There’s a prevailing myth in popular culture and the tech industry (and others I’m sure) of the “Necessary Jerk” - a jerk who is so singularly gifted in their field that they’re completely irreplaceable.
There are numerous examples spread across TV, movies, and books: Gregory House, Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, Shawn Spencer, and Granny Weatherwax to name a few.
While it is entertaining to watch Benedict Cumberbatch berate a bewildered Martin Freeman, or Hugh Laurie prank Lisa Edelstein, this prevalent “Necessary Jerk” persona seems to contribute to the collective belief that we have to hire or accommodate these people in the workplace simply because they are providing a unique service.
It’s not uncommon for my coworkers to have stories from different workplaces about that one intolerable colleague, and I know I’ve seen my fair share. The coworker was always in a niche position—often a subject matter expert for something esoteric, or maintaining a project or piece of code crucial for the team.
These people often took advantage of their perceived special status to mistreat their coworkers. This abuse can manifest in different ways, from blatantly interrupting a colleague in a meeting to subtly belittling a new hire.
One particularly alarming problem that surrounds Necessary Jerks, is abuse in the workplace is depressingly underreported. When employees do attempt to report these coworkers, managers and HR are often dismissive, as these incidents seem minor when viewed individually. If not dismissed, a common response is something along the lines of “toughen up” or “learn how to work together.” On the rare occasions a complaint is not dismissed, the issue is often turned back on the reporter, branding them as a “troublemaker” or “not a team player”.
This nastiness is only tolerated because employers believe the Necessary Jerk plays a critical role for the organization. I would like to question the “necessary” part of the Necessary Jerk. In the US and most countries, almost all methods of knowledge dissemination are on an upward trend. Degrees at every level are far above where they were 50 years ago. We have more high school, bachelors, masters, and PHD degrees in the hiring pool than ever before. STEM degrees from formal institutions are rising, and new education options like Coursera and Udacity are also driving growth in STEM-literacy. This is introducing more STEM candidates into the hiring pool than ever before, making it extremely unlikely that there’s a lone individual capable of performing a specific task for a company.
However the belief in the necessary part persists, and these Necessary Jerks have discovered that they can maintain their poor behavior as long as they don’t cross “the line”. The line varies between workplaces, but often trends toward tolerating all behavior that doesn’t leave the company liable to a lawsuit.
All of this combined creates a feedback loop. Young engineers are exposed to pop culture genius characters that are narcissistic, bordering on sociopathic. They then enter the workforce where they see this behavior tolerated and tacitly encouraged as the Necessary Jerks are not reprimanded for their behavior, and are in fact promoted for their work.
I would like to suggest to any managers reading this that if your team has a Necessary Jerk, they’re not really necessary—they’re just a Jerk. While companies may have once had to accept inexcusable behavior for the sake of expertise, the same does not hold true today. In the rare cases that a Necessary Jerk is uniquely gifted, the downside of having these employees far outweighs any possible benefits.
It may take time and effort to replace Necessary Jerks. But if they remain, it’ll be an even greater (if less obvious) cost. You’ll have significant attrition in your team and instead of the cost of replacing one employee, you’ll regularly be replacing many more—and that cost adds up. Even among those that stay, you’ll have significant business costs if you retain your Necessary Jerk.
Destroying the myth of the Necessary Jerk isn’t just the right thing to do for your team morale—it’s good business sense.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dynamosquito/4265771518