From Brilliant Talent To Brilliant Jerk

To keep or not to keep a brilliant jerk, someone who has morphed from being a brilliant talent, in a growing entrepreneurial company?   This was the focus of a recent New York Times “Business Daily” article.  Whenever I talk to small business owners, they converge on this point: “personnel issues are the toughest.”  It is much easier to grapple with hard facts, payroll or growth chart, than “soft” issues, such as relationships, emotions, or power and control.  But return for a moment to the question: How does a brilliant talent in a startup turn into a brilliant jerk?  It’s rooted in the growth of the company where the dynamics of power and control change and shift, along with the evolution of culture with added personnel.

At the beginning of building an enterprise, the few founders create a strong esprit de corps.  They work overtime; they share everything; even during moments of struggle and frustration, they are of one aim.  Once the business becomes viable, the founders are faced with two major challenges:  How to grow at the “right” pace, and what to do with the new-found dynamics brought about by additional personnel?

Brilliant! Tragic!

Brilliant! Tragic! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am sure we all have experienced the awkwardness and difficulties whenever new members are added to, or replacing existing members in, a group project.  The once-engaged member can become snarky, or a once-contentious member less strident.  It’s all in the relationships!  Whether it’s a group in an organization, or a group of entrepreneurial founders, seeing the handiwork of one’s concept being stretched and altered by newcomers can be disconcerting at the very least.  I hazard to say that the more brilliant an original member is, the more the contributions have been made by this brilliant person (or so she believes), and the stronger the likelihood for this brilliant talent to become a brilliant jerk.  She would raise objections on small points to large structural issues; he may be passive/aggressive with respect to every new proposed move.  They might reluctantly go along with a new development but will criticize here and resist there.  And precisely because they too are brilliant, the original members feel, besides loyalty, an obligation to keep appeasing such a brilliant talent.  But the fabric of morale among others in the organization becomes frayed at the edges.

What to do?  The person(s) in charge has to find the courage and means to remove this brilliant jerk because the brilliance cannot make up for the lost productivity.  There are too many such stories in which the people around such a brilliant jerk applauded silently when the troublesome individual departed.  Almost just as often, the remaining employees think, “What took [you] so long to make this move?”  Of course, capriciously letting go an employee is demoralizing as well.  Personnel issues are thorny, and it’s tricky to arrive at a balanced path.

In the unilineal evolution model at left, all ...

In the unilineal evolution model at left, all cultures progress through set stages, while in the multilineal evolution model at right, distinctive culture histories are emphasized. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Such troublesome scenarios, keeping while working-around those brilliant jerks, are fairly common in all organizations.  It’s probably even trickier to solve such a problem situation in larger organizations; letting someone go, however justified, always has a potential legal aspect.  Therefore, most likely, these brilliant people just get moved around or, “given an office and a subscription to the Journal.”  Once in a long while, when they get moved into a position that’s perfectly fit for them, the outcome can be win-win.   But that’s rare.  Comparably frustrating is when not only your boss is the brilliant jerk, his/her boss is also a brilliant jerk.  It is more common in organizations for the mediocre people to take up management positions and play musical chairs.  These managers don’t do immediate and noticeable harm, but over time, they provide too many obstacles for their direct reports and thereby contribute to the organization’s overall lower-than-could-be performance.

That’s what I have been hearing and reading all these years.  And that’s one of the reasons why I write this blog, in the hope that somewhere, someone may find some nuggets in this blog helpful and actually reduce to practice some of the principles.  There are no easy answers when facing human foibles; there never will be.  So I keep reading and writing.  If you can provide some wisdom, won’t you please share it in this space?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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