The paradox of the brilliant jerk

Brilliant Jerks

Once, in probably about late 2010, I was referred to by a co-worker as a “brilliant jerk.” (The actual word may have been asshole.) Let’s break this down for a second: I’m not brilliant, so already we’re off to a bad start here from a logistical and linguistic standpoint. I can be a jerk — and definitely can be an asshole — although I try not to do those things on a moment-to-moment basis (the operative word there is try). I didn’t pay it much mind at the time; people say stuff to other people at work that makes no sense and is totally devoid of context basically all the time. (For example, pretty much anything with an acronym.) In the intervening years, I’ve thought about it more: maybe I am a jerk. Maybe I am brilliant? (HA! I jest.) But I do find the ways that workplaces come together to be extremely interesting: a group of different people, theoretically aligned to the same goal, but with their own lives outside of the confines of the office, and … how does it ever work properly?

I came across the brilliant jerk again, though. 

Here’s a good, and long, article entitled “This is why people leave your company.” There are many notable points in it, including all the way at the bottom a list of “Seven Rules of Talent Retention.” There are maybe a couple of flaws with the article — it’s very pro-HR, which I think is good but would probably turn off a lot of old-school managers who view HR as compliance and not revenue; and it’s mostly geared towards the tech and engineering space, which not all of us work in, even if it seems like we treat everything that way.

Regardless, though, this quote is good:

Put bluntly, Guthrie suggests you ignore the “brilliant jerks.” Your company culture cannot be created by top-down edict—it’s always going to be a reflection of the collected personalities. Every single person you hire will make a difference. Also important to note: Brilliant jerks are harder to remove because it’s nearly impossible to justify their dismissal if they’re delivering good work. But they have a pernicious effect on culture that far outlasts their physical presence at the company.


  • To remove people at a company, you typically need a bunch of paperwork on why you’re removing them.
  • Usually that paperwork has to be tied to not delivering in a role — attitude questions can be an issue, but are often subjective.
  • A “brilliant” jerk probably does good work.
  • You can’t remove him/her.
  • That affects the bottom line of culture, which is important (even though everyone focuses on the true bottom line).

You’ve probably worked with someone like this — total asshole, but has the company over a barrel because he/she delivers on, well, deliverables.

The flip side is that person who really doesn’t do that much, but keeps getting shuffled around from role to role and department to department because 1 higher-up really likes him/her or believes in him/her. I’d argue those people are fairly commonplace at organizations too, and have just as much a negative effect on the culture as these brilliant jerk people.

There are a lot of questions to ask yourself on the talent strategy front in organizational life — here, here, here — but this brilliant jerk thing is an important paradox to remember.

Consider: we often hire for intelligence, because we’ve been conditioned to believe that’s very important. (It is, to an extent.) You shouldn’t actually worry about getting the “smartest” people, though — you should worry about getting curious people, if anything. (I actually find it hard for curious people to be total assholes/jerks, because they’re always needing human relationships to pursue more information. But I might be wrong.)

Ted Bauer


  1. You are not wrong….. you must hire to fit the role in the existing culture (assuming it’s the culture you want)…. If a jerk is needed, then a jerk it is, if a doer, then find a doer, thinker, operator, producer……etc.
    Too bad that most companies legals have tied the hands of operations because they operate out of fear of lawsuits, the guvmint and spiders. So what we end up hiring are do nothings because that’s safe.

  2. I know I’m late to comment on this so I lose all internet relevancy, but I think this has particularly interesting implications in the medical field. I have found that a surprisingly large percentage of patients associate horrible bedside manner with superior care–Dr. X is brusque and rude and a dick to his nurses but GODDAMN if he isn’t the best XYZ surgeon there is!–and it’s a real shame. It’s almost like, if you’re a mediocre medical professional without any esteem, you might try treating people like you’re too busy to say hello or, I don’t know, obtain informed consent. [I should mention I work with great physicians. Just have seen this weird backwards logic a lot, esp. among some of my family members.]
    I find this especially interesting in obstetrics, which is essentially the care of healthy people undergoing a complex yet usually low-risk physiologic process. You could say the same about almost all primary care. In that case, what defines “best” anyway? The person who can do the most complex surgery with ease, the surgery you hopefully will never need? Or the person who explains your options and answers your questions consistently and without bias?

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