The president of a company engaged me to help him understand what appeared to be an ongoing conflict between two of his key employees. A year earlier, the president had hired his “dream team”—a group of individuals whom he believed could change the face of the company in the marketplace. Each of these hires had been very successful previously and, on paper, had all the credentials needed to make the company a standout and move it ahead of the competition. But that didn’t happen. What happened instead was that two members of the “dream team” became embroiled in bitter disputes that involved manipulation, back-biting, self-righteousness, over-confidence, intimidation, unrealistic certainty of their position, and more. Neither of the employees in question had behaviors that rose to the level of termination, and both had levels of productivity and quality of work that were exemplary. Their contentious relationship was only a distraction at first, but it began to involve others in choosing sides and creating divisiveness on the team. The president recognized that something had to be done.
The conflict the president was witnessing is associated with behaviors of “toxic” employees. Toxic employees are ultimately quite harmful to an organization because their undermining, unethical, or questionable behaviors can spread to other employees. However, the complexity in dealing with toxic employees is that they are often high performers. In fact, according to recent research, compared with the average employee, the toxic employee is often more productive as well as more likely to better follow processes, rules, and procedures, often with rigid adherence. Although these employees’ behaviors may be incredibly disruptive, their ability to be productive—and appear (to management) to be acting in the best interest of the company—keeps them employed. It is only when enough damage has been done and the complaints from other employees reach a fevered pitch that management is forced to take action.
Characteristics of Toxicity
According to the research, the toxic employee is characterized by three major traits:
- Over-confidence: Toxic employees appear to have supreme confidence and the sense that there is nothing they can’t accomplish. Over time, not having a sense of limits or boundaries can cause them to engage in behaviors that may verge on misconduct.
- Self-regarding: Toxic employees consistently put their interests or functions above those of their colleagues. They demonstrate arrogant behaviors that suggest their approach is the only right one, and that they will prevail at all costs. They will not demonstrate any collaborative or supportive behaviors with their colleagues. In this sense, they exhibit a low level of emotional sensitivity, similar to both narcissists and psychopaths.
- Rule-follower: Toxic employees will regularly insist that their adherence to the rules of the organization is the foundation for their differences with others. They may claim that rules should not be broken and will steadfastly follow them whenever it suits their purposes. Interestingly, these same ostensible rule-followers are more likely to be terminated for actually breaking the rules.
Because toxic employees are usually productive, many of their behaviors are likely to be overlooked or accepted as the price of having a “diva” on the team. This rationale can also be used to discount the early warning signs reported by their disgruntled coworkers. The clever toxic employee can even make others feel responsible for conflicts that the toxic worker has initiated. They are the kind of people who blame others for having a white carpet if they spill red wine on it!
As if having toxic employees were not bad enough, the situation is often exacerbated by their ability to “recruit” others to follow in their footsteps. Their intimidation, persuasiveness, and convincing sense of being right have the effect of causing others to fall in line. This becomes a vicious cycle, whereby toxic individuals and their followers reinforce detrimental behaviors and compete increasingly with others in the organization! Another downside is that those having close, regular contact with toxic employees have a higher chance of being compromised and terminated themselves, compared with those who work with non-toxic employees.
What is the best solution for managing and dealing with a toxic employee? If you identify a toxic employee in your workplace, your best strategy is to take the high road. The odds of turning a toxic employee into a good employee are low, at best. In fact, a company is better off replacing a toxic employee with an average employee than spending time and energy trying to transform the toxic one. Of course, prevention is the best solution. Note the predictors and traits of toxicity discussed above and do not hire candidates who display these traits. If your team needs a cleanse, as with the president and his two problem employees discussed earlier, a manager should bring the team together to remind them of their shared goals. By re-establishing the vision for the team, managers can bolster the productivity and morale of employees, while also maintaining the effectiveness and credibility of management, thereby decisively counteracting any harmful behaviors.