What do you do with an employee who is a top performer in their field but is toxic to everyone around them?
When doing research on toxic work environments, regarding what makes a workplace “toxic” and how to survive working in one, my colleagues and I came upon an interesting phenomenon—individuals who are highly skilled in their professional expertise, and who often are the highest achievers within their organization but who, at the same time “kill” everyone around them (not literally, of course, but they kill the spirit of those who work with them). They produce more than anyone else but are poisonous to their work environment and damaging to those who work with them. We have come to identify these individuals as toxic achievers.
Toxic achievers pose a serious dilemma for business owners, managers, and supervisors. On the one hand, they get the job done—quickly, and more successfully than their peers. So, their work production or sales numbers look great. But, on the other hand, they create major headaches due to the way they relate to others, their negative conflictual attitude, and their propensity to frequently want “exceptions” to company policies and procedures.
Identifying a Toxic Achiever
How do you know if one of your team members is a toxic achiever, or just a pretty good producer who can be irritating to work with? Let me describe some common characteristics.
- Are brighter, faster, and more productive than anyone else in their area within the organization. From a production point-of-view, they are “top dog” (They know it. You know it. The management knows it. And they use this position to their advantage.)
- Relate to others in a condescending, brusque manner, flaunting their productivity as a reason to be treated as special. Toxic achievers are good at what they do and they are not shy about reminding others of their performance history. They freely share their advice with colleagues (even when it is not asked for), and they refer to input from others as “stupid” (and tell them so publicly).
- Can be angry, vindictive, and destructive with their words. These individuals can chew you up and spit you out in one motion, either in private (if you’re lucky) or in front of your peers and supervisor. They speak their mind bluntly, and their comments are amazingly cutting and derogatory.
- Have no compunction about using others to help them accomplish their goals. In their mind, since they are so successful, it makes sense for others in the organization to serve them so that they can become even more successful (“for the good of the organization”, of course)!
- Believe they are above the rules. Rules, policies, and procedures are for “normal” workers, not high achievers like them. Standard procedures and paperwork just get in the way of them being able to achieve more, so they should be able to “go around” procedures or have someone else go through them for them. (This includes paperwork, expense reports, how vacation time is calculated, or going through the correct channels to request resources.)
- Create frequent turnover in staff around them. Whether it is their administrative assistant, clerical support for the team, their colleagues, their supervisor, or others in departments that have to collaborate with them—a revolving door of staff develops around the toxic achiever. Nobody wants to work with or for them for long.
- Produce conflict among their supervisor and managers—about how best to deal with them. Eventually, heated discussions occur between the toxic achiever’s supervisor and other department heads or high level managers. Often the high level managers want to keep them because their production numbers are so high (and they don’t have to work with them on a day-to-day basis).
What to do?
The question ultimately becomes: Can we be successful with this person as part of our organization and/or can we realistically survive without them? Some managers see them as irreplaceable because of their expertise, skill set, and output. Others see the collateral damage the toxic achiever creates through increasing internal tension and conflict within the company, “pushing the limits” regarding not following rules and policies, and the cost of continually having to hire new staff around them.
To “cut to the chase”, let me share what needs to be done and then explain why.
Ultimately, you must get rid of the toxic achiever if you’re going to have a healthy organization. Until they are gone, chaos and conflict will continue (they will create it) and they aren’t going to change without a dramatic life changing experience (so don’t hold your breath for that).
Toxic achievers are like a large black walnut tree — it produces pounds and pounds of walnuts but nothing else can grow near the tree due to the toxicity of its leaves and root system. They produce but nothing else lives.
One of the main reasons toxic achievers have to go is because the work environment will not heal and become healthy until they are gone (kind of like having to get a splinter out of your finger). No other course of action works. They are who they are and they bring the associated positive and negative results with them.
Rarely is the survival or the organization dependent on them (unless they have core knowledge or key relationships necessary for the existence of the company) — it’s wise not to let them get to that point of power.
It is important to note that expelling the toxic achiever from the system requires documenting their negative impact on non-“productive” areas, such as their unwillingness to follow rules and procedures, or their inability to work collaboratively with others. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a lawsuit once they are dismissed.
Once the toxic achiever is gone, you and those who worked with them will begin to realize how poisoned you felt and how much better life at work is with them gone (while allowing them to poison some other place).