Don’t Hire Brilliant Jerks — Leadership IMHO

Immature leaders focus more on hiring talent who will produce results, regardless of character. Almost every leader has done this mistake in their careers. Hiring brilliant jerks would definitely result in immediate wins or sprints, but sustainability of any organization is a marathon. A leader who wants to create lasting organizations will need to focus on longevity versus immediate results.

In an interview by the Pensacola News Journal , I’ve shared that in hiring talent, I don’t just look at an individual’s qualifications on paper. I also take into great consideration the type of character a candidate has. It’s important that folks we select to join our team are capable to embrace our culture and the overall dynamics of our team.

How to identify brilliant jerks?

It won’t be easy to gauge someone’s character during an interview. If possible, do some extensive research on the person you’re hiring. Contact their references, find anything they’ve published online, and try to do as much follow-up interviews as possible. If the situation allows, have the candidate spend some time with the team they will be joining-over coffee or over lunch. These things will allow you to dig deeper into a person’s character outside of the standard interview.

Here are some interview questions you can ask to help determine the candidate’s character:

  • If you’re selected, who will you miss the most in the team you’re currently in?
  • Tell us about a time you witnessed your manager (or coworker) make a mistake. How did you approach that situation?
  • Tell us about someone in your current team who’s doing a particularly good job.
  • Tell us about a time you disagreed with your manager (or coworker) and how you handled it.

Why some managers hire brilliant jerks?

Hiring brilliant jerks is an easy mistake any leader can make. Unfortunately, there are leaders who intentionally disregard a candidate’s character because the candidate will bring a high level of skill into the organization. Here are the common reasons why some leaders would hire brilliant jerks:

  • They’re results-driven: These leaders are more focused on the numbers rather than the engagement.
  • Thinking of getting promoted quickly: This relates to being ‘results-driven.’ These leaders want to make sure they’re winning now so they can get promoted fast-not thinking of how the team would function in the long-run.
  • They’re brilliant jerks themselves: Many high-producers are given opportunities to be promoted to management. This is another mistake many leaders make. High-producers don’t necessarily mean they would become good leaders. These types of individuals will have the same values as the brilliant jerks, which is why they would tend to hire them.

So, they’re brilliant jerks. So what?!

Reed Hastings, cofounder and CEO of Netflix, has famously said, “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.” This mantra is explicitly included in the Netflix Culture page on their careers page. It says, “On a dream team, there are no brilliant jerks.” This page expressed that brilliant people should be capable of decent human interactions.

Will Felps, professor at the Rotterdam School in the Netherlands, did an experiment to see what would happen if a “bad apple” is inserted within a team . Felps divided the population of undergrads into small, four-person groups. He then hired an actor (named Nick) to insert himself into those teams and act like a jerk, a slacker, or a depressive pessimist (a downer). Each group is motivated to do well in the tasks by promising a monetary reward. In almost every group the actor infiltrated, the quality of the team’s performance is reduced by 30 to 40%. (Only one team did not see a diminishing performance)

Don’t hire brilliant jerks. The immediate boost in production is not worth risking the long-term performance and engagement of the team. Having these ‘bad apples’ in your team will eventually pull everyone else’s morale down, it will eventually affect productivity, and it will also deter good talent to join your team. It will even force many of your ‘good apples’ to leave and find other teams to blossom in.

Lastly, having brilliant jerks in your team will also reflect badly on you as a leader. You’ll lose the trust of your direct reports, your peers, as well as senior leaders in your organization, which means your future in the company is also at risk.

Crowdsourcing FTW

Have you mistakenly hired brilliant jerks in your team? How did you handle that? If you’re always in the lookout for these bad apples, how do identify these individuals from a pool of candidates? Can you share some red flags to look out for to avoid brilliant jerks?

Originally published at on September 15, 2020.