by Achim Nowak

How To NOT Be A Brilliant Jerk

April 24, 2023

I had a conversation with my friend Shwan Lamei last week. A former rising star in a traditional corporate manufacturing enterprise, Shwan chucked it all a few years ago to found Emulate Energy, a global firm committed to creating technology that stores energy in a more cost-effective and sustainable manner.

Shwan and I chatted about his leadership team. What began as a 2-person start-up is now a firm with 18 employees and rapidly expanding. As Shwan described the folks on his leadership team, he declared with pride:

We don’t have any brilliant jerks.

Reed Hastings is the cofounder and just-retired CEO of Netflix. Hastings co-authored the New York Times bestselling book “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention.” And he popularized the term brilliant jerk.

Here’s what Netflix does with brilliant jerks: It gets rids of them. Some companies tolerate them, Hastings explained. For us, the cost to effective team work is too great.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” 

W.C. Fields

While Freud recognized that there are a near infinite variety of personalities, he identified three main types: erotic, obsessive, and narcissistic.

Brilliant jerks often carry narcissistic traits. They are not easily impressed. They tend to be innovators, driven in business to gain power and glory. Productive narcissists are experts in their industries, and they excel at posing critical questions. They want to be admired, not loved. Of all the personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. Their achilles heel? They are often sensitive to criticism because, well, they are brilliant! And they tend to be poor listeners who lack empathy (from “Narcissistic Leaders,” Michael Maccoby, HBR, 1/2004)

Search the net, and you will find a slew of articles on how to manage brilliant jerks. Be forewarned, the guidance is not encouraging. You will also find equal amounts of wisdom in line with Hastings’ advice. Screen them out. Don’t hire them.

My essay is for you, the brilliant one. You ARE brilliant. Have been top of your class for as long as you can remember. Have been told, again and again, that you are smarter than others, faster than others, more exceptional.

Great. I salute the brilliance in you.

And you’re clear that you do not wish to be that jerk. I salute that desire, as well.

I coach lots of smart and often very brilliant people. Let us consider the following guard rails as you unleash your brilliance in the workplace.

How To Use Your Brilliance For Good

Drop Special-itis Thinking.

It’s the paradox. You were told for years how special you are. And you ARE. You were told how gifted, how impressive, how exceptional you are. And you ARE.

You were consistently affirmed in a comparative sense. Told that you were smarter, quicker, more brilliant than others. You likely were.

It is near impossible to not start thinking that you are better than others.

That’s special-itis. Drop that thinking, at once. It will not serve you at your place of work. It will get you nothing.

Consider this your essential mindset adjustment. You ARE brilliant. Bring your brilliance to work. You ARE special – and you are not more special than anyone else.

Bury any special-itis you may have, once and for all. Now.

Don’t Be the Interjector.

You think fast. You sometimes think faster than others. Fast thinkers get impatient with slower thinkers. As the slower thinker is making their point, you are wont to interject. You do it because, well, you have another brilliant insight. Interject because you already “got” what the other person is saying and don’t need to hear the rest. Interject because you are ready to rebut what the other has just stated.

You’re itching to zip it along.

Don’t. Interjection is brilliant-jerk-behavior at its worst. Say what you’re itching to say after the other person has finished their thought. Don’t wear your impatience on your sleeve. Allowing others to finish demonstrates basic respect. A willingness to perhaps be surprised. You believe in those values, don’t you?

Stay in the moment.

This is the second layer to thinking fast: You are frequently 3 steps ahead of other people. You get bored with conversations – because you already had the present conversation in your mind, by yourself, a week ago, with no one else present. I get it – if you had the conversation in your mind a week ago, figured out the present dilemma then, well the current conversation will feel mighty boring.

I have watched senior leaders tune out in meeting after meeting because they don’t have the need for the conversation at hand. They are 3 steps ahead. Problem is, everyone else DOES need the conversation that is happening.

The solution is always the same: Notice your run-away thoughts. Observe your impulses to check out. Don’t. Check in with yourself. Check in with others. Check into the present moment.

If you are 3 steps ahead, remember: 3 steps ahead, on your own, gets you nothing but isolation. Our job is to bring people along. Always is. That happens in present-moment-conversation.

Don’t be dismissive.

You don’t mean to be dismissive. You have been raised to not be rude. You got the memo.

And yet, at times, when someone shares an idea that you think is tired, outdated, trite, not innovative, you just can’t help yourself. Your dismissiveness slips out.

It may happen via an eye roll. An exasperated sigh. Or it may happen via a comment that is tinged with a sense of superiority. We have tried that 2 years ago and it didn’t work. That will never work HERE. I don’t think you have fully thought this through. Let’s move on to some other suggestions.

That is brilliant-jerk-behavior. Especially when delivered with an edge in your tone.

Don’t do it. Consider this, instead. When you don’t think an idea is remarkable, when you don’t agree with a suggestion, don’t do battle. Simply say Thank You. And stop there,

We have all worked with brilliant jerks. It is so easy to spot brilliant-jerk-behavior in others, isn’t it!

If a certain brilliant jerk really ticks you off – I mean really, really ticks you off big-time – consider your reaction an invite toward a bit of self-reflection. Chances are, the behavior that plugs you in big-time is a behavior that you judge within yourself, repress, or have engaged in at times yourself, perhaps in more subtle ways.

  • What are some ways in which I have behaved like a brilliant jerk?
  • What are brilliant jerk instincts I see within myself?
  • What are brilliant jerk thoughts that frequently roam the halls of my mind?

Contemplate these questions. Honestly, without judging yourself. Awareness of our own brilliant-jerk-tendencies is the starting point to not becoming one.

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