Is Your Potentially Toxic High-Performer Sabotaging Your Culture?
When it comes to results—no one can touch him. There’s just one problem. He’s a jerk. How do you manage a strong, arrogant, slightly obnoxious, potentially toxic high-performer?
A Profile of a Slighty Obnoxious High Performer
These potentially toxic high-performers come in all shapes and forms.
- “Dan” is charismatic and handsome, plus two espresso shots of attitude. He’s good. No question. But he doesn’t know it all and he’s shutting down ideas that matter.
- “Megan” has a great purse, an MBA from a top 25 school, and a sarcastic streak that makes everyone in her wake feel like crap. She’s fantastic to put in front of the board. But, she’s churning and burning through high-potential employees.
- “Joe” can out-gun anyone with a spreadsheet at twenty paces, but ignores you if you can’t outwit his wittiness. Everyone’s stopped trying. Smart co-workers are shutting down their important insights because they don’t have the energy for the “my data is better than yours” game.
- “Art” knows more about your business than you. He’s seen it all. But instead of helping others learn, he’s constantly talking about how he’s “just about done” with all the rookies. The rookies, of course, are bringing new ideas which he discourages them from sharing. And, he’s keeping his experience to himself.
Perhaps you didn’t even choose these potentially toxic high-performers. But, here they are. On your team. They drive results, with implications.
Your bosses’ boss might even love them—after all, they’re at the top of every stack rank report they see. So coaching feels tricky.
What should you do?
Door Number 1: Ignore the issues. Be grateful for the results. And pray this potentially toxic high-performer moves on before they do too much damage to the team.
Door Number 2: Be the courageous leader who has the tough conversation, and helps them understand their impact while helping them develop their full potential.
Sadly, I see so many “leaders” grit their teeth, complain to their spouse, and slip quietly through door number 1, praying that the next leader who manages this obnoxious high-performer will have more courage.
- “After all, this guy clearly has potential.” (Read that: “I’m worried I’ll work for him someday and don’t want to burn any bridges.”
- “I’m not sure I’m as smart as him. I’d better shut up and listen.” (Read that: “I’m insecure.”)
- “Sure, she’s obnoxious, but she gets damn good results, and goodness knows we need that right now.” (Read that: “Why not? Everyone else does.”)
- “She’s ticking off all her peers, but … maybe she’ll raise the bar.” (Read that: “Crap, maybe this confident humility stuff is all bunk, time to unsubscribe from LGL.”)
6 Tips for Managing a Slightly Obnoxious High-Performer
What To Do Behind Door #2
If you’re leading for long-term success, head directly to door number 2.
1. Show Concern
Start with acknowledging your potentially toxic high performer’s competence and impact. Something like, “You’re smart and your results are on fire. And, I’m deeply concerned that the way you’re showing up is going to derail your career. Would you be open to some exploration around this issue?”
2. Show Your Potentially Toxic High Performer the Data and Get Specific With Examples
If you’re the boss, your opinion will matter a bit, but not if they see you as a temporary stepping stone to tolerate. Offer a 360-degree assessment, or have him do it himself,
Or as author Julie Winkle Giulioni says, ask them to talk to others and bring you a “plateful of feedback.”
The more you can help them understand the specific behaviors that are ticking others off, the easier it will be to get their attention. It’s quite possible your high performer is so busy working on results, they’ve lost the peripheral vision necessary for positive relationships.
I’ll never forget the time my boss said to me. “Your peer had a great idea in the last meeting. But you just passed right over it to share yours. You’re not the only one with good ideas around here. How hard would it have been to take out a pen and write that down?” Yikes. Amen.
3. Offer Help
When you’re passionate and great at what you do, it’s tricky to see how annoying you are. Ask for permission to point it out the next time. Invent a secret signal if needed.
4. Set a Goal
Get your high-performer focused on a specific goal of supporting another on the team and advocating for their ideas. Build that into their formal development plan. Even if they are not interested in being a people manager, being difficult to work with is never a good long-term career strategy.
5. Help Them Navigate the Narrative
If their intentions are good, but they’re coming across a bit braggy, tell them about this Harvard research. Why Managers Should Reveal Their Failures (HBR Ascend), and help them with their internal re-branding strategy.
6. Consider Making the Tough Choice
It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking you have no choice but to accept the behavior of this potentially toxic high-performer. Be sure you’re looking at the bigger picture and the drain on the productivity and morale of the rest of your team. Are you losing other “A players” (or even solid B players) because they don’t want to work with this person? See also: Why Leaders Should Not Be Afraid to Fire Their Top Performer (Inc.)
What advice do you have for managing a potentially toxic, high-performer?
“Pat, I want to give you the opportunity to refine your people skills and demonstrate leadership. Sam needs a coach—someone who can assign learning tasks, provide feedback on process and results, and recommend additional training.”
“But Sam is a moron!”
“No, Sam is a novice. Masters teach novices. Are you a master?”
PERFECT! Love that approach.
Wow! Great comment by Dave Gordon. Exactly what I needed to hear today.
Awesome. I’m so glad it was helpful. Thanks, Dave!