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I have a confession to make.  

I’ve led software development organizations for several decades. The bad news is that early on, I made some critical mistakes. The good news is that I quickly learned from those mistakes. But one of the things about mistakes that involve people is that it’s always hard to recover from them. The better strategy is to be really crisp in your people decision-making.

One of the mistakes I made early on was hiring “Brilliant Jerks” or people who had exceptional technical skills but lacked skills in other areas. Another way to put it is they were, how shall I say it, assholes. But I tolerated their asshole-ness because of how smart, how productive, and how loud they were.

Nobody wants to work with them and they brought the entire team/organization down. But at the same time, I tolerated them because they had incredible value in certain areas.

Big mistake!

Atlassian & Netflix

I was reminded of my historical inclination and personal learnings by a recent article from folks at Atlassian. As you can see, they’ve reevaluated their tolerance for brilliant jerks. To be clear, they’re working to eliminate their tolerance.

And this reference about Reed Hastings and his brilliant jerks thoughts at Netflix is another example of how things have shifted.

A Reminder – The Wisdom of the Crowd

I saw a keynote quite a few years ago by James Surowiecki who wrote the book – The Wisdom of Crowds. James makes the case that diverse and open teams always trump the power of the lone genius.

This is one of the keys to high-performing agile teams. And one where, a single brilliant jerk, can undermine the potential of the team.

Point being high-performance agile teams are endeavoring to engage and leverage the wisdom of the crowd in everything they do.

No Asshole Rule

Speaking of good books. Robert Sutton wrote two books on this topic. First was – The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t published in 2007. Following that one up with – The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt published in 2017.

Sutton is a professor at Stanford and, despite the controversial titles, the books provide some insight into how to build effective teams and healthy cultures. Sharing tactics for living with, or better still avoiding, these wonderful characters.

Rick Watson

I thought my final point in this rant should come from Rick Watson. I worked with Rick years ago at a company called ChannelAdvisor. I’ve lost track of him over time, with the exception of his LinkedIn posts. But he’s starting to post some very thoughtful content.

Recently he shared this post in which he too explored the notion of brilliant jerks by referencing an article on the problem at Google. It seems they’ve had a historical attraction to aberrant geniuses or brilliant jerks. The one that stands out in the article is Andy Rubin and how they handled him. I’d highly recommend that you read the post AND the follow-up comments.

Wrapping Up

In my reply to Rick’s post, I made the following comment about leadership setting the tone for organizational culture –

I feel like the culture is a place between what behaviors leaders are willing to amplify and what behaviors they are willing to tolerate.

It brings a smile to my face that leaders, in general, are starting to realize their cultural responsibilities. And that one clear way they can set the tone is to find brilliant jerks, aberrant geniuses, and assholes intolerable.

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

BTW: and on a related note, I thought I’d share this neat article by Adrian Howard on the topic of assholes. It’s short & sweet. And another wonderful article by Joost on the topic.