Are these brilliant jerks the same as the troublesome yet high performing “lone wolves” in commercial sales organisations ?
Reading around, some say they are just toxic, disruptive bullies which is pure jerk, no brilliance, and possibly a personality disorder needing specialist interventions. The considered consensus seems to be that a brilliant jerk is a high performer that does not conform to an organisation’s culture or values. Arguably we can all be non-conformist jerks from time to time, how much & long depends on the situation.
Non-conformist is not the same as disruptive or toxic.
This looks equivalent to a lone wolf in the sales function who can be a useful catalyst for innovation and change, when managed appropriately. In general management, the brilliant jerk can be more of a threat with their reach and range, depending on their strength and the resilience of your management and culture.
Cultural totalitarian vs. pluralist diversity ?
So the brilliant jerk can be someone with great new ideas that produce, but who struggles to conform or socialise them within a community, a trait of entrepreneurial founders as they scale-up.
Successful behaviours are different for entrepreneurs and corporate employees.
Working with growing businesses I have experienced the challenge of trying to sustain creativity and innovation, whilst tempering with discipline and shared values. From both sides: as the prospective jerk who rocks up to fix things and do new stuff, and as the manager trying to ensure conformance to culture and values (Lone Wolf vs Organization Man) for predictable and repeatable scale.
Employers: if you ask for creativity & innovation you’re going to mostly get some disruption. Don’t bitch about it; manage what you asked for. If the actual job is to conform and crank the handle of a play-book, step away from inappropriate key-words (especially entrepreneurial – it’s French). Being hired (or hiring) to innovate, then finding that the mandate doesn’t actually exist is frustrating for all. Take an early bath to avoid less good behaviours.
Managing non-conformists or innovation is an excellent challenge, but it needs a heap of emotional energy to invest in coaching, and strong culture or operational boundaries to prevent spillage. Good discussion in Can the Brilliant Jerk Be Managed Effectively?
If good intentions, management or culture can’t cope, and a mismatch is fundamental then a quick separation is best. Excellent Lucy Kellaway FT article: It is better to fire a wrong hire as fast as you can.
Modest organisations that may not attract Type 1 innovative conformist stars to employ at accessible price points will be more reliant on new performance ideas from jerks or wolves. Without the harness of robust culture and management, best to engage them as contractors or consultants. Planning to part as friends up front gets the goodness without encumbrance.
Productive Jerks and Wolves: if you are counter-cultural or non-conformist, be open and honest about how you do business and what you can offer. Coach to change, but don’t try to mask your true nature with a veneer of conformance; it’s not sustainable.
Play the man, not the hand.
First published by the author on LinkedIn