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One Simple Question to Weed Out ‘Brilliant Jerks’ at Work

When people return to the office after more than a year of working from home, office dynamics promise to be more volatile than ever.

Photo courtesy of Dylan Gillis via Unsplash

Last year, I joined a company that should have been full of brilliant jerks.

Its ranks included dozens of PhDs in artificial intelligence and machine learning, among them some of the true pioneers in the industry. They were building smart robots for the biggest retailers on the planet and were really, really good at it.

But weeks, then months, went by and I couldn’t find a single jerk. It was really unusual. One day, I walked into a room to see a team of scientists dusting robots and sweeping the floor. Here were truly brilliant people doing these tasks without being asked, just because they needed to be done.

So, what was their secret?

Debunking the Brilliant Jerk Legend

In three decades of business, I’ve contended with plenty of talented and difficult people. Some call them brilliant jerks; I just thought of them as prima donnas. In tech lore, those people appear to have the largest footprint—think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick. If you want geniuses, it seems, you have to put up with eccentricity.

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But it doesn’t have to be that way. Wharton researcher Adam Grant has written extensively about how people who give more than they take are actually more likely to be successful than their selfish counterparts. At the end of the day, the takers can hamper productivity, bring down morale and cost money.

Now, more than ever, we need to take this to heart. When people return to the office after more than a year of working from home, office dynamics promise to be more volatile than ever…and brilliant jerks even more problematic. The good news is there are lessons you can take from offices like ours—and they start with one question.

An Easy Trick for Catching Attitudes in the Interview

“Can you tell me about a time you helped someone, ideally someone who wasn’t part of your team?”

Whatever you say after that question tells me exactly what I need to know about you. If a person can’t answer it, I’m striking a line through their name. Studies have shown that employees motivated by helping others tend to come up with more creative ideas and can help protect people around them from experiencing burnout. Those are the people I want on my team. Meanwhile, other studies have found people with negative attitudes or selfish motivations can be a cancer in the office. Those are the jerks we hope to weed out with this question.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Steve, people can lie.” That’s why I always check the references. If you’re a good person, your references should be able to give me a specific instance where you lent a helping hand. If they can’t, I’m moving on.

How to Avoid Working for Brilliant Jerks

Sometimes, the shoe is on the other foot. As a job seeker, how do you know you’re not joining a company where difficult people are endemic?

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This is important: Everything starts with the founder. Do your research on who’s running the ship, and you’ll often get a feel for the vibe before ever setting foot in the office. In my first interview with our CEO, he took every step to make sure I was comfortable. This guy used to run artificial intelligence programs for the U.S. Department of Defense, and as I’m trying not to be awed by his reputation, he’s asking me if the office thermostat is set to my liking and whether I’d prefer coffee or water, then helping me with directions when I leave.

Next, make sure you look for a core values statement—these mean more than you might think. A company’s values drive its mission, which in turn drives its strategies. Look for red flags in those statements. Uber’s early mission statement included terms like “toe-stepping,” which its first CEO said would empower low-level employees to speak up, but its second CEO admitted was often used as “an excuse for being an asshole.”

If You’re Stuck With Jerks: Reform, Repurpose or Remove

So, what do you do with the brilliant jerk who’s already at your workplace? There are things leaders or colleagues can do to make life more tenable.

First, make sure they’re aware of it. For some people, arrogance is a character flaw that can’t be cured, but others are just clueless. It’s important to remember some people have a hard time with social cues, so it helps to be direct. Before anything else, have the hard conversation.

Second, if the person is still causing problems with productivity or morale, find a new purpose for them. In past jobs, I’ve had people who were extremely talented but abrasive with customers, so I took them out of their role and framed it as a move to help them find their superpower.

Finally, if they can’t be helped, they need to be let go. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said, “the cost to effective teamwork is too high.” I truly believe there are very few of us who are irreplaceable—myself included—and you cannot let a bad crewmember sink the ship.

We sometimes hold up the wrong people as role models in business—brilliant leaders who take more than they give. However, I’ve been honored to know some of the real heroes like SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, who came to spend a day with my team about eight years ago and radiated selflessness.

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Despite knowing him so briefly, we were devastated to learn of his death in 2015. In the days following, I saw dozens of people sharing stories just like our own. It gave me faith that the most brilliant minds can be beautiful people.

So don’t let the prima donnas get you down—we have them outnumbered. Surround yourself with the Dave Goldbergs of the world, and, when time allows, maybe sweep the floor.

 Steve Johnson is the president of Berkshire Grey, which builds AI-powered robotic systems to help retailers, e-commerce companies and logistics providers.

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