How to Handle the Brilliant (but Toxic) Jerk

People & Culture

Putting up with brilliant jerks is one of worst things you can do for your organization.

We have all known several of them: they’re amazing at their job, but they leave a wake of collateral damage behind them. They tell your team that your culture isn’t important and you’ll put up with drama for performance.

If that’s not the case, it’s vital that leaders deal with toxic talent quickly and effectively.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with, manage and coach leaders with brilliant jerks. Throughout this article I’ll include their stories (cue Law and Order theme song). The names have been altered to protect the innocent. And the guilty.

What is a brilliant jerk?

A brilliant jerk is someone who is amazing at their job, but a terrible fit for your organization. So bad, that they often leave a trail of destruction and drama behind them.

Often these people are brilliant (thus the name) – they’re the best of the best at what they do. But part of that package is often a lot of ego and very little emotional intelligence.

“Sometimes companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.” – Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix

Example: The software prima donna

Ben is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He can write software in almost any language, faster and cleaner than almost anyone else out there. Sure, he’s not an MIT grad, but he could be.

Unfortunately, he knows it all too well and makes sure everyone else knows it too.

He dominates design meetings, as his ideas are the best. When doing code reviews, he berates people for their mistakes and “stupidity”.

Most people in the organization avoid him wherever and whenever possible, unless there’s a complicated problem they can’t solve.

The software development manager once told me: “I wish we could keep him in a little box pumping out code, but never having to deal with anyone.”

Example: The TOP salesperson

This one was a real challenge for a client. Their top salesperson was one of the most arrogant, belittling jerks I’ve ever met. He could close ANY sale, and lorded that over everyone else.

If a large deal went to another account representative, he’d whine about how he was so much better and should get the deal.

Of course, in front of the customers he was amazing. Charming. Witty.

But when he got back to the office, he’d bad-mouth the customers too. They were stupid and gullible.

He even managed to build his own clique of sales people, who had taken on his values and behaviors.

The brilliant jerk’s impact on culture

Brilliant jerks don’t just water down the culture. It’s not a drop of mud in the pool. It’s a barrel of toxic waste.

They give a simple message:

The company’s values and culture don’t apply to me because I’m too good at my job.

And if the values don’t apply to one person, are they really values?

In the salesperson example, I talked about how the brilliant jerk created his own culture within the team. That’s an extreme example, but it does happen. More often you find your actual A and B players become actively disengaged in their jobs, and eventually leave.

Wait too long and you end up with a toxic culture full of C-players, with more drama and stress than any leader would want. Creativity dies, innovation ceases to exist.

How to deal with a brilliant jerk

My first answer is rather direct: Get rid of them. Yesterday. Period. The rest of the team will rise up and fill the gap they leave.

But for most of us, that’s not the “right” direction (my HR partners would agree).

Identify your brilliant jerks (and cultural bad fits)

On a regular basis the leadership of the company should do an assessment of the talent in the organization. People are assessed by productivity in their role and fit (culture, strategic) to the organization.

Low fit and bad at their jobs are C-players. Good at their job and low fit are brilliant jerks. Clear action plans need to be created for both of these categories.

Have the hard conversation with the brilliant jerk

The leaders involved need to sit down and have a serious conversation with the brilliant jerk about the impact their behaviours have on the team.

This should be considered an official warning meeting and meet any HR requirements.

Start your risk management

On the leader’s side, they should be considering risk-management options. Find ways to start capturing any tribal knowledge and reduce any single-man processes.

Pro-tip: I normally start the risk management side BEFORE I have the hard conversation. Often I’ll play to the person’s ego and have the brilliant jerk “train” someone on what they do. That trainee will be “documenting” processes and reducing the boring work the jerk needs to do. The person they’re training would be someone that’s been inoculated against the toxicity.

Damage control

Often we get so involved with the problem, that we forget about the damage it’s caused. Brilliant jerks derail your culture.

As a leader, you’ll need to step up and get your culture back on course. Retrain the group on your values and behaviours. Recognize when people are living the culture. Increase your cultural touchpoints.

Coach the brilliant jerk

Increase the frequency of your 1:1 sessions with the brilliant jerk. Make them weekly. Provide regular feedback and course corrections. Make them positive and focused on ways the person is improving, if they are.

Remember that you can’t make a person change. Brilliant jerks, being high on ego and low on emotional intelligence, are highly unlikely to change.

Get rid of them

If they’ve been warned and coached, and you’ve reduced the risk then it’s time to set them free to a culture where they’ll fit in better.

Your actions

Look at the people in your organization. Do you have any brilliant (and toxic) jerks? If so, it’s time to take action:

Identify your brilliant jerks

Create an action plan to either improve their cultural fit or exit them from the business

Reinforce the culture you want

Reduce the impact and risk of them leaving by capturing their tribal knowledge

Warn, coach, dismiss

Focusing on developing your talent and culture is one of the most strategic things your leaders can do. A strong team of A-players will achieve 200% or more productivity over C-Players. Brilliant jerks destroy that.

Need help building your A-Player team? Let’s talk.




Mike Knapp


Mike has been helping businesses achieve their goals for more than 20 years. He believes there is a better way for business owners and leaders to build their businesses and achieve their big goals. As a Gravitas Impact Premium coach, he leverages the 7 Attributes of Agile Growth™ to simplify the art of strategy and discipline of execution.

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