traveling to work should count as the work experience, and people not dreading going to work because of jerks on their team.

      • Alan says:

        Then you should count the 8+ hours sleep/home time with partner and family. Consistent accuracy is key here, otherwise it sounds very, very depressing! 😀

        • Retrospective.co says:

          It totally is depressing, when you don’t enjoy your job. But when you work on something that makes a difference or that you actually look forward to, it can be quite rewarding! There has to be a balance between work life and personal life.

          I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I want to make this clear to everyone else: You owe it to your employer, who pays you a lot of money, to provide more value than you’re paid. Whiny babies are worse than brilliant jerks, but in the end we’re all human beings who deserve respect!

  • Engineer says:

    I’ve seen people put out 10x the lines of code, but never 10x the functionality– and really only seen some people do 2x or 3x, but it varies from person to person and work to work.

    I do 2-4x for my teams often without writing any code, by guiding junior engineers to solutions that already exist, or that require less work on their part.

    But the real jerks I’ve run into have been management. People who cannot code at all, and look down on developers, and are assholes about it.

    I’ve seen a company who makes very clear they have a “no asshole rule” produce a culture there all of management are assholes and all of engineering (And every one outside of management in other groups) is disrespected day in and day out.

    the jerk programmer is 1/10th as common in my experience as the jerk manager.

    It’s time we stopped working for managers who are not engineers.

    • bryan says:

      “It’s time we stopped working for managers who are not engineers.”

      I agree. In this specific case though, the manager was a great engineer — just not a great manager.

      IMO, What we need are engineers that care about management, not professional managers.

      • Jade Robbins says:

        What about managers that care about engineers?

        I always hear from engineers about how terrible non-engineers are. When I stand back and look it feels like the engineers are just as intolerant and misunderstanding as those that they are upset with.

        • bryan says:

          Absolutely. Great point. In my experience, many engineers tend to lack empathy, and it should be the job of the manager to guide and mentor them in that respect. After all, we’re not robots, we’re human beings. Sometimes we get so caught up in the task at hand that we forget to be kind to each other. It’s not necessary to be a jerk to make a point, yet it’s easy to be one if you’re not careful. We all have bad days. That’s fine. It’s the people that don’t care to change that are not worth dealing with, in my opinion.

      • Actually what we need is people that cares about people, not code or product

        • Retrospective.co says:

          Code and product are definitely important. That is what we get paid for, after all. But I think your point is that people need to care more about people, and treat them less like robots, which I certainly agree with.

    • Jade Robbins says:

      I would say perhaps it’s time you stop working for bad managers, regardless of their expertise.

      I’ve seen many incompetent managers who are engineers. Usually they are pushed into that role because their organization’s only progression mechanism for engineering was management 🙁

      • bryan says:

        A great point, and in part that’s what I’m trying to address. There are also many engineers that want to get into management but get little or no training before being thrown in the deep end.

  • Self Aware Much says:

    Jerk

  • M says:

    nice post but,

    did you guys tried to communicate with him, did your manager tried to ask him to be nicer and more helpful as team member?

    are sure others were not jerk (just being in opposite side who has the majority)?
    are sure that you didn’t to single him out?

    • bryan says:

      Definitely. I don’t mean to imply that this was a one-week process. This went on for several months, while the manager tried (unsuccessfully) to work with him. When they talked, he’d improve for a day or two, and then would revert back.

      This post isn’t really about the individual though. His behavior is typical of so many Brilliant Jerks out there. If they can’t be isolated somehow to work their brilliance on their own, its just not worth keeping them around.

  • everydaypanos says:

    Sounds like “the jerk got some social skills and is bragging” to me

  • David Farmer says:

    Isn’t this a story about the failure of the manager to convey information to/mentor the jerk?

    When you write that the jerk would repeatedly claim that it was not his fault, I ask why the manager did not take a behavioral approach. People who are behaving badly can be told that specific behaviors are unacceptable, and they can be told specific actions to take. They (the jerk) doesn’t need to understand why the new behavior is needed, they just need to be told to “give it a try”.

    If the jerk is given a specific instruction and fails to do it, then that is a cause for action. Perhaps that is why they were fired after being moved to another position. Perhaps the original manager did not do an adequate job of mentoring the jerk. Anyone can be instructed to begin a criticism by first saying something positive, for example.

    • bryan says:

      A great question, which points out that I didn’t make that clear enough. In this particular example, it took place over a period of about six months. The manager wasn’t the best I’ve ever worked with, but he did give very clear feedback on multiple occasions, with objective examples. I know because I worked closely with this manager in the process.

      If the manager fails to provide the appropriate feedback, then I would argue that he or she is more to blame than the “jerk”. My point is more about the people that behave as jerks because they are brilliant, and don’t care to change our treat those around them with respect.

  • Muhammad says:

    The workplace would be a much better place if we can cultivate the practice of “the person is more important than the point” because if the person dosen’t get the point of what you’re saying, then what’s the point of the point. Isn’t that the point of teamwork?

    Sorry if I sound confusing.

  • xine watson says:

    Interesting post. I have this little wrench to throw in. There are people who are truly just jerks. Then you have the savants who are brilliant, but lacking social skills. They may come off as being a jerk because they are very inept at being social. It goes beyond just not trying, they truly lack the devices or conveying emotion of interactive skills. But the autistic/Aspergers engineers are beginning to be highly sought after for their unique skill of focus and brilliance in one area. But along with that is a down side, apparently.

  • Dave says:

    Aside from asserting that they where a jerk, you only wrote a limited bit about the actual why. That, he stated his opinions as fact, was never nice and did not mentor.

    I’d loved to have heard more context.

    “Nice” sounds subjective to me. Ad hominem attacks (or other logical fallacies) are inappropriate in my teams, however, team members don’t have to be “nice”. My mum is nice. My team members are from 8 different nationalities and linguistic style really varies. It is very difficult to enforce “nice”. In fact, being nice can sometimes be construed as patronising.

    I’ve dealt with a situation where “brilliant jerk” was claimed, but when I dug deeper I found a team acting like school-yard bullies towards a very introverted guy. He did have some odd characteristics. For example, he was a communist and often talked about it in a semi-religious way. He also told terrible jokes. Subjectively, he was quite uncharismatic.

    I have another example where when I dug into the “jerk”, I found that in fact, he was just very precise. Always given the extra piece of information, trying to be helpful. He also had a tendency to be short, i.e. not nice, but never unprofessional. For example, recently he shut down a conversation saying, “if you can’t describe the problem, then I can’t help you”. I discovered that he has a very stressful personal life (medical problems) and I’ve explained to the people around him, they have to treat him appropriately too.

    In my experience, cliques are more common that “brilliant jerks”. Cliques can sometimes be quite large, even whole team size. The most difficult “jerk” to deal with is often one creating a clique.

    As with the “nice”, I try to manage the behaviours of my team members. They know what is acceptable and what is not. If they treat each other unprofessionally, I give them feedback and the opportunity to fix their behaviour.

    In terms of more behaviours, I recommend reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_No_Asshole_Rule

    • Retrospective.co says:

      All valid points. I think people may be focusing too much on the particular example I gave, and not enough on the concept: people that are actual jerks are a net-negative impact on the team. This was just one example out of many.

      That being said, you are absolutely right. I have definitely seen the other side as well, where team members gang up on one person unfairly. That is why it is critical to really dig in as a manager (as you said), and really understand what’s going on. My article Seek First to Understand highlights the importance of this as well. I’m glad you called that out.

      People certainly can change, and its important that we give them a chance to try. Even several chances. Its the people that refuse to try or be more civil, because they don’t think they should that I’m referring to here.

      Thanks for the insightful comments Dave!

  • Alex says:

    I used to be that brillante jerk. Time and life taught me to not be such a jerk.
    Now I’m just brillant.

  • Paul Rivers says:

    “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.”

    If this is really the case, then it was just an issue with him.

    But, I can’t help but wonder if the root of the problem is your manager. Was this guy a problem before code reviews? Or was he fine until the manager pushed him into a totally new job role that he was simply very very bad at – reading other peoples code and telling them what to do with it?

    • Retrospective.co says:

      A valid question, but this particular guy had a reputation for being a jerk long before he joined our team. He was clearly brilliant, and we were excited to have him on our team because we knew he’d bring a level of experience and quality that not many on the team had. We knew about his reputation, but thought we could just deal with it. We seriously underestimated how little this guy cared about what other people thought and thought of him. He frequently resorted to personal attacks or revenge. If you nicely pointed out one potential change in his code, he would reply with snarky comments and then find 20 nitpicky things in your code that were often a matter of opinion. We had a policy that every comment needed to be addressed or at least replied to, so he knew what he was doing.

      We tried so many different things. A lot of the advice out there says that you just need to isolate toxic (but brilliant) people like that and let them do their thing, but that just doesn’t work in a highly collaborative project like ours. I sat in on a few of the feedback sessions between the manager and him, to help provide support and examples. I made a point of trying to be as neutral as possible (only providing the facts), so that he didn’t feel totally ganged up on. That’s how I know that the manager was giving direct and honest feedback, and it usually helped for 2-3 days, but then he went right back to being a total and complete jerk. This was not just a bad phase that he could be helped through — this had unfortunately become part of his personality, and he truly didn’t care.

      Too many people are focusing on this one example, and this one manager. This is one of many. In every case, it is the same: while the output from that one individual is impressive, it is a net-negative on the rest of the team of solid engineers. The rest of the team were not slackers in any way. Perhaps a little young and lacking in experience, but certainly solid in their own right. Brilliant Jerks, and all the drama they bring, just aren’t worth dealing with.

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