How to Tell If Someone Is a Brilliant Jerk in 5 Minutes or Less

Filter the brilliant jerks out of your organization before they destroy your company culture.

EXPERT OPINION BY MARCEL SCHWANTES, INC. CONTRIBUTING EDITOR AND FOUNDER, LEADERSHIP FROM THE CORE @MARCELSCHWANTES

How to Tell If Someone Is a Brilliant Jerk in 5 Minutes or Less

Selecting the right employees for an organization is a complex and challenging task that requires careful consideration, no matter how brilliant or qualified they appear to be.

Arianna Huffington, the founder and CEO of Thrive Global and the author of fifteen books, has one strict rule she abides by when hiring people. “I have this one rule, which I learned the hard way,” she said in a 2017 interview. “No brilliant jerks allowed.”

No brilliant jerks allowed

I often advise my executive clients that, no matter how smart or talented a prospective employee may appear, avoid them at all costs if there’s any hint of toxicity. Huffington agrees. “Don’t go there. And if you go there by mistake, fire them as fast as possible,” she said.

“The truth is, there’s nothing worse for a culture than quote-on-quote top performers who are really undermining their colleagues and creating an atmosphere where people can’t be their best and can’t create,” said Huffington.

Is it possible to identify toxic individuals early on, maybe during the first encounter? While there is no guaranteed way to know if a new acquaintance or coworker will affect a good team environment, many toxic people exhibit some early warning signs that you should be aware of.

1. Sharing private information

Brilliant jerks love to share secrets, confidential data, or privileged information because, in those moments, they control the conversation. While it may be tempting to participate and get tangled in their web of toxic gossip, we may not be aware of its damaging effects. When you hear the words “Want to hear a secret?” come out of a coworker’s mouth, that’s a clear warning sign you’re working with a brilliant and toxic jerk.

2. Constant negativity

Imagine you’re discussing a new project, and your colleague who likes to get his way immediately focuses on all the potential pitfalls without acknowledging any opportunities. If someone is consistently negative, complains without offering solutions, and sees problems in everything, it’s a red flag that this person is toxic. One way to deal with them is to maintain a professional demeanor. If necessary, politely excuse yourself from the conversation and contact HR or your manager.

3. Controlling others

Brilliant jerks may be the type to try to control situations and the people around them. It may be someone unwilling to delegate or cooperate or is overly territorial. For example, you propose a new approach to a task, and they resist, insisting on doing things their way, stifling creativity and collaboration. That’s someone who has a penchant for controlling others. Control freaks thrive on power struggles. It’s better to avoid engaging in their game and set clear boundaries instead.

It’s important to note that certain behaviors people exhibit don’t necessarily mean they are hopelessly toxic. People can change, and addressing the issue with them can lead to positive transformations. However, you need to be aware of the signs of “brilliant jerk” behavior, as it can help you to identify and filter out such individuals more quickly. This can prevent them from damaging the healthy dynamics of the workplace.

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