Imagine someone who spends all of their time giving you long-winded stories about their problems, but if you try to change the subject or express your concerns, they pivot it back to themselves. If that sounds familiar, you’re probably wasting time having them as a friend.
I get that most people are selfish in their own way. However, if they can’t take time to even consider your problems, you’re little more than a problem-sponge.
This is a very clear sign of a jerk, and often, these perma-venters are doing very little to solve the root cause of their issues either. That’s the most frustrating part. They’re selfish and self-destructive. Why carry their burden too?
2. Their empathy is vacant
For two years, I ghostwrote for executives, including a Fortune 500 CEO. Anytime I interview leaders like him, I ask about their experience with terminating employees. It’s not a particularly fun topic, but it reveals a lot about their character.
With one CEO, I asked, “So I assume in your career you’ve had to fire a number of people. Perhaps some that you were close to. How have you come to terms with that?”
He said, “It’s never easy, and often, it’s quite hard. You do have to part ways with people.”
Notice how he said “part ways.” I’m always intrigued by how people frame their language around touchy issues.
He added, “I’ve always told my team it reflects a failure on everyone’s part when we terminate someone. Either we didn’t hire the right person, or we didn’t provide the proper support for them.”
He stressed shared responsibility. He didn’t talk about terminations like he was throwing away an empty can. He was a great leader—you could tell.
Now, on the other end of the spectrum are totally unempathetic employees. They won’t help teammates unless their manager urges them to. They’re in it for themselves at every turn.
I asked that same CEO another question that was first posed during my MBA program: What do you do with a high-performing jerk?
It’s easy to say you’d fire them. But a high performer is a high performer. Manage a few slackers, and you’ll come to appreciate your stars more.
In theory, you should keep the high-performing jerk since they positively impact the bottom line. But what if they’re just difficult to be around or cause damage to morale?
Does it honor your fiduciary duty to get rid of them?
The CEO told me, “Oh, that’s easy. Get rid of them. If you allow for jerks, it compromises the integrity of your team and hurts your bottom line even more.”
I love team players and people who look beyond the business to see us all as human beings rather than productivity robots. No, you can’t save everyone. Yet you can usually save quite a few with the proper coaching and empathy.
Watch out for self-serving nomads.
3. They gatekeep
I’ve been guilty of this.
Gatekeeping is when you define who does and doesn’t belong. I used to tweet about what real writers do and don’t do. I talked about how they had to do X, Y, and Z before they could be a real writer.
I was wrong.
In the end, all it takes to be a writer is to write.
Gatekeeping, ironically, is a form of insecurity. And when it isn’t insecurity, it’s a sign of a jerk hiding in plain sight.
This happens when people start lecturing about who is and isn’t a doctor. This is a touchy subject at my house. My girlfriend is a Ph.D. and her brother—who she swears she isn’t competitive with—is an MD.
Always default and call the person “doctor” out of respect.
I’ll give you another example:
That above comment perfectly illustrates gatekeeping. He’s probably also the same guy who complains about people on welfare.
We should celebrate anybody who has a job in this society and helps drive an economy.
Having a job isn’t easy, especially when it’s low status, thankless, and requires dealing with judgmental jerks.
Beware of any person who kicks the little guy.
4. History repeats itself
Their boyfriend was mean to them. Their friend burned them when they had an event planned together. Their teacher was completely unfair and marked their grade down.
They are the common denominator in a repeating series of life problems.
I’ve met more than a few of these people in my life, and it’s taught me a lesson: mind my tone when writing and talking to people. If I catch myself doing a lot of blaming and finger-pointing, I try to make a point and say that I haven’t been perfect in the process either.
A simple acknowledgment can signal to people that you aren’t entirely in love with yourself and have a healthy ego.
When I see people finger-pointing and discussing some long-standing problem with another person, I try to at least raise the issue gently.
“So, is there anything you would have done differently?”
When they say no, I try to press them a little more and say, “Not a single thing? You’ve been perfect in this process?”
Barring some extreme offense, everyone has made mistakes or could have done something better in a dispute. Even if it was a better strategy for resolution.
If they’re without flaws, it’s generally time to start thinking about the exit sign.
Recognize the signs of a jerk for your own sake
Remember, stay empathetic, suspend judgment, and resist the urge to gatekeep. If you spend a lot of time venting to people, take a moment and ask about the other person’s day, and hear them out. Reciprocity sits at the heart of any healthy relationship. When it doesn’t, it’s a sign that one person is probably a jerk.