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 after your next meeting. 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 their first week, 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, a senior engineer is looking frustrated. She’s sitting next to Adrian, and they seem to be discussing the new module your team is building. You take her aside and ask what’s going on. She explains that Adrian keeps derailing the discussion to shit on our tech stack. He starts talking about migrating the backend 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 criticizing the languages and technologies you are using without context makes him look smart.  

Nobody in this team gets promoted above senior unless there is strong evidence that they are able to help others grow. No senior engineer hoping for a promotion suggests spending millions of dollars on a migration based on personal preferences. You make sure he understands this, too. They nod, but not even 24hs later, you get a lengthy rant about your organization’s technology stack. The word “incompetent” is in there. You can’t believe you got yourself into this mess.

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 educate. They just want to look smart.

The complaint

It only takes 3 months for the first official complaint to reach you.

You get a DM from Felipe, one of your senior engineers. They want to have a meeting with you today. As soon as you get the message, you get a knot in your stomach. Ten minutes later, Felipe has told you that Adrian is not a good fit for the team. Apparently, Adrian told Susan that she needs to stop wearing make-up if she wants to be taken seriously as an engineer.

You ask Adrian to explain, and he says it was a joke. He goes on a rant about the good old days, which you have to assume means “2019”, because they barely have 5 years of industry experience. You shake your head and explain that’s not an appropriate joke. For starters, it wasn’t even funny. You tell him to apologize right now. He nods, and the conversation is over.

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. She tells you that Adrian refuses to apologize for his behavior. You tell her how much you value her as an employee and assure her that you’ll deal with this. When you ask Adrian, he says he apologized. It turns out that Adrian’s version of an apology is “I’m sorry you were offended”. You explain how that’s not an apology at all, and you ask him to try again.

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.

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. That’s the culture you always wanted to build.

Trust has been broken.

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

You failed to recognize the importance of this situation, and now it’s too late.

By now, it’s been almost a year. Now the jerk is a feature of your company, someone who nobody knows what to do about, or at least they won’t tell you… because 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 the jerk.

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 he sure is 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.