The problem of the “brilliant jerk” trope for diversity and inclusion

We hear it quite a lot these days – how companies are ceasing to be tolerant of the “brilliant jerk” – the human in a company who is too difficult to get along with.  They may be a bully, an harasser, a narcissist or suffer deeply from anxiety which they choose to express in unhelpful ways.  They often cause problems for their staff, colleagues, and higher ups.  Sometimes they cause problems for clients too.  Many do great work, are high revenue earners, highly creative or brilliant researchers.  Sometimes they don’t do much of note but are just considered unreasonable in the way they behave.

Their immediate manager doesn’t know how to deal with them, so they toss the ball to HR.  The HR partner tells them to behave better ‘or else’.  Maybe – depending on their perceived value to the organisation – they are sent on some training, are given some coaching or a mentor.  The company tries everything, but nothing works.  So eventually they performance manage the ‘brilliant jerk’ (BJ) out of the company.  And people make money writing books about how not to cope with the brilliant jerks.

There is no doubt that BJs can be found in most organisations, and there is also no doubt that they can make life very difficult indeed.   I’ve worked with my fair share of difficult people; at times I have been one.  Sometimes the only option available to an organisation is to terminate employment when the behaviour of an individual is repeatedly not consistent with the organisation’s values.  And sometimes they take that option because nobody is asking why or looking for a better solution, and everyone is worried about ending up in a court of law. 

The “brilliant jerk” trope poses a number of problems for the ethos and actuality of diversity and inclusion. 

First, labelling anybody as a “brilliant jerk” is instantly discriminatory.  It sets a person up to be perceived negatively and to be treated disrespectfully – it leaves no room for a different story to be heard.  It reminds me strongly of the “hysterical woman” label that was (and still is) given to any woman who, stifled and frustrated with society’s expectations of her, acted out and was labelled ‘crazy’ for her trouble.  Arwa Mahdawi put it succinctly: “The “crazy woman” has become a kneejerk way to put women in their place and remind them that, no matter what they achieve, they are inherently flawed.”  Labelling someone as a ‘brilliant jerk’ because they behave in challenging ways is no different – it also has become a kneejerk reaction to encountering someone who is difficult to deal with. 

Regardless of whether a person’s behaviour is really unacceptable, the “brilliant jerk” label is derogatory in tone and intent. 

This is not to say that consistently bad behaviour towards other people should be tolerated; it shouldn’t.  And I think there is a high likelihood that in some cases, a person may be labelled a BJ simply because they don’t fit.  Someone who has a different level of social skills or is trying really hard to cope with discriminatory practices or bad behaviour around them may be placed into the convenient bucket labelled “brilliant jerk”.  And that is problem number two for diversity and inclusion – if organisations are going to start enacting a zero tolerance policy for people they consider to be ‘brilliant jerks’, someone had better keep track of the demographic of the BJs. 

The third problem for diversity and inclusion in the BJ trope is that we are in danger of confusing ‘inclusion’ with ‘everybody must like and feel comfortable with everybody else’.  That social norm is how we got in this mess in the first place, because the people we like and feel most comfortable with are people just like us.  If we are going to do diversity and inclusion well, we need to get really comfortable with being around people who are not like us, who we may not actually like very much, and who we may never feel entirely comfortable with. 

Unless we start getting comfortable with our diversity discomfort, inclusion will remain out of reach.

The fourth problem of the BJ trope for diversity and inclusion is that it feeds the current trend of rewarding people for doing nothing more than being nice to other people.  I know this is an over-simplification, but I have a genuine concern that the people who now seem to get ahead most readily are those who just have really good interpersonal skills.  They make other people feel comfortable, and that makes them likeable, and that gets them rewarded.  Those who are not well-liked may not get rewarded for their otherwise excellent work. 

This is standard in-group/out-group stuff – people who do not fit the prevailing norm in a workplace or society are often disliked for their difference, and the narrative changes based on their likeability.  Their good interpersonal skills are reframed as creepy or self-interested.  A quiet demeanour is perceived as antisocial or arrogant, while a desire to do a good job is characterised as sucking up to the boss.  The same behaviours in a person who is part of the in-group, who is liked for their conformity to the norm, are given a positive spin – an excellent communicator, quiet and reflective, goes the extra mile to get the job done well.   

The thing is, there is a world of difference between someone who is not well liked and someone who is an active problem.  And in the diversity and inclusion space, not being well-liked is often synonymous with simply being different from the social norm.  If being liked and making other people feel comfortable is a key criterion for success in an organisation, anyone who is a bit different is going to face problems in that workplace. 

For diversity and inclusion to work well, we need to get past the need to like everyone we work with and we need to stop rewarding niceness as a particular asset in the workplace. 

By setting up a ‘brilliant jerk’ trope, and developing a mythology around it of the brilliant-but-unmanageable superhuman, we set up an environment where not being comfortable, likeable or nice is potentially a barrier to success. 

Perhaps a person who is very difficult at work is not suited to that workplace and should be moved on – people who behave unethically, immorally or illegally are clearly not the right fit for a workplace.  Aggression towards others, harassment and bullying are likewise not OK, and some of those behaviours can be managed and effectively negated.  But when deciding if someone is too difficult to manage effectively, we need to be sure that there is not another story going on behind someone’s apparently difficult behaviour before we label them as ‘the problem’.