The ‘Brilliant Jerk’: Should They Stay Or Go?

A few weeks ago, a question on LinkedIn piqued my interest: “What are your thoughts on employing a rep who might be top of the class in generating revenue but are bad for the culture?”


I loved this question for two reasons:


1.    The comment replies were diverse.

2.    The question had the potential to grow.


Of course, you don’t want your sales team to be filled with self-serving egomaniacal jerks, but do you want a strict culture that limits a wide range of talented people to really move the needle, either? In my experience, the answer is no. The myth of the “brilliant jerk” was beyond compelling and inspired my thoughts below.


In theory, creating a sound culture is a tremendous idea, but it takes a ton of time, energy, consistency, and A+ leadership to develop a thriving “foundation” that does not lack a wide range of talent to balance the sales ecosystem out. If your entire sales organization has the same viewpoint and values, you’re going to miss out on conversations that lead to progress and inspiration.


Conversely, some argue that collaboration creates mediocrity.


Moreover, maybe that “jerk” is performing superbly but acting poorly because they’ve found a technique that works, but his or her co-workers aren’t open to hearing about the new technique from a “know-it-all” they could very well be intimidated by or jealous of. Perhaps said “jerk” has been alienated from the team as they’re concentrating on driving meaningful results versus getting bogged down by unnecessary meetings, powwows, huddles, or all-hands.


Do you see what I’m getting at, here?


The aforementioned LinkedIn post goes far beyond its seemingly binary nature. Instead of valuing revenue over culture (or vice versa), companies should try to create harmony between the two.


Learning From the Past: Why Did You Hire This Person, Anyway?


Almost every sales team has a “brilliant jerk” or two. These are the people you work with that perhaps rub you the wrong way, although they are extremely talented at their jobs.


If you hired a “brilliant jerk”, their stellar credentials and intelligence likely dazzled you. So, you hired them for a reason—it makes no sense to let them go when they’re being a bit of a squeaky wheel while crushing it—at least at first.


If your “brilliant jerk” is acting up, don’t stifle them, and certainly don’t fire them off the bat. Instead, listen to them. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to management is the kiss of death in my opinion.


Try and understand their unique point of view and let them contribute. Truly take the time to diagnose before prescribing. If you don’t know where all of this is coming from and why, how on earth will you be able to effectively handle the situation? Then, after you’ve heard them out to process the details, thank them for their contribution. This is a great place to start and they tend to become much more open minded versus defensive or disengaged. If not, after you’ve heard them out, offer positive coaching on how they can successfully have their voice heard along with resetting the “stage” for expectations that accommodate winning outcomes for all parties involved.


The Downside: What You’ll Likely Lose …


If you’re starting to come around to the idea that a “brilliant jerk” can improve your sales and overall infrastructure, you should understand that they have their downsides, too. Like any employee, they’re an investment: you’ll benefit from their brilliance, but you’ll also have to invest time and energy into retaining them along with handling how they affect the rest of your team. Is it worth it?


So, what will you lose if you hire a “brilliant jerk?” Some of the factors to consider, comfort, team dynamics, and your time to effectively manage them.


In general, these types of people are not conflict avoidant and tend to challenge the status quo. When they see something wrong, they call it out—which can rub people the wrong way. When this happens, the company should listen to the issue and proactively manage any aftershock it might have caused. Although both of these things take time for the organization to manage, they can both ultimately lead to progress.


Although it is often easy to notice an “elephant in the room,” addressing it is much more difficult. Organizations are often privy to their more obvious issues, but for whatever reason, they put off addressing them.


If you hire a “jerk”, you will lose the comfort—albeit often temporary—you used to experience from sweeping things under the rug.


Once your shortcomings are out in the open, you’ll likely have to address them—at least if you want to keep morale and retention rates high. Although it can be difficult for companies to disrupt their status quos and confront their issues head-on, overcoming these challenges can lead to great success.


To negate the losses associated with bringing a “brilliant jerk” onto your sales floor, you can do a few things… One, you can coach these employees on how to bring up their issues in an effective way. Two, you can introduce them to the elephants in the room before they find them. Three, you can actively listen to their feedback and explain how it will be taken into account (or why it will not lead to a change if that is the case). Four, you can block and tackle internally to mitigate some of the unnecessary items that are bogging them down let alone the rest of the team.


When it comes down to it, you must ask yourself is this “brilliant jerk” disruptive in a positive or negative way. Pulling a trigger one way or the other prematurely is a disservice to everyone involved. Remember, take the time diagnose BEFORE prescribing a solution or action plan.


The Upside: What You’ll Likely Gain …


Adding the next “brilliant jerk” to your company will absolutely cause some growing pains, but it will also afford you a gifted employee, overall impressive performance, and potential innovation.


If you hire someone that is willing to bring up workplace issues to test the limits of what the team can truly do, you’ve hired an individual that’s smart enough to find issues others don’t see or are not confident enough to address. Furthermore, you’ve found someone that’s motivated by curiosity. These individuals want to learn new things—an extremely valuable trait for salespeople to possess.


If you create a company that actively listens to its employees (jerks included), you will have a workplace that inspires everyone to stand up. Remember the employees that see issues but don’t talk about them? Once they know that they can be heard, they’ll be more likely to bring their ideas to the table, too. If they know they can’t be heard, you’re likely to experience turnover and that’s no fun.


Overall, this will help your employees become more engaged and productive across the board.


One of the most toxic deterrents to progress is groupthink. If your employees are too similar, or if they all value harmony too highly, you’ll suffer from limited decision-making. With a “brilliant jerk”, though, your organization will be able to consider alternatives and listen to unpopular opinions, which will lead to problem-solving and an informed outcome.


So, What’s It Going to Be?


Every company has a choice: will they invest the time and effort required to manage a wide-range of talent and various opinions in their sales department, or is it not worth it? Why/why not?


In general, some companies aren’t in a stable enough situation to add more turbulence to their workplace, and other companies simply aren’t willing to hire someone that will rock their boat, regardless of their overall stability.


In the end, every company needs to decide for themselves if the benefits of a “brilliant jerk” outweigh the downside. Only then can they rightly align their hiring strategy for their definition of success.


Well, that’s all I wrote… What do you think? Did I elaborate on the binary too much? Have you tried to hire and coach a “brilliant jerk” without success? If you’ve kept them around, what are the results? If you were inspired by Netflix and ushered said “jerks” out of the company, what happened and how did you handle it?


I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this topic. As always, thanks for reading!


-Amy Volas