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5 Sep

Brilliant jerks and fake mentors

"The brilliant jerk."

I'm sure many of us have come across someone in the team who totally deserved this description and moniker.

Some traits people usually associate with brilliant jerks:

They are hard to play with. They like working and solving problems alone. They aren't "team players." While communicating, they might come across as cold and straightforward — to the point of being rude. They might keep themselves away from team activities, almost in a way where you feel they're looking down on the rest of the team. You know, the classic snobbish, hoity-toity behaviour.

But managers still tend to keep them and you often feel they are protected by their managers, which is why they can keep up with this behaviour for so long.

The reasons for these protections are obvious: they're simply excellent at what they do. But their snobbish behaviour means no one gets an opportunity to learn from them.

However, let's also talk about the opposite archetype: "the fake mentor."

Fake mentors are people who are excellent at selling themselves. They're likeable, charismatic, and great to play with. They're popular in the organization. But they fail to deliver quality work themselves. They aren't great craftspersons, making it hard for craftspersons in the team to respect them.

Fake mentors are hard to fire simply because they're super-nice people. They sound wise when they talk and they know how to spin narratives that keep everyone happy — except the engineers — who seem to have an uncanny ability to spot real ablility and wean out the verbal BS. I think it has to do with the fact that their work is the most objective of the lot. Either what you build works, or it doesn't work. So they're tuned to value hard objective stuff over more subjective elements of work.

But anyway.

Being good at what you do doesn't give you the right to not be a team player.

And being great at playing well doesn't give you the right to deliver shoddy work either.

So, how do you handle this situation?

The answer lies in a mix of hiring, culture, and slack.

Let's talk about hiring, first.

A lazy answer to these problems would be to simply say, "Well, you should hire better people, duh!"

Another common response is to say, "Hire slow, fire fast."

I think both of them are too generic to be helpful. Hiring isn't only about judging people and their abilities well. It also has to do with how appropriate an environment you provide to those you have hired, for them to really excel at their strengths.

Before firing someone, you need to make sure if you've given them enough room to explore and grow. Don't be too quick to say, "X is a bad hire." Before saying that, ask yourself:

Did I give them enough room to grow?
Did I equip them with the right tools and environment to let their talents flourish?
Are they working in the right team?

When a person isn’t thriving in their role, do examine the systems you've asked them to work within. It's not always about a bad culture-fit, or a bad work ethic.

I recently read a great piece that talked about organizational resilience and cultural slack. Here's an excerpt:

"Consider the example of two organizations that share “uptime” as a cultural value. One organization might try to achieve its desired 9s by imposing strict rules, having binders full of checklists, and punishing or firing engineers who make mistakes or deviate from the approved processes. Another organization might document recommended processes but let engineers use their best judgement, relying on blameless postmortems to understand why people acted the way they did. Even if both of these organizations end up achieving the same amount of uptime, their cultures are very different."

Essentially, the gist of the problem is that if you're a manager who recently inherited a jerk, did you give them a wide berth? Were your systems flexible enough to let them find their own fit?

For all you know, that brilliant jerk might just be a great white shark in a swimming pool. And that charismatic fake mentor might just be suited to a different role that would benefit from their charisma and selling ability.

A lot of good talent is antisocial, and a lot of bad talent is great at fostering team cohesion and keeping everyone on the same page. Your job as a manager is to design a system and a culture that harnesses that talent.

For sure, some hires genuinely are at total odds with the culture. To provide them flexibility would mean renouncing the entire culture for a single person. And it's okay to part ways when that happens.

But before that, do ask yourself if your culture has the necessary slack to accommodate differences in points of view, approaches to solving problems, and working styles.

Here's a related read from my 100 Days of MBA series.

People are complex. And the ways in which they fit into or stand out from your existing systems is even more messy. Before making value judgments, question your systems.

Incompatibility arises when both sides are unwilling to adapt, not just one.

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