The fallacy of the brilliant jerk.

Early days

The signals were there from day one. One of your direct reports asked a question, and Adrian answered with a mocking tone. You told yourself you’d have a chat with him before the day was over, but by the time your meeting is over, they are all cracking jokes together. You shrug it off, thinking it’s all in your head.

By the end of the first month, Adrian has built a new module that got the VPE’s attention. The VPE tells you how impressed she is with the new hire and congratulates you on your choice.

A week later, you notice that Adrian keeps derailing a discussion to shit on the team’s tech stack. He starts talking about migrating the back-end to a new language he started learning last month. You have a talk with him, and for the first time, you see it: he thinks this makes him look smart.  You make sure he understands that this is having the opposite effect. He nods, but not even 24hs later, you get a lengthy rant from him in your email. The word “incompetent” is in there. You can’t believe you got yourself into this mess.

The complaint

It only takes 2 months for the first official complaint to reach you.

As soon as you get the message from Felipe, you get a knot in your stomach. He wants to meet today, and you have a feeling that you know what it’ll be about. By the end of your meeting, Felipe has told you that Adrian is not a good fit for the team. He looked disappointed as he told you that he didn’t understand how you let this go on for so long. Apparently, Adrian told Susan that she needs to stop wearing make-up if she wants to be taken seriously as an engineer.

Later that day, you’re sitting down with Adrian, who says it was a joke. He goes on a rant about the good old days, which you have to assume means “2019”, since he hasn’t been in the industry for more than 5 years. You shake your head and explain that’s not an appropriate joke. For starters, it wasn’t even funny. He nods and promises to apologize.

Knowing you can’t go back to your desk until you calm down, you stay in the conference room for a few minutes listening to music.  It only takes 15 minutes for Susan to knock. It turns out that Adrian’s version of an apology is “I’m sorry you were offended”.

It’s 5pm, and things seem far from resolved. You bring Adrian back for a candid conversation. If this happens again, you will escalate it to HR. You know HR won’t help you unless they see Adrian as a risk to the company, but that seems to scare them into behaving for a while.

When you talk with your boss, she tells you that since Adrian ships more code than anyone else, the best thing to do is to figure out how to work with him. With a month to go before a big launch, you know arguing against it will put you at risk.

More likely than not, you have a jerk somewhere in your organization.

Most of us have worked with the so-called “brilliant” jerk. This is the person who speaks the loudest and cares about one perspective only: their own.

The jerk is always looking for something to criticize. If they can’t find anything, they will derail all conversations towards the things they want to discuss, like the fact that they really hate the technology choices made by a CTO 3 years ago, or their dislike of the code review process, which they assure you they don’t need to go through because they are very talented.

They don’t have time to help unless there’s an opportunity to bring someone down.

When a junior engineer asks a question, the rest of the team jumps at the chance to be helpful, while the jerk looks for a way to nitpick their word choices. When the junior engineer asks “How do I import a component in the React framework”, they answer “It’s not really a framework” with a snarky link, without even giving them the information they need.

We’ve all been inconsiderate at one point or another, but the jerk will find as many opportunities as possible to bring people down. Their intention is not to teach. They just want to look smart.

Fear is driving you to make bad decisions.

A more experienced leader would have fired Adrian that day, but this is your first time dealing with a so-called “brilliant jerk”. You think you can solve this. You think his contributions make up for the problems he caused. Furthermore, you’re scared your boss is going to think you don’t know how to hire good people. Your brain is spinning, and you feel like a failure.

A week later, Adrian yells in a meeting because someone else broke the build. He seems to have forgotten he caused a major production incident two days ago by ignoring the team’s processes. When that incident brought a client’s site down, everyone rallied to fix it. Not a single engineer pointed out who was to blame. They all worked the incident together, run an incident review, and created action items to lower the chances that this could happen again. 

Trust is broken.

A while later, Susan leaves. You don’t have to ask. She’s leaving because you didn’t act.

It’s been almost a year since the first time you saw Adrian act inappropriately. You’ve lost count of the times you’ve had the same conversations with him. He knows he’s safe, under the protection of your own boss and your lack of courage to act. In all those days, weeks, months, your brain played a little mind trick. Once this person started acting like a jerk, you started valuing their technical contribution as if it was the most brilliant code you’d ever seen.

Your team got the message: none of you are as valuable as he is.

Nobody wants to work with a jerk.

When the jerk receives something broken, they broadcast it. But when they push something broken, they get direct, one-to-one feedback from the person trying to work with them. This is how they stay employed. This is how they keep a reputation for being brilliant.

You hear “not-jerk broke the build” from them all the time, but you rarely hear “jerk broke the build”.

Nobody wants to hire a jerk.

You would never hire an incompetent jerk. Every little annoyance becomes a reason to remember how many times they saved your ass in a tight deadline. In those moments, the jerk starts to become not just a jerk, but a brilliant one.

You tell yourself you’ll talk to them once that new feature is done. It can’t be that bad, right?

Is the brilliant jerk really brilliant?

I want to give you a moment to think back on your jerk. The one that’s still in your team, the one that your boss admits “is not that great with people, but is super smart!”. The one who works alone because their teammates gave up on pleasing them.

Think critically. Take your time. If you ignore the impact they have on your team’s morale and just focus on their technical capabilities, are they really that great? Do you need them, or are you just scared of what you need to do next?

I will make a wild bet: they probably aren’t as critical to the company as you want to believe. They seem great when they save you from a last-minute problem, sure. But did they also cause the problem? Think back. Did they really save you? I bet they caused the issues more often than not.  That release they just saved? The deadline may have been met without heroics, if your team had not been busy dealing with a jerk’s bad attitude and going back and forth on decisions all month long trying to please him. The deadline may have been reached, if you had fired the jerk when he acted that way towards Susan. Susan may still be here, and Felipe wouldn’t be looking for work as you sit down to negotiate yet another deadline.

What about the really brilliant ones?

We generally want to believe that jerks are brilliant, because hiring and keeping someone who is both an average engineer and a jerk for a long period of time would make us look even worse than we already seem to be. The thing is, it’s very rare for someone who is a giant problem for your team to be performing at senior+ levels in their work, because engineering is a collaborative activity, and the highest performers are those who push their teams further rather than make them dependent on them or bring them down.

Sure, there are some who are truly competent if they can work alone. But realistically, all jerks cannot also be amazing engineers, despite the myths that we have been fed over the years. Even if you don’t account for the damage they do to their teams, it’s just not worth it.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how smart they may be.

It’s not worth it. Stop fighting a lost battle.

Next time you excuse the jerk in your organization, ask yourself if they are a net positive. What would happen if this person gave their notice tomorrow? Would someone in your team fight to keep them? Or would they be counting the days until they are gone?

Is keeping this person in the team so important that you are willing to lose your ability to hire and retain great people? Are you willing to continue to prioritize them over their team’s mental health?

If there’s a chance that you are just making excuses for the benefit of your own ego, it’s time to have a chat with your team.

Your team will respect you more for it. Given enough time, all of us will end up hiring a jerk at some point; what we do about it matters just as much as the fact that we did it. Mitigating the damage is the next best thing if you failed to prevent it. Stop making excuses, and work to rebuild the trust that’s been broken.You will respect yourself more for this, too.

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