The Tough Task of Dealing with Toxic Achievers

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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.

Toxic Achievers:

  • 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.

The Answer

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.

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.

Relief

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).

Dr. Paul White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo richard regan

Good post about a difficult workplace subject.

Blame them, shame them and then erase them. How about rehabilitating them?

Don’t forget we enable toxic achievers by surrounding them with poor performers to begin with. If you are going to get rid of toxic achievers doesn’t it follow you must dismiss poor performers as well.

In my experience toxic achievers are toxic because their unique differences have not been recognized and embraced so they overcompensate by being too good at their job. In the transactional kind of federal workplaces we work in, it is easy to fall into this role since the culture and climate is all about doing the work which toxic achievers excel at as opposed to how we treat each other as we do the work.

We can get rid of toxic achievers but we also have to rid ourselves of toxic workplace cultures and climates that grow these kind of employees in the first place.

Profile Photo Paul White

Richard, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate straight-forward feedback.

Come context may be helpful. While working with organizations in helping them learn how to communicate authentic appreciation, the amount of negative comments and examples from participants (at breaks and after the training) was surprising to me. So we did some follow-up research with hundreds of individuals and organizations that led to our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace. What we found is that there is clearly a difference between someone who is difficult to work with, negative & grumpy, and maybe an incompetent leader — in contrast to a truly toxic person who is all about themselves and is intentionally damaging of others.

I wholeheartedly agree that our efforts need to be directed at creating more positive, healthy work environments (I just released a book, The Vibrant Workplace, on how to do so). While unhealthy workplaces clearly foster unhealthy interactions, it is my belief that truly toxic individuals had these characteristics prior to coming to the workplace. Obviously, you may disagree. I appreciate the opportunity to have a open honest dialogue about the issue.

Joe Pugh

I loved the article but found myself in total agreement with Richard.
These “toxic workers” are frequently surrounded by under-performers and look to management to hold people accountable. The problem is expectations aren’t the same for everyone even if they have similar roles. It is very difficult for managers with long tenured employees who have difficulty learning new skills to hold them accountable to perform at a high level with new technology . I believe that the “toxic worker” generally gives a great effort to ensure success of the project and not just for personal glory. They just don’t have the patience needed to overcome certain issues. The “toxic worker” definitely wants to be recognized for their effort but can be satisfied with recognition at project level.
While I am not an expert I offer the following for managers:
– Take steps to change the culture so everyone adopts a learning mentality no matter where they are in their career.
-Anticipate conflict and be available for one on one conversations. Everyone needs to be heard and need to feel supported.
-Move the high energy employees who are demanding of co-workers to new projects constantly. I find new challenges for the “toxic worker” are a good way to relieve pressure on group dynamics.
– Celebrate team successes early and often. This helps those on the team with “toxic workers” stay engaged.

Mona Singleton, PMP

The solution to dealing with a toxic person really hits the nail on the head. It’s best to “pull the tooth” when you have to.

I would add three related strategies:
1. Don’t hire a toxic person in the first place (no matter how skilled they are)
2. If you “inherited” a toxic person (from a predecessor) – fire them as soon as possible
3. If you can’t fire them, then protect the other personnel by putting the toxic person someplace to minimize the damage until you can permanently remove them.

These are just a few abbreviated strategies, there’s a lot more detail that goes with them.

Excellent and informative article!

Doris Patterson

I agree with not hiring toxic people in the first place because I promise you, they’ll mess up your agency, program & etc. At some point in time, most people live in TOXICITY. NOT ALL PEOPLE!