The myth of the brilliant jerk

by Rob Galanakis on 21/05/2014

Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high. – Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO

So I was all prepared to write about how much I hate this quote, but Freddy Nager already did. It is thorough and insightful and explains how out of context this quote is. Thanks to Freddy for doing a far better job ripping this apart than I did. (It also reminds me the difference between real writers/bloggers and people who just have a blog, like me…) Here’s his conclusion, but I suggest you read the whole thing:

In short, Netflix wants only stars who are passionate and courageous and innovative and always do A-level work while abhorring process and questioning assumptions yet working as a team — otherwise they get fired. Sounds brilliant. And jerky.

Why is the Hastings quote so popular? The Netflix presentation is a really excellent one and full of interesting advice and strong statements. I’d even say the brilliant jerk of corporate culture presentations! Why does this quip about “brilliant jerks” resonate with people so much? Probably because we’ve all run into the “brilliant jerk” and the idea of just firing him or her is so pleasing. It also remains cowardly.

This hits particularly close to home for me because I have seen the mistreatment of far too many brilliant jerks. Brilliant jerks are necessary to grow and innovate. The difficult part is to figure out how they can be brilliant but be less jerky.

Firing brilliant jerks is the absolute worst thing to do for teamwork, or indeed the health of the company as a whole. I could spend more time convincing you, or you could view the Netflix slideshow that spawned the quote!

rob.galanakis@gmail.com

There are 2 comments in this article:

  1. 21/05/2014Jon Lauridsen says:

    These are fine enough points, and the argument against firing is a foundation I also share. What yours and Nager’s blogs hint at but don’t seem to discuss openly is how do you propose putting “brilliant jerks” together? From my understanding you weren’t going to pair Steve Jobs up with someone who also needed absolute control, they’d fight like angry cats in a cage until (corporate) death.

    Most things in life is on a spectrum, here I see two extremes where jerks are valuable: 1) You can build a company around this kind of person, or 2) you can have sufficient resources to afford to onboard jerks by putting them on projects sufficiently far away from each other that they don’t interact negatively.

    But for all the ground in the middle, for all the more moderately-sized groups/companies that most of us associate with, what do you propose? A jerk who goes counter to a culture being established by another jerk will do no good, it’s just going to retard progress if those jerks pull in different directions. There has to be a balance, and in that middle ground I see arguments for *not* hiring someone despite their brilliance.

    Ultimately I find the notion of uniformly saying jerks are welcomed as shortsighted as Hastings’s original quote.

  2. 27/05/2014Rob Galanakis says:

    I have no problem saying brilliant jerks are uniformly welcome. The few that are excessively jerky- like Jobs- will either prove themselves and achieve dominance, or voluntarily leave the company when they can’t get what they want. They are the rare extreme. The common case is the person who is “difficult to work with” because they aren’t nurtured or managed effectively, or because there are systematic problems they are exposing. These are the brilliant jerks you want in your ranks, creating an awesome company.

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