The Paradox of the Poisonous Performer

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Anyone who has ever played 6-a-side football will know there are certain personalities found in most groups. Typically, on the pitch you’ll find there’s…

  • The one who is quiet but brilliant
  • The one who won’t take their turn in goal
  • The one who “had trials at top clubs” or “was part of an Academy”
  • The one who turns up every week, isn’t that good, but is popular with their team mates
  • The one who won’t try to reach a pass if it’s more than 1 foot away from them
  • The one who wears gloves and/or tights even when it’s not that cold
  • The one who forgets you can’t score inside the area
  • The one who complains about the smell of the bibs or the state of the football
  • The one who won’t pass, or shoots every single time they get the ball
  • The one who forgets their money (“I’ll pay double next week”)

Unfortunately, in many 6-a-side teams you will also find another more toxic character…

  • The one who shouts at their team mates for the majority of the game, becoming increasingly agitated if the game isn’t going their way. The one who castigates their team mates if they make a mistake – or not! – but strangely doesn’t like to be challenged on their own performance. The one who rarely apologises or admits fault if they make a mistake.

The interesting thing is how this negative, destructive behaviour starts to affect their team mates. They start to panic when they have the ball, they lose confidence, they make bad decisions and they begin to shout at their colleagues in turn.

Despite most people playing for enjoyment, this person seems to somehow suck the fun out of the game – they are a ‘mood-hoover’.

Perhaps surprisingly, this person is usually one of the top players and more often than not, identifies as the self-proclaimed Captain.

However, despite being among the top players, it is little coincidence that each week the team containing this type of individual loses far more frequently than it wins. Indeed, when the teams are picked, and the coloured bibs are handed out, you can see those on the opposite team breathe a sigh of relief.

The Effects of a Toxic Team Member

This is a classic example of a ‘toxic’ team member. Not just destructive, but toxic, because their negative behaviour spreads to others in the team.

Unfortunately, toxic team mates regularly appear in the world of work. Indeed, most of us in our careers will have worked with a toxic colleague.

Someone who was happy to undermine others, to backstab, to shout, to gossip, to criticise, to spread rumours, to keep information to themselves and to put their own success above everyone else’s. And research shows that these destructive behaviours can dramatically affect the performance of those working alongside the toxic staff member.

In their article How Toxic Colleagues Corrode Performance the authors polled thousands of managers and employees on the receiving end of antisocial behaviour from a colleague and found that:

48% decreased their work effort,

47% decreased their time at work,

38% decreased their work quality,

66% said their performance declined,

80% lost work time worrying about the incident,

63% lost time avoiding the offender, and

78% said their commitment to the organization declined.

An even greater problem for firms is when these seemingly isolated behaviours don’t just affect individual employees with whom they interact on a daily basis but start to affect the performance of the wider firm.

This is particularly true in professional services, in which collaboration between teams is a key function of the success of the firm and in which personal relationships between colleagues are a vital component of performance.

In her article Isolate Toxic Employees to Reduce Their Negative Effects, author Christine Porath describes how we each have a much bigger effect on one another’s emotions than previously thought. Her key point is this:

“A seemingly small act of rudeness can ripple across communities, affecting people in our network with whom we may or may not interact directly.”

In a recent Harvard Business Review article 4 Ways to Deal with a Toxic Co-worker” author Abby Curnow-Chavez describes how toxic workers erode the “team brand”, undermine the values of the leaders of the company, create unnecessary drama and distraction and degrade the team culture.

The entire team starts to embody the negative behaviours and it becomes the de facto way of operating across the firm.

The Poisonous Performer Paradox: What if the toxic employee is a top performer?

The paradox for leaders is that the common traits of a toxic worker can mean they are a top performer in the company.

Why? Because as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in his article Why Bad Guys Win at Work, for some toxic employees there is a bright side to their dark side.

For example, Machiavellian traits such as superficial charm, charisma, self-confidence and interpersonal manipulation can be valuable when developing new client relationships.

Likewise, toxic employees with narcissistic tendencies such as ruthlessness and selfishness can be the most productive – driven to achieve their targets whatever the cost.

In our 6-a-side football example, is it pure coincidence that the toxic team member is usually one of the top players and more often than not, identifies as the Captain?

In his seminal article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons”, Michael Maccoby describes leaders such as Jack Welch and George Soros positively as “Productive Narcissists” who are “Not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric.”

This creates a difficult trade-off for the leaders of the company.

Is it better to have a productive but toxic worker, despite the effect on the wider team – or not? 

The evidence we have seen is clear: No.

“Their [toxic employees] success comes at a price, and that price is paid by the organisation” says Chamorro-Premuzic.

One notable working paper by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor, Toxic Workers,published by Harvard Business School found that the consequences of a toxic employee on a company’s performance are far greater than the effects of a star performer.

They found that avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing in a star performer.

In another study, “The Effects of De-energizing Ties in Organizations and How to Manage Them,” the authors found that the effect of one de-energising tie (toxic behaviour) is four to seven times greater than the effect of a positive tie.

In the previously cited article, Abby Curnow-Chavez points to her research, for which thousands of teams were surveyed, which found that:

“The single most important factor in team success or failure is the quality of relationships on the team. In fact, 70% of the variance between the lowest-performing teams, which we call saboteur teams, and the highest-performing teams, or what we have labelled loyalist teams, correlates to the quality of team relationships — not some or most of the relationships, but all of them.

Thus, one toxic team member is all it takes to destroy a high-performing team.”

Get rid of them?

It’s clear that the cost of a toxic worker on a business far outweighs any benefits. The most obvious step to take, if you can, is to get rid of the toxic worker even if that individual is a high performer or has many key client relationships.

As a leader, you cannot allow the destructive behaviour of one toxic individual to spread exponentially, like a virus, dragging the rest of your workforce down to his or her level.

If you do, it is likely there will become a general air of malaise and negativity around your workplace and your people will become demotivated. They will start to act negatively towards each other, staff members won’t look forward to coming to work, they will start searching for new job opportunities, the most sought-after, talented people will leave, and the overall performance of the firm will suffer.

In reality, however, it is rarely that easy to get rid of a toxic team member. It is often too costly, too onerous or too politically charged to happen.

How can you manage the paradox of the poisonous performer?

So if firing them isn’t an option, what can you do if you have a toxic member on your team?

Your approach will be different depending on your working relationship to that person, specifically, if you are the toxic worker’s boss or if the toxic person is your boss (or a direct peer).

Based on the research outlined in this article and on our own experience, these are some of the steps we would suggest:

If you are the toxic team member’s boss…

Don’t hire them: Rather obviously, the ideal scenario is to not hire a toxic employee in the first place! Unfortunately, most of us aren’t blessed with psychic powers and as Nicole Torres points out, in her article “It’s Better to Avoid a Toxic Employee than Hire a Superstar” many toxic employees are “Machiavellian in nature, purporting to embrace whatever rules, characteristics, or beliefs that they believe are most likely to obtain them a job.

Set the standard: For behaviour change to happen, you, as a leader need to embody and exemplify the required standard. If you adopt negative behaviours yourself, why should anyone change theirs? It is obvious the perception this sends to the rest of the firm: “Do what I say, not what I do.As David Maister once said:

“What behaviours by top management need to change, to convince people that the new behaviours are really required, not just encouraged?”

Set expectations for behaviour based on clear standards and Operational Values: As a leader you need to send out clear signals to all of your employees that they are working for a firm of cohesion, social responsibility and strong values, with high expectations for behaviour. To be blunt:

“If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

Crucially, your firm’s values need to be functional – not aspirational. Standards and values are not defined by neat mission or value statements (aspirations) but by what you are prepared to enforce.

There also need to be clear and agreed behaviours firm-wide. In top performing firms where values are established, shared and exemplified, there is rarely disagreement about what is and isn’t acceptable “around here” and non-compliant behaviours are often ‘self-policed’ quickly and transparently at every level.

Have an honest, candid, direct conversation: Research suggests that one of the more common traits of a toxic worker is a lack of self-awareness. They simply don’t realise how their behaviour is impacting the team around them.

As an example, in his article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons”, Michael Maccoby quotes an executive who worked for Larry Ellison (a “Productive Narcissist”) at Oracle as saying:

“The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

As a leader you need to make the toxic team member aware of their behaviour by giving them direct, honest feedback. As Amy Gallo says, you need to use concrete examples of their toxic behaviour – not simply tell them others’ opinions. Having the right frameworks and the associated behavioural skills to undertake coaching conversations is essential.

Align desired behaviour with clear performance metrics (also known as ‘The Carrot’): The behaviours you want to see adopted must be aligned with your firm’s individual performance metrics. It is very difficult to signal to a toxic employee that you want them to adopt new ways of working if they perceive conflicting messages around what is, and is not, expected of them.

This is particularly the case in professional services firms where activity-driven metrics – such as billable hours and utilisation – still prevail and toxic employees are likely to strive to achieve these targets whatever the cost.

Instead use behavioural metrics. Give the toxic employee clearly defined, measurable goals, based on the behaviours you want to see, not just based on ‘activity’.

The type of behaviours you might try to measure and reward could include: collaboration efforts, client, staff and peer feedback, people development, pro-bono commitment, public speaking or thought-leadership generation.

Zero-tolerance (also known as ‘The Stick’): There should be clear, non-negotiable standards for behaviour with consequences for non-compliance. Make it very clear what will and will not be tolerated in your firm – undesirable behaviours will no longer be acceptable.

Adopt a zero-tolerance approach for anyone who refuses to change the way they work after you have made them aware of their behaviour. You should decide what type of stick to use, such as not rewarding a discretionary bonus.

For behaviour change to occur, there need to be clear consequences for not changing behaviour. Adopting the principles of ‘Contiguous Reinforcement’ you need to pick up on the negative behaviours instantly, transparently and consistently.

For narcissistic toxic employees loss aversion bias, suggests that ‘The Stick’ is likely to have a greater impact on them than ‘The Carrot’, as they would much prefer to avoid a loss than to acquire equivalent rewards.

Isolate the toxic team member: If getting rid of a toxic team member isn’t possible, the alternative can be to put as much distance between the toxic worker and the rest of the team, to stop toxic behaviours spreading like a virus.

There are plenty of options available to you to ‘quarantine’ the employee. You can move furniture, encourage remote working, rearrange desks or reassign the employee to another client engagement.

Returning to my football example, I’ve found that when we put the toxic team member in goal, the team starts to play much better.

Document everything: Your HR Department would also make it plain that you need to write down and record every instance of toxic behaviour. Should you need to proceed to a formal disciplinary process, these records will be essential.

Be Courageous: Finally, it isn’t trite to say that you, as a leader, need to show courage and bravery to challenge toxic team members, particularly if the toxic employee is a fellow Director/Partner or Senior Manager – but consistency demands ‘one rule for all’.

If the toxic team member is your boss (or a direct peer) …

Should the toxic team member be your boss (or a direct peer) then you might feel that you have no options but to tolerate the negative behaviour.

In his Harvard Business Review article The Secret to Dealing with Difficult People, Tony Schwartz argues that toxic employees make us feel like a victim. The problem with this reaction is that “you cede the power to influence your circumstances”.

Schwartz argues that it’s easy to play the role of the victim because blaming others is a form of self-protection. It isn’t our fault and by offloading responsibility we feel better.

In fact, there are several avenues available to you that might put you back in control of the situation:

Empathise: Try to understand why the individual is acting in this negative way which will require a level of emotional intelligence on your part. Are they struggling at work? Do they have difficulties in their private life? Can you relate to what they’re going through? Are you able to support them? Be like a member of the Four Tops and “Reach out” – it might help to solve the problem.

Look after yourself: Toxic team members take up energy, time and cognitive space that could be used elsewhere to the benefit of your firm. Whether you are the boss, or not, don’t be distracted by the toxic employee.

Focus on your own priorities, focus on the supportive team around you and try to stay positive. Look after your own physical and emotional wellbeing. If you need help with the difficult individual, ask for it and if your Seniors will not do anything about your toxic colleague, then you have to consider leaving the company.

Be better: It is essential that you don’t let the toxic individual drag you down with them. Be self-aware to recognise when this might be happening and focus on being the best person you can be for your colleagues. Don’t get confrontational or retaliate but instead set the standard you would want to see. Don’t be afraid to stick to your own values.

As Seth Godin recently outlined in his article “The Jerk Fallacy“: 

“For every person who has a reputation as a bully, a deal breaker, an intimidator—someone who fights for every scrap—there are many people who succeeded by weaving together disparate communities, by keeping their word, by quietly creating value.”

Remember, while you can’t always you always choose your work – or your colleagues – you have the power to choose your attitude. To quote the celebrated African American author, poet and civil activist Maya Angelou:

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Re-frame your situation: Schwartz suggests, if you have to work with a toxic colleague, to re-frame your situation by looking through three particular lenses, because above all:

“You’re not going to change them. The only person you can change is yourself.”

1. The Lens of Realistic Optimism – move beyond your default reaction. Tell yourself a different story. Is there an alternative, more positive way to view the situation? “Stand outside your experience, rather than simply reacting to it.”

2. The Reverse Lens – Schwartz argues that “One of the most powerful ways to reclaim your value, when it feels threatened, is to find a way to appreciate the perspective of the person you feel devalued by.” In other words: Empathy.

3. The Long Lens – look beyond the current situation to imagine a better future. Put simply, what can I learn from this experience however hard, that will help me in the future?

It’s decision time…

Having a toxic team member in your 6-a-side team is unfortunate, but as you only have to see this person for one hour a week it is a minor irritation in the grand scheme of things.

Toxic employees in the workplace, however, can be a significant problem.

In a business context, particularly in the world of professional services, in which success relies on collaboration, interpersonal relationships and retaining a limited pool of talented, motivated individuals, you cannot tolerate toxic team members, however productive they might be.

Ultimately, if you can’t change the people, then you have to change the people.

Images from by Kuan Fang and Alexander Londono