Four ways HR can handle ‘brilliant jerks’

So-called 'brilliant jerks' can have a damaging effect on teams
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Talented employees with a bad attitude can do vast damage to an organisation’s culture, despite their job performance. Jan Schwarz outlines four steps employers can take to address so-called “brilliant jerks”.

Anyone who has worked in an office will recognise a high performing employee with a bad attitude. Whether they’re consistently delivering high-quality work, dreaming up game-changing new innovation or completing complex projects in record time, their brilliance is hard to ignore. Unfortunately, in tandem with their talents, all too often comes toxic behaviour such as dominating meetings, intimidating junior staff or acting in naked self-interest.

Any experienced manager knows how difficult it is to find and retain amazing talent, but at the same time understands just how corrosive a bad apple can be to team morale and company performance.

For that reason, the brilliant jerk conundrum is one of the most challenging that any leader will face. It is also one of the conundrums that is frequently kicked down the road until it’s too late.

Based on my experience advising Fortune 500 companies on their people strategy, there are four key steps to consider when dealing with this issue.

1. Detect with data

One of the toughest aspects of dealing with brilliant jerks is actually spotting them in the first place. These individuals are almost always adept at hiding in plain sight and carefully managing their reputation with their superiors. This allows them to slip under the radar.

The good news is there is a wealth of quantitative data points in organisations that can be used to pinpoint a potentially corrosive employee. For example, is absenteeism and staff churn on the increase within specific teams? This can be one “calling card” of a corrosive employee who is bringing down morale and forcing your employees to vote with their feet.

Performance metrics of specific teams within your organisation are another strong indicator. While a brilliant jerk can spin their own numbers to form a positive narrative, they can’t do the same for the rest of their team. We’ve helped organisations to spot a corrosive employee by lining up the date they joined a team or got promoted to a managerial position with a subsequent dip in team performance.

2. Understand the drivers

Once you have identified destructive behaviour in an individual, the next step is to understand what is driving the downward spiral. This stage in the process is all about understanding whether this individual has always been so corrosive, or whether a change of some kind has provoked or exacerbated it.

A logical first port of call is the employee’s team leader, who will have a sense of any professional triggers that might have caused a behaviour change.  Common examples include a close confidante leaving the company, a new manager or perhaps even perceived ‘positive’ changes like a stretching new promotion.

If it’s not a professional trigger, then it might be a personal one. In some instances, a line manager will be aware of any problems outside of work that might have turned a previously ‘quirky genius’ into someone more troubled and disruptive.

Extenuating circumstances like those listed above are not an excuse for inaction. Rather they are additional, critical pieces of data that enable you to build up an accurate picture of this employee’s challenges and figure out whether or not you can address their behaviour and keep their brilliance inside the business.

3. Keep it objective

Employees that fit the ‘brilliant jerk’ description are often acutely aware of their own genius, but blissfully unaware of their flaws. Once you have a strong body of evidence and an appreciation of the context, quickly resetting expectations face-to-face is a critical next step to ensure the employee is aware of the negative impact of their actions. But don’t expect it to be an easy conversation.

One of the golden rules of disciplinary meetings is keeping as much emotion out of the room as possible and focusing on objective feedback points. However, this is challenging when the problem itself is subjective: how the employee is making other people feel. The key here is to explain that although these are subjective judgements, they are having an objective, negative business impact: churn, reduced performance, low morale.

It is also important to ensure there are clear and specific KPIs with timing agreed in person and in writing after the meeting. This is particularly important with employees whose brilliance involves abstract concepts such as ‘creatives’ or ‘innovators’. These individuals often share a disdain for all things mundane and restrictive such as KPIs, metrics and deadlines.

Employees that fit the ‘brilliant jerk’ description are often acutely aware of their own genius, but blissfully unaware of their flaws.”

After this session and in the weeks that follow, it will become clear whether the employee has the will and the capability to make the behaviour changes needed, and if they do, will give them a clear framework to follow to rebuild their internal reputation.

4. Be decisive

If there isn’t clear and tangible evidence of performance improvement over a predetermined period, HR leaders must move swiftly to performance management and potentially contract termination. This is always a difficult decision to make, but they must remain strong and not be seduced by destructive brilliance.

Over a decade ago, Reed Hastings formally announced that Netflix’s HR policy would no longer support the hiring of brilliant jerks, saying: “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.”

More recently, Australia’s biggest tech firm Atlassian, which is valued at $47 billion, also put a stake in the ground by introducing a zero-tolerance policy towards brilliant jerks in the workplace.

No matter how brilliant they are, putting up with a toxic employee always causes more damage in the form of churn and lost productivity.

Jan Schwarz

About Jan Schwarz

Jan Schwarz is co-founder of people analytics company Visier

One Response to Four ways HR can handle ‘brilliant jerks’

  1. Avatar
    Perry Jameson 4 Mar 2020 at 1:23 pm #

    A tactical variation on a theme: cut off a brilliant jerk from going off on a tangent during a meeting by suggesting to the jerk to work up a formal proposal on the point of digression and promise to distribute it as well as address it at the next meeting after submission.

    There are only three outcomes and all three are good ones.

    Most likely, the jerk doesn’t work up a proposal. The benefits of same are self-evident. In extension, repeat as often as necessary for reasons also obvious.

    Next most likely outcome, the plan submitted is a bad one and which will underscore the fact that the jerk is a jerk.

    And finally, once in a very great while, the jerk actually has a good idea. Even better, it can then be used to keep the jerk busy for at least a while.

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