There’s a decent argument to be made that being aggressive is a crucial quality for a startup. A ‘small fish’ trying to make it in a sea of big corporates might need its key people to take a ruthless attitude. Sometimes you need to show the world what you’ve got and refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. In recent years the term ‘brilliant jerk’ has become familiar, but how do you spot one, how far should they be allowed to go and when do they become dangerous?

Identifying Your Brilliant Jerk

In short, it’s the person who’s great at what they do and delivers outstanding results, but doesn’t do so well with interpersonal skills. They’re the opposite of a team player they might even go out of their way to be rude to people they feel aren’t as smart as they are. While most people try to avoid the basic office faux pas and be likeable, the brilliant jerk is the exact opposite.

They’ll often be blunt, insensitive, unapproachable or demonstrate a variety of other unpleasant qualities. But crucially, they may feel their skills make up for that. Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has presented the world with a good (or if you like, bad) example of how someone can lead a startup to success with this brilliant jerk attitude. The problem is, he’s also a great example of how to build one of the worst working environments in the process, riddled with harassment and discrimination.

Appeasement Is Tempting, But It’s Playing With Fire

The brilliant jerk isn’t limited to leaders and can be found at many levels, from salespeople or accountants to engineers and marketers. But it’s usually more tolerated in positions where a disagreeable attitude can be offset by the ability to drive a startup towards success. Owners and CEOs may feel that if they let that employee do their thing in an isolated environment, leave them alone and give them what they need, they can use their talents and ignore the attitude. This may work for a while, but it’s a short-sighted approach.

In fact, some companies have already declared a ‘no jerks policy’, such as Netflix. On their jobs section, they write:

“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. When highly capable people work together in a collaborative context, they inspire each other to be more creative, more productive and ultimately more successful as a team than they could be as a collection of individuals.”

In the short term, it may seem like the pros of hiring a brilliant jerk outweigh the cons. Yes, some feelings get hurt, but the company releases a product, unlike anything the market has ever seen. The thing is, it’s not only the company culture that suffers eventually, but it can also hit your bottom-line too.

Projects May Not Reach The End Point

Creative team brainstorming ideas
Hiring a genius to work for your startup is a great idea when you’re looking to build something new and unique, that potentially only that person can achieve. But every project evolves through many stages and that approach may burn out once you’re past the initial setup. No matter how gifted someone may be, they can’t be good at everything.

For example, an engineer will at some point need to communicate with a UX designer, or a content writer, or any number of other positions. That’s where people skills come in. If they’re lacking, and if nobody wants to work with that engineer, or if the person in question refuses to collaborate, projects may never see the light of day, wasting time and money.

Productivity Could Be Lowered

Another real danger is the detrimental effect of someone with questionable interpersonal skills on the rest of the workforce. Many people thrive on social interaction at work, so having an employee around who puts others down, disrespects their peers and makes the working environment unpleasant could greatly reduce productivity. It’s bad enough for other employees to feel uncomfortable, but it could lead to people intentionally missing work so they don’t have to deal with the brilliant jerk, or worse, they might even quit.

Even if everyone shows up for work, the general atmosphere of having to deal with the situation will create resentment. Other employees who don’t get away with as much won’t want to contribute to everyday tasks knowing the brilliant jerk is allowed to treat others badly. In general, encouraging positivity in your workforce helps to achieve productivity, but employing a brilliant jerk won’t help that atmosphere.

Leadership May Be Compromised

One of the best ways to motivate your team is to lead by example. Hiring a brilliant jerk and then letting them get away with murder sets a terrible example. Apart from the reality of working with a difficult colleague who seems to have special dispensation, the wider message communicated is that nothing matters but the end result – that money is more important than people.

The more socially inclined colleagues will naturally talk more and if word gets around of a miserable working environment, that could make it harder to recruit new staff. In turn, that could make it more difficult to attract new investors and clients after all, everybody wants to feel they’re working with decent, honest people. At its extreme, a toxic working environment could leave the startup open to legal action, which can lead to financial and reputational damage.

There Could Be A Real Problem When The Startup Grows

Two men working on the brick wall background
Startups are characterized by their tendency to be unpredictable. They often begin as an idea, develop into a product, gather a small team of people and then grow exponentially to employ hundreds. But in time, the original idea may develop in a completely different direction to what was originally planned. People who found startups and continue to work in them need to be open to the idea that things are always growing and evolving, sometimes at light-speed and not always in the anticipated direction. That may well be a difficult sell to someone with inflexible views.

In many cases, employees need to adapt and take on new roles and responsibilities they didn’t expect. They may have to adjust to a new company culture, new bosses (if a startup receives new funding, for example), new ways of thinking and more. A brilliant jerk, set in their ways and not that interested in accommodating other views, will falter. As the founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs, Cliff Oxford explains:

“They are not 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 startup to growth, including dealing with chaos and changes in culture. But the biggest hurdle is dealing with the human factor.”

The brilliant jerks may refuse to take on new responsibilities or a new mission statement. It’ll be harder to move them around as the company grows and you can’t count on them to transfer their knowledge to anyone you hire to replace them. If they believe they’re the best at doing the job they were hired for and can’t deal with the idea of ‘that was then and this is now’, it’ll be difficult to convince them otherwise.

Firing A Brilliant Jerk Can Help Others Shine

Startup workflow

Society and pop culture may have taught us to believe that brilliance and social incompetence go hand-in-hand, from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Gregory House through to the likes of Hannibal Lecter. It’s easy to believe that being smart means a compromise elsewhere – a flaw for every diamond. In reality, some people can be both highly skilled and a team player at the same time. If your brilliant jerk is casting a shadow, you may be preventing those people from reaching their full potential, as they need to be able to communicate with the rest of the team to shine.

That’s not to say you should immediately mount a witch-hunt in your ranks, it’s more of a call to be aware of the qualities, both good and bad, of the people you hire. If it’s too late for that, it’s a reminder not to turn a blind eye to undesirable behaviour. Without the brilliant jerk in your ranks, or by getting wise to them, you may be better able to spot that superstar in your startup, the one who can carry the company by bringing everyone together, instead of tearing them apart.

Even if your company doesn’t have that superstar, just easing a hostile environment will allow the rest of your employees, those who enjoy working with each other, to band together. More minds are better than one and with a positive atmosphere and good leadership, they’ll achieve much more.

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