Do not tolerate brilliant jerks, the cost to teamwork is too high – Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

Different leaders have different attitudes about talented jerks or the high-maintenance genius, as some technology companies call them. These are the incredibly talented people whose technical skill sets are off the charts, and yet their relationships are rocky, and they typically aren’t nice people to be around. They’re unconcerned about the needs of other people. They tend to hog all the airtime at meetings. They grate on other people’s nerves. They follow their own rules. And sometimes, they completely cross the line with abusive behavior like harassment and discrimination.

The big tech giants have been struggling with this for years, including Google and Uber. The same struggles pop up in healthcare with doctors and in academia with researchers. Make no mistake, talented jerks can be found across all industries. So, the question is how should you deal with them? And should you even hire them to begin with?

Organizations have a hard time dealing with talented jerks because they can be productive, innovative, and creative and they bring value. However, in some cases they lack respect for their coworkers, threaten the company culture, and drive morale down. Some organizations choose a strategy of isolation and structure their workflow to keep them from the people they are likely to rub the wrong way. Another approach is to try to build a group of people around them that can tolerate their idiosyncrasies, and mitigate their impact on others – the attitude that it’s better for the organization to hang on to them than to get rid of them. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been very clear about what his organization does with its brilliant jerks: They get 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.”

The Values Based Leadership approach is that no matter who you are, you have both an opportunity and a responsibility to lead. And part of leading means having healthy relationships and being able to influence, connect with, and communicate effectively with others. No matter how technically brilliant you are, you still must influence in your job. Without influence all those great ideas aren’t going anywhere. Talented jerks still need to be held accountable and have clear expectations set, because part of their job (almost every job) is relating to and communicating with others. And most importantly, accepting harmful and destructive behaviors is not okay. It does more long-term damage to an organization then any value they might be creating. Overtime, these negative behaviors cost massive amounts of time, energy, and money.

Unfortunately, we’ve all had to work with or for a talented jerk. In a lot of cases these jerks have good intentions, but zero awareness about their impact on others. It’s the reason why they tend to be so grating on other people — they can’t even see how they’re adversely affecting others. Perhaps they don’t have great empathy, or they’ve got blind spots – we all do. Maybe they’re just incredibly insecure and being a jerk protects them from rejection or other negative feelings. Whatever it is, it keeps them from holding up a mirror and really seeing themselves clearly.

As a leader, you can help them find the courage to look into that mirror. Help them see the impact they’re having on other people. Be patient. If they are willing to look in the mirror and take on the hard, but necessary work on themselves, the impact could be powerful – for them, the team, and the organization. Give them hard feedback and set clear boundaries about what’s okay and what’s not okay. Model the behavior you would like to see. Reward behaviors that reinforce your company’s values. If you want to reinforce collaboration, reward collaboration. Assume that your talented jerks can learn and grow.

In my experience, I’ve seen some talented jerks respond well to high direction and increase their level of respect for the person who was direct and clear. And when they’re unwilling to change and adapt their behavior to align with the organization’s values and goals? Honor their choice, and help them work somewhere else.

The bottom line is that if you wish to have an aligned company culture, you have to implement a zero-tolerance policy for behavior that violates it, regardless of whether the violator is a top performer.

What have been your experiences? How can organizations best handle talented jerks?


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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