Brilliant Jerks: A high performer with a bad attitude

How do you handle it when you have a Brilliant Jerk (a high performer with a bad attitude) on your team?

These employees can provide great results, but they are a pain to be around. Here’s how to know if you have Brilliant Jerks on your team and what to do about it.

There are really only four categories performance and attitude, which I’ll explain today:

High Attitude, High Performance – The Rock Star
Higher Attitude, Low Performance – The Team Player
Low Attitude, Low Performance – The Three Legged Dog
Low Attitude, High Performance – Keep reading to learn all about the Brilliant Jerk.

You’ve got Skill (or performance) on the horizontal axis. If you a lot of skill and a great attitude, you are a great performer (a Rock Star). It doesn’t matter the role. A Rock Star could work in accounting, sales, property development engineering, etc.

High Performer, Bad Attitude - brilliant jerk

Do you have a high performer, but a bad attitude? Let’s talk about someone with a bad attitude but delivers amazing results.

On the horizontal axis is Will (or attitude). If you are high on Will, you’ve got a great attitude, you’re up for anything.

High on Skill, Great Attitude: The Rock Stars
What to do with a Rock Star? It’s onward and upward with these folks. You can build a great organization that can grow at a fast pace. Here’s how to get the most from your top performers.

Low on Skill, A Bad Attitude: The Wonder.
They are called “The Wonder” because you wonder: what are they doing? What are they contributing? Learn what to do with a low performing employee.

Low on Skill, Great Attitude: The Team Player.
This is where it get’s difficult. They have great Will, but their performance is starting to fall off. They help everybody on the team be better. But maybe the organization has outgrown their ability. You have to figure out how to get this person into the right box (High Performer, High Attitude). We have to figure out how to get them back to the rock stars status. Sometimes that means really hard conversations.

It might mean they have to move outside the organization. They might be able to become a Rock Star in a different organization. However, they deserve a second chance in your organization. They deserve the same respect and care that they have shown toward you. Here’s how to move the team player to become a high performer.

High on Skill/Performance, Bad Attitude Attitude. (AKA The Brilliant Jerks)

One that’s really, really hard is the upper left quadrant. This is someone that excels. They have High Skill and High Performance.

Maybe they are incredible at sales. Or, they’re an engineering genius. They have the best ideas. Whatever it might be, they got Skill. But they don’t have the Will. They are For Themselves Leader (read about the three leadership styles). They don’t care much about the rest of the team.

This is the Brilliant Jerk. 

When you have a Brilliant Jerk you need to have a difficult conversation. Hopefully, you have a trusting relationship with this employee. In the best case, you earned the benefit of the doubt with this employee. The most important thing you can have as a C-level executive is benefit of the doubt. At some point, you’ll need it.

It’s difficult to have this hard conversation without benefit of the doubt. In this conversation, you need to help them see the big picture. Don’t be cryptic or passive-aggressive. You have to be very direct, caring and thoughtful in this conversation. You have to help them see they have to move over to Rock Star, their attitude needs to improve.

If the Brilliant Jerk doesn’t become a Rock Star, they have to go. If not, you risk losing the Rock Stars already in your business. They start having a lot of back-channel conversations that aren’t healthy.

Can you afford to lose a high performer?

When you remove the Brilliant Jerks from a company, I have seen Rock Stars soar to levels no one knew possible. It’s a bold move. That’s why they say, “It’s lonely at the top.” Your decisions will be judged out of context and in a vacuum. As a leader, you have to make the decision no one else can.

Removing this high performer with a bad attitude is like releasing a pressure valve on the potential of every other employee. It’s amazing how a Brilliant Jerk can hold a company and worse, individuals down.

I’ve seen it time and time again. Whenever a someone with a bad attitude leaves a company, it lifts a burden and improves the performance of the whole company – especially those working for the Jerk.

The company can feel completely different with the Brilliant Jerk gone. It’s easier to have honest conversations. Employees will be happier. It’s a better work environment. Even better, you’ll see it in the financial results, customer satisfaction and, heck, you’ll probably see it in your own self-satisfaction.

No More Bad Attitudes

Many companies, like Netflix, are saying no more brilliant jerks.

Nothing affects the happiness, health, and wealth of employees more than leaders. If you have a Brilliant Jerk in a leadership position – how does that affect the happiness, health and wealth of the employees reporting to this person? Having a Brilliant Jerk is a serious issue that must be addressed immediately.

Do you have a Brilliant Jerk? You know who they are.

Are you picturing them in your mind? If you are going to lead, you need to have this conversation. You need to help the people who want the help the organization move forward. Help the Brilliant Jerk know their attitude is not okay.


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