Arianna Huffington says a “no brilliant jerks” policy has never been more necessary

Arianna Huffington

Thrive Global boss Arianna Huffington. Source: Getty Images.

Brilliant individuals may seem hard to come by if you’re not looking wide enough, but that doesn’t mean they can refuse to play as part of a team. Nor can they go around destroying company culture and risking the careers and wellbeing of others.

Perhaps they may have gotten away with it in the past, via unofficial ‘too big to fire’ policies. But in 2020, it’s well and truly time to avoid and remove these jerks from power.

Arianna Huffington has a “no brilliant jerks” policy.

It’s a catchy-sounding management and hiring tip that I’ve written about previously for Women’s Agenda, but one I think is worthwhile sharing again given the current economic times.

As Huffington told editor-in-chief Sarah O’Carroll at the Yahoo Finance Australia All Markets Summit on Thursday: “The truth is they end up affecting the whole culture. Even if they may individually create results, they end up having a negative impact on the business.”

Yep, these jerks destroy stuff. They damage the confidence and even the careers of others. They limit the opportunities for innovation and creativity. They disrupt the potential for healthy team cultures that encourage all team members to thrive.

Atlassian is another company with an NBJ policy. The tech giant introduced an overhaul of HR processes in 2019, aiming to remove the “brilliant jerk” mentality by focussing less on a person’s skills, and more on how they perform in a team and support the company’s values.

As head of talent Bek Chee said at the time, the aim is to recognise and reward the right behaviour, as well as the right work.

And the NBJ policy is also famously etched into hiring policies and culture practices at Netflix.

“On a dream team, there are no ‘brilliant jerks’. The cost to teamwork is just too high,” the company’s ‘culture’ page reads.

“Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that.

“When highly capable people work together in a collaborative context, they inspire each other to be more creative, more productive and ultimately more successful as a team than they could be as a collection of individuals.”

This is some simple management advice, but in 2020, it’s something that may be tempting to overlook, especially as teams face pressure to deliver new revenue streams and financially perform against the backdrop of a recession and changed working conditions.

But the short-term gains of any minor financial uptick a brilliant jerk can provide is never worth the longterm and irreversible damage that can occur: to team culture, to the careers and lives of others, and to the reputation of a business.

It could also result in severe investor backlash.

Right now, large boards across Australia are facing added scrutiny over their CEO appointment decisions, following a particularly bad decision made by one of the country’s most influential boards.

Indeed, for any company wondering how to avoid sexual harassment, a ‘don’t hire or retain jerks’ mantra is a good start for creating safer environments for employees.

How do you spot a jerk?

Analysing — rather than dismissing — previous behaviour and complaints made by other employees is always a good start.

But let’s remember that ‘brilliant jerks’ don’t always have a CEO title. They can emerge at all levels of the organisation.

At Thrive Global, Huffington told the Yahoo Finance Summit yesterday that their one non-negotiable in the organisation is creating a culture of “compassionate directness”.

Arianna Huffington at the All Markets Summit on Thursday.

She says this is about empowering people to express concerns, dissatisfactions and good ideas when they have them — and to do it in a compassionate way.

It’s a great way to try and learn about and know where the ‘brilliant jerks’ might be lurking.

But it’s also an opportunity to ensure people feel they are getting heard.

“Because if they don’t do it, all these become resentments. You create a toxic culture where people are not direct with each other, where they talk behind each others’ backs, and where there is no real transparency and accountability.”

A ‘no jerks’ policy doesn’t have to stop at business.

I recall an excellent example to emerge from Norway’s highly successful 2018 Winter Olympics — where the country of 5.2 million took home 39 medals, setting a new record and coming in well ahead of Germany.

At the time, Tom Tvedt, president of Norway’s Olympic Committee, shed some light on their approach to being so successful with The Guardian.

They were a little old-fashioned, he said. They didn’t invest in sports that ordinary Norwegians can’t participate in (like bobsledding), they promoted a “sport for all” vision that emphasises participating over winning, and they were absolutely adamant that brilliance isn’t enough to get you participating at the elite live.

“We believe there is no good explanation for why you have to be a jerk to be a good athlete,” he said.

“We just won’t have that kind of thing on our team.”

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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