“We don’t devote enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks.” —Bill Waterson
I came across a meme this week that really got my attention. Admittedly, I usually ignore stuff like this, but I opened up LinkedIn and there it was—staring me in the face and practically begging me to read it. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It’s a photo of Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, with the quote, “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost is too high.” Before I go much further, I don’t personally know Reed nor have I ever worked at Netflix. (You see, this is the reason I don’t usually care about memes—it’s hard to confirm they’re true.) As I researched the quote on Google, I realized there was quite a negative stir in the marketplace regarding Reed’s term. The truth is, I don’t care. And I don’t care if I’m late to the party on this conversation. I love the phrase, and I think it’s 100% true.
It was 2006, and I was new to consulting. The company I worked for attracted a high-tech startup as a client. My role as a Principal was to manage delivery, keep our customer happy, and provide leadership to the project team. The client’s chief executive, TJ, was my point-of-contact, and I was to collaborate with him on an important initiative. Talk about a brilliant jerk!
From the day we walked into his office, he treated us like trash. He never once made eye contact. Frequently, when any of us asked him a question, he would flip his hand in the air while saying, “I don’t see why that’s important. This is what I think is important …” To make matters worse, he made a clicking noise between sentences that was meant to be audible punctuation. As it related to the clicking, he once told me, “People can’t keep up with me so I help them understand when I am shifting to another idea.” Apparently we were all dipsticks and lucky to have someone as sensitive as him worrying about whether we were keeping up!
TJ was really innovative. He and his company had an interesting product which could disrupt the entire payments industry. His team of engineers were some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. There were many times I had to pinch myself because I wasn’t sure how I could add any value to what they were working on. But TJ was a brilliant jerk, and no surprise, his company never experienced a breakthrough moment.
As Kristine and I have been launching our new company, we’ve been focused on growing something that’s built on values. Very early in the process, we decided on a “No Assholes” rule that would be applied to our clients and anyone we hire. I know that may seem crass, but imagine how it feels to be demoralized by people who believe they are intellectually or financially entitled to treat others poorly.
Another reason we’re focused on this value is I know I haven’t always done well on this front. I have to admit I had a blind spot for this from time to time and was routinely lured by intelligence or creative talent. As a leader I ended up learning tough lessons about jerks. Sadly, they hurt everyone around them.
Patrick Lencioni, one of the most important thought leaders in organizational health, warns all leaders, “Keeping a relatively strong performer who is not a cultural fit sends a loud and clear message to employees that the organization isn’t all that serious about what it says and believes.” I wish I read that quote back in the early days of my leadership roles.
Have you ever worked with or been impacted by a jerk? Is there a slight chance your own actions and behaviors might be similar to that of TJ’s? You probably don’t need me to tell you that tactic doesn’t work. Tolerating jerk-dom is like a speeding ticket waiting to happen. Brilliance and creativity can be a speeding car that appears to get you from point A to point B really quickly. However, when you get a ticket, go to court, pay a fine, and attend traffic school, it turns out you didn’t save any time at all.
I hope you make it a great week. Avoid the jerks. You don’t deserve to be treated poorly regardless of someone else’s intelligence. More importantly, don’t be one—it’ll get you nowhere and really fast!