7 Strategies to Deal with Brilliant Jerks

culture leadership Mar 04, 2021

Every company has one or more brilliant jerks who can accomplish great results but hurt most people they meet. These brilliant jerks are gifted. They feel untouchable because they can be very productive. Patrick Lencioni refers to these kinds of employees as Bulldozers because they are determined to get things done. Still, they lack the soft skills and the understanding of unwritten rules that make organizations operate smoothly.

Brilliant jerks are intelligent and productive but have questionable social skills and moral character. Brilliant jerks do not respect rules or policies, they do not compete fairly, and their only concern is moving up, not moving their companies forward. Policies and rules are written to regulate their behavior, but they are masters at evading the rules. Brilliant jerks feel that they don’t have to be nice; they view themselves as the smartest people in the room. They lack empathy. They are egocentric individuals who believe the organization is centered around them.

Was Bill O'Reilly a Brilliant Jerk?

Organizations have a hard time dealing with these brilliant jerks because they are productive, innovative, and creative, and they bring value and profit. However, they lack respect for their coworkers, threaten the company culture, and drive morale down. Bill O’Reilly is a well-known brilliant jerk. He is great at his job, and he gets great ratings, but he also lacks the humility that would make him an ideal team player. He believes that his star power permits him to break laws and bully other people. LAST MONTH, the NYT reported that Bill O’Reilly settled numerous sexual harassment cases, and advertisers suspended advertising on The O’Reilly Factor, the highest-rated TV show on cable news, forcing Fox News to terminate him.

Did Fox News make that decision based on a financial or moral basis?

It is very dangerous to build organizations around brilliant jerks. Enron was one of these companies that were centered around brilliant jerks; they made a lot of money, broke every law, and crossed too many ethical lines. Enron’s problems started because they hired many superstars who were willing to break the law to make another dollar or abuse people to meet another goal. Brilliant jerks’ organizations succeed, but they do not last long, and most of their executives end up in jail.

Enron had four main values: integrity, communication, respect, and excellence. I read many books about Enron, and I can inform you that they only valued excellence. Most Enron leaders served jail time, and the company declared bankruptcy. Values are not words written on walls collecting dust. Values are the acceptable behavior inside your organization.

Did UBER ignore Their Brilliant Jerks?

Uber values result over anything else. Susan Fowler is an engineer who left Uber earlier this year and exposed the culture of the company. If I were to describe Uber’s culture, I would say it favors brilliant jerks. Do your job well, and we will overlook anything else. Fowler wrote on her blog about Uber’s culture and how the Human Resources department overlooked sexual harassment cases and discrimination incidents because the violators were top performers. Susan Fowler’s story is not a unique story or an isolated incident. Brilliant jerk culture is the dominant culture in most tech companies these days.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded by asking Arianna Huffington to investigate the sexual harassment allegations and promised to be better. Arianna Huffington's challenge is that most people who interact with the Uber CEO refer to him as a brilliant jerk. Travis Kalanick is a great businessman, but his personality is starting to affect the company’s performance. A few months ago, he had a heated argument with an Uber driver about driver’s compensation, and he acted horribly.

Uber is trying to fix their culture, but will they recover from the horrible publicity they received in the last few months? I’m monitoring the situation closely.

Aimee Lucido is another software engineer at Uber who shocked me by revealing that “60% of women have been sexually harassed in Silicon Valley.” She added that she was harassed as well. She detailed a sexual harassment incident that took place early in her career at Google that made me sick. Companies need to stop treating brilliant jerks as superstars, and they need to hold them responsible. No amount of profit justifies harassing people. The end does not justify the means.

Google is a mature company now, and we do not hear stories of sexual harassment inside their offices. Still, we need to be cognizant that the brilliant jerks culture is prevalent in many industries.


  1. Top management can reform an organization’s culture by modeling the behavior they want to see in others, holding people accountable, and rewarding proper behavior. 
  2. Most companies hire employees with great technical skills, not people who are a cultural fit. Human Resources departments must change the way they recruit new employees. Hire the right person with the right skills. The focus should be the person, not the skill. 
  3. Companies need to revamp their compensation packages to include non-financial metrics such as soft skills and cultural fit. 
  4. Top management should reward behaviors that reinforce the company’s values if you want to reinforce honesty, reward honesty. 
  5. Human Resources should have zero tolerance for behavior that violates human decency and the company culture, regardless of whether the violator is a top performer. 
  6. Human Resources should develop a system where employees feel safe to report any incident.
  7. Have a “no jerks” policy. 

Netflix CEO believes that the best method to deal with brilliant jerks is to fire them, ” Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.” Reed Hastings

Obviously, having brilliant jerks inside your organization hurts your company image, destroys the culture, and dilutes your organization's moral personality. Enron learned this when it collapsed, Google corrected the ship to ensure they would stay viable, and Uber is dealing with their brilliant jerks, but they need to be a little tougher. Top management should model the behavior they like to see, clearly communicate their values, and devise a new performance metric that measures quantitative and qualitative results. I would end with this: be a kind person, and hire kind people.

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