Many of us have worked with them: the engineering jerk who is brilliant at what they do, but treats others like trash. Some companies have a policy not to hire them (eg, Netflix's "[No Brilliant Jerks]", which was one of the many reasons I joined the company). There's also the "[No Asshole Rule]", popularized by a bestselling book of this title, which provides the following [test]:
Notice board at Ericsson, Stockholm (pic by DeirdreS)
- 1. After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
2. Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?
On a dream team, there are no “brilliant jerks.” The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that. When highly capable people work together in a collaborative context, they inspire each other to be more creative, more productive and ultimately more successful as a team than they could be as a collection of individuals.This policy isn't some useless feel-good text from a nameless source: it was originally published on CEO Reed Hastings' [slideshare account]. To be effective, such a policy for your company may also need to come from your CEO. All Netflix candidates are told to read the culture deck (memo) when interviewing, and are told that, yes, we take it seriously. While this helps people realize that jerks should not be tolerated, it doesn't necessarily stop jerks from being hired in the first place: Bob is brilliant and charismatic and would probably pass the interview. However, he would then find himself at a company where his colleagues recognize his bad behavior as unacceptable, and are empowered to speak up about it. In over three years at Netflix, I've worked with zero brilliant jerks. The "no brilliant jerks" policy works, and it's been great. If we hired any in that time, they either changed their ways or left the company before I could interact with them. Some brilliant jerks can mend their ways: Alice might be motivated to change if she can be made to understand that her behavior is hurting the company, which she cares about. She should be encouraged to exercise empathy, and to leave others feeling positive and motivated to work harder, rather than demotivated. My colleague, Justin Becker, explores this in detail in his QCon talk, including the topic of emotional intelligence (EQ). In the next section I'll share an example. As for Bob: he should be told that his behavior hurts people and the company, and given the opportunity to change – but the reality is that he probably doesn't care. He firmly believes that "nice guys finish last," and, so far, being a jerk has worked well for him. His managers have the power to change that equation, because they control things that Bob wants: they allow him to work on his pet projects and to speak at events, they give him promotions and bonuses, and ultimately they let him keep his job.
– Netflix culture memo
"I'd rather have a hole in my organization than an asshole."As a colleague/victim/witness, you should report Bob's behavior to management, but you probably shouldn't ask them outright to fire Bob (among other reasons, what if someday you were thought to be a Bob?). Give management information, but let them decide how to act. Actually firing a brilliant jerk is a complicated topic for a separate post, ideally written by a manager who has dealt with this. There's usually a process to follow, which unfortunately Bob may exploit to his advantage, showing improvement when needed to keep his job, but then reverting back to his bad old ways. He may also have convinced management that his technical skills and fame are so important that the company would fail without him. This isn't true, but fear may cause management to hesitate. For management to deal effectively with Bob, they must themselves be convinced that his behavior should not be tolerated, regardless of his brilliance. For some companies, that will require truly understanding the damage that Bob causes (listed above), to justify taking action. For companies like Netflix with an explicit "no brilliant jerks" policy, it's much easier for management to take action, as they don't need to convince anyone that jerks are a problem: that's already covered in company policy. Regular one-on-one meetings with staff, and scheduled skip-level meetings, should also help inform management about the damage jerks are causing. Netflix does this well: I have scheduled one-on-one meetings with my manager once every two weeks, their manager once a month, and their manager at least once a year. That's three levels of management I talk directly and in private with, without even having to ask for a meeting. We're also encouraged to give other employees direct and honest feedback, intervene if we see harassment, and escalate up to and including the CEO. As for public speaking: Bob draws power from being a public face of the company. Speaking events should be shared among staff who want to speak, and training can be made available to improve their skills (various companies offer this), so that Bob isn't the only good speaker. Conference organizers can also adopt a "no brilliant jerks" policy (some already do), and attendees can avoid conferences that host known jerks. If Alice needs to learn empathy, Bob needs to learn both empathy and to stop being selfish, and sharing public speaking or other rewarding projects is an example of the latter. ## When I acted like a jerk Many people sometimes act like Alice, and it can be easy to talk them out of it (Alice herself is harder, since it's her by-default behavior). I'll explain this with a story, this time of a moment when I acted like a jerk. Early in my career, an engineer at my company made a big mistake in my area of expertise, and sent an email that dodged responsibility and showed no path to fix it. I was furious and phoned the engineer: my intent was to make him realize that he'd made a big mistake, and put him on the right path. I was blunt, and told him off. I didn't enjoying doing so, but I felt I was doing a Good Thing for the company, and fixing a problem. A week later, his manager phoned me unexpectedly. He told me that he was aware of my phone call, and didn't think I was technically wrong, but did I know that the engineer has been demotivated and unproductive since I talked to him, and was it my intent to make his staff unproductive? No, of course not. The manager continued: do you think you could have told my engineer what you needed to, in a way that left them feeling positive and motivated to fix it? Sure, I probably can. Good. Always do that in the future, please. I did. The phone call lasted less than two minutes, and was immediately effective. I suspect the manager had done this before. Notice that he did not accuse me of being a jerk, rather, he posed two questions, which were basically: 1) are you intending to hurt the company?, and 2) are you able to act decently? There's only really one right answer to those questions. If he had just said "you are a jerk" I may have just replied "no, I'm not", but by asking questions instead, it put the onus on me to think about the answer, and triggered a moment of self reflection. ## Additional topics There are some additional topics I have not covered in detail here, but should mention: - **What about jerks in open source communities?** A good reference for this is the [no more rock stars] post, where the rock star described is pretty much Bob. See that post for the section: How do we as a community prevent rock stars?. Also see the talk [Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Rock Star Developers]. - **What about Bob as a manager?** Bob may seek and be offered promotions into management, and become even more damaging to the company. Bob the manager exploits and threatens his subordinates. That's a topic for another post. - **Does Bob sexually assault others?** Is Bob more likely to be a harasser due to delusions of grandeur and a sense of entitlement ([Al Capone theory]), or is he smart enough not to go that far, or, is he simply not that kind of jerk? I don't know. That's outside of my firsthand experience, so I didn't include it. - **What about those junior engineers?** The ones Bob exploits for his own gain. That's another big topic. Some related reading here, here, and here (from which I borrowed the words "reflecting glory"). - **Is Bob actually brilliant?** It's a little hard to tell, since Bob takes credit for the work of others. Bob also creates enemies in the industry, and some staff even sabotage Bob's work. In the long run, it hurts Bob's career. Not a brilliant result, really. - **What if Bob is pretending to be brilliant?** (Updated) The consequences for the company can be worse. I didn't explore this topic here, but it would be a character similar to Bob who isn't actually brilliant, but pretends to be, and has most people believing him. To quote from a HN comment: "The myth of "brilliant jerks" is harmful because it lets any jerk pretend he's doing it because he's brilliant, when chances are he's just afraid of being unmasked as mediocre.". - **Does anyone exist who is really as bad as fictional Bob?** Yes. Fortunately they are rare. One reviewer thinks that my post will not be effective unless I name such a real-life Bob as a concrete example. Maybe they are right, but I've avoided that here. This isn't about one Bob, it's about all selfish brilliant jerks. - **Should we publicly call out brilliant jerks in tech?** It's a complex topic. The book [Is Shame Necessary] does make the point that shame and humiliation have a legitimate place in society when they are natural consequences to abusive behavior, which is also discussed in this post. Calling out abusers may save future victims of abuse, so long as the calling out is proportional and not abusive itself. For victims of abuse, I could not make a blanket recommendation: I don't know your specific situation and how safe it is for you to speak up. I've been in this situation myself, and was facing an extreme threat to myself and my family, and I understand how risky it can be. - **How do I know if I'm the jerk?** If you always think that being right is all that matters, and don't consider your impact on teamwork or relationships, you might be an Alice or a Bob. If you think that hurting other people is simply doing what it takes to get ahead, then you might be a Bob. See the earlier sections for more characteristics, and my colleague's QCon presentation: [Am I a Brilliant Jerk?] ## Conclusion Should brilliant jerks be tolerated? To explore this, I described two fictional brilliant jerks: Alice, who is selfless, and Bob, who is selfish. This makes it clear that the behavior of selfish jerks, like Bob, should definitely not be tolerated. Bob can kill companies. When CEOs and VCs sometimes say that brilliant jerks may be worth it, I imagine they are thinking of Alice, a selfless jerk, and not Bob. (Alice is debatable.) Early on in my career, I supported brilliant jerks of any type and thought they were worth it. I was wrong. People had warned me about them, that their behavior was "not ok," but they never went into much detail as to why. I've shared many details here. I didn't figure this all out until seeing the behavior and damage firsthand. (I've not only experienced it, but I may have reached my lifetime dosage of asshole-rads.) Companies can adopt a "no asshole rule", or more politely, a "no brilliant jerks" policy. Colleagues may be genuinely conflicted about how to deal with Bob: on the one hand, he is a real jerk, but on the other he is a "high performer," so isn't it in the company's best interest to tolerate his behavior? A policy helps you decide, and it can be as simple as three words: no brilliant jerks. ## Acknowledgements Picture and editing by Deirdré Straughan. Thanks to review feedback and suggestions from Alice Goldfuss, Baron Schwartz, Ed Hunter, Justin Becker, David Blank-Edelman, Valerie Aurora, and others. References and related reading: - Sutton, R. The No Asshole Rule. Grand Central Publishing, 2010. - Babiak, P., Hare, R. D. Snakes in Suits. Harper Business, 2007. - Jacquet, J. Is Shame Necessary. Random House, 2015. - Sutton, R. The Asshole Survival Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. - https://hbr.org/2015/12/its-better-to-avoid-a-toxic-employee-than-hire-a-superstar - https://retrospective.co/brilliant-jerks-cost-more-than-they-are-worth/ - http://boz.com/articles/be-kind.html - https://hypatia.ca/2016/06/21/no-more-rock-stars/ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awdVoPAU0Ic - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJOSX-W0yHA&feature=youtu.be&t=10m53s - https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664/36-Brilliant_Jerks_Some_companies_tolerate - https://jobs.netflix.com/culture - https://qconsf.com/sf2017/presentation/am-i-brilliant-jerk - https://hypatia.ca/2017/07/18/the-al-capone-theory-of-sexual-harassment/ - The blood bag series: part 1, part 2, part 3 - (Updated) discussion on hackernews [Am I a Brilliant Jerk?]: https://qconsf.com/sf2017/presentation/am-i-brilliant-jerk [test]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_No_Asshole_Rule [Be Kind]: http://boz.com/articles/be-kind.html [Code of Conflict]: https://git.kernel.org/cgit/linux/kernel/git/torvalds/linux.git/commit/?id=b0bc65729070b9cbdbb53ff042984a3c545a0e34 [No Brilliant Jerks]: https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664/36-Brilliant_Jerks_Some_companies_tolerate [Brilliant Jerks Cost More Than They Are Worth]: https://retrospective.co/brilliant-jerks-cost-more-than-they-are-worth/ [abc]: http://www.recode.net/2017/2/22/14700114/is-uber-lost [No Asshole Rule]: http://amzn.to/2zitvVd [Al Capone theory]: https://hypatia.ca/2017/07/18/the-al-capone-theory-of-sexual-harassment/ [no more rock stars]: https://hypatia.ca/2016/06/21/no-more-rock-stars/ [Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Rock Star Developers]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awdVoPAU0Ic [memo]: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture [slideshare account]: https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664/36-Brilliant_Jerks_Some_companies_tolerate [when is naming abuse itself abusive]: https://blog.valerieaurora.org/2016/10/24/when-is-naming-abuse-itself-abusive/ [Paul Graham]: https://youtu.be/UacbJ72dluU?t=4m18s [CEOs]: http://www.businessinsider.com/dick-costolo-on-why-companies-hire-brilliant-jerks-2017-5 [PCL-R]: https://www.sociopathicstyle.com/psychopathic-traits/ [Is Shame Necessary]: https://www.amazon.com/Shame-Necessary-New-Uses-Tool/dp/0307950131 [Psychological Safety]: https://www.usenix.org/system/files/login/articles/login_winter17_09_looney.pdf
– Fred Wilson, Velocity NY 2013 keynote.