Sunday, July 11, 2010

Managing the “Toxic High Performer”

In a recent post, I was surprised by the number of SmartBrief leaders (11.74%) that chose “The high performer who is rapidly rising” as their most challenging team member to lead.

My response was “really?!”

Yes, it can be somewhat challenging to keep a high performer challenged and motivated, but come on, that’s the fun part of leadership. When you have an employee that handles every challenge you throw at them, is thirsty for development, and consistently exceeds your expectations, that’s leadership nirvana. I once heard these employees described as “self licking lollypops”.

Give me a team of “A” players ANY day, and I’ll gladly accept those “challenges”.

Yes, true “hipos” tend not to stay in one place for a long time – they get “pulled” into larger and better roles – but so be it. I’d rather have 1-2 years of outstanding performance from one of these “A” players than a team of average performers or slackers and no turnover.

I also pointed out that true hipos tend NOT to be arrogant, have over-inflated egos, or irritate their team members. If they did, than I wouldn’t consider them to have high potential.

A few of my readers were not quite satisfied with that response. Here’s a comment from Tim that sums them up pretty well:

“I agree that this is not a description of a true "great performer," there are people who individually do a great job of meeting their own objectives, but simultaneously hurt others. Maybe it's a sales guy who has great numbers but is abusive to others on the team, or the brilliant engineer who won't get behind any product development idea that isn't his own. Perhaps we can title this character the "Toxic high performer." I believe that this situation presents a significant leadership challenge - I'd also be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.”

OK, so for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll use the term “toxic high performer”. I’ll expand on Tim’s examples:

 A rainmaker salesperson that won’t refer to his/her sales partners, won’t submit paperwork, won’t train or mentor, and causes problems for customer service

 The technically brilliant scientist or engineer, who owns stacks of patents, but can’t or won’t collaborate as a part of a team

 The plant or branch manager that consistently meets or exceeds his/her performance goals, but cuts ethical corners and employees can’t stand working for them

 The trainer with the advanced degree and 20 years experience, who can design cutting edge, state of the art programs, but causes friction on a team and is always complaining about the company, coworkers, and management.

Do these people sound familiar? They sure do to me. Folks, I really do get it – it’s just that I refuse to accept the premise that these employees are “top performers”, at least not by my definition, and I blame a lack of leadership for allowing them to get that way.

I think we first need to define what’s meant by “performance”. It’s not just hitting or exceeding your performance goals. It’s also the behaviors or values used to reach those goals. For a manager, it would things like integrity, respect for others, collaboration, teamwork, and developing others. For the salesperson it would be partnering, teamwork, referrals, administrative excellence, and after-sale customer satisfaction.

When Jack Welch ran GE, he held his managers accountable for results AND values, and was willing to discipline or fire a manager that was making their numbers but doing it in a way that didn’t adhere to GE values.

A lot of companies develop and publish lists of values, competency models, and behavioral expectations, but few will hold “high performers” accountable to them.

I’ve seen performance management systems that put a weight on both – sometimes it’s 80/20, 60/40, or even 50/50. Yes, it’s harder to measure and assess behaviors – but even attempting to get it right at least sets the expectation that both are important.

There are other ways to cut your high performers some slack other than lowering behavioral expectations, and I think smart leaders know how to do this. They give them more flexibility in their schedules, more latitude in how they get the job done, more say in policy and strategy development, and the freedom to stay from rigid processes and rules that were probably designed to prevent poor performance (which shouldn't be an issue with your high performer, so they've earned a free pass).

However – when a leader turns their back on a high performer’s “toxic” behaviors – then they are getting exactly what they expect and deserve. Everyone else will soon catch on that the values plaque on the wall is worthless, and all that really matters is results.

When that happens, then yes leaders, you will have a BIG challenge to deal with.

One more thing - what if you've inherited someone else's prima donna? It needs to be handled the same way as any other performance program that was ignored by a previous manager. You'll need to establish new expectations and hold the employee accountable.


Chris Young said...

Intriguing post Dan - this topic never gets old for me!

You make a great point that the true high performers are ones that provide exceptional results without damaging those around them, and that "toxic high performers" are the result of leadership not creating and enforcing the right values within the organization.

I've included your post in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks (found here: to let my readers in on this always rousing conversation.

Be well!

Ellie said...

Sounds to me as though you are describing Bob Sutton's classic "talented asshole".

Bob is of the opinion that such people do so much harm to the group dynamic and team productivity that they are not worth keeping around, however talented. I would tend to agree with him, if you give them feedback and ask them to tone it down and they don't, then you are better off without them.

Dan McCarthy said...

Chris -
That's awesome! Thanks.

Ellie -
I've heard of Bob's book, but not read it. Thanks.

michael cardus said...

Thanks Dan.
This topic also makes me a little crazy. I remember and incident where I was coaching an executive who had a person that was "hitting all the numbers and getting his work done. Just he is a real a-hole and no one likes him."
The exec. was torn because the rest of the team couldn't stand this guy and it was causing the team to see the exec as apathetic and in-effective. Plus the ripple of morale and turnover were costing the team some serious dollars.
As you wrote he established behavioral accountability. Once the 'Toxic high performer' felt this pressure he left on his own choice. Following that the numbers increased beyond earlier levels and turnover decreased. Plus the exec. felt much less stress.
Managers must set the behavior and outcomes of people.

Tim said...

Dan - thanks for expanding on the topic!

I couldn't agree more - the "toxic high performer" isn't really a high performer at all - it's just someone whose problems are more related to the "how" than the "what" (which is what we usually assess as performance).

You said it - a true high performer gets results (the "what") in a way that is sustainable and positive (the "how").

Derek Irvine, Globoforce said...

Brilliant post, Dan, and couldn't agree more.

I wrote just last week along a similar vein:

I argue a need for balance between results and behaviors. When the pendulum swings too far towards results, we get ENRON. Too much focus on behaviors can cause us to lose sight of desired results, however. When the two are in balance, the company’s goals are achieved within the proper constraints. (rest of the post available here:

If your top performers get the results, but don't demonstrate the right behaviors, then they're not your top performers. Full stop.

Dan McCarthy said...

Michael -
What a great story that really drives the point home. Thanks!

Tim -
and thank-you for the idea and post title.

Derek -
I read your post - well said. Thanks.

Madhan said...

Very interesting take. I recently listened to an Interview with Pixar's CEO who reflects his view "On firing creative geniuses"

Source :

Nev said...

Hello Dan

Thank you for a great article and thank you for taking the time to share your insight and passion around leadership development as a whole.

I head up a leadership development programme for a large company in South Africa and would like to get in contact with you. Could you please let me know how best to do this.

Kind regards


Dan McCarthy said...

Madhan -
Thanks, I'll take a look at it.

Neville -
My email is dmccart3 at rochester dot rr dot com.

Lauren Canning said...

So many great points here. I agree the "toxic high performer" is really not as high a performer as one usually thinks...a leader needs to assess how that employee is affecting the performance of the rest of the team - determine the impact that "allowing the toxicity" is having on the performance of others. Quantifying this in productivity is eye opening. Setting standards in an organization and holding EVERYONE equally to those standards is vital to creating an environment where all can be successful.

Dan McCarthy said...

Lauren -
Thanks, very well said!

Mary Jo Asmus said...

Hi Dan,

I'm not surprised that nobody expressed my own unpopular opinion on this topic. That is that it may be possible - that the Toxic High Performer can change their behavior with some coaching. Now, I'm not one of those who thinks coaching can work miracles, but under the right circumstances and if the individual is willing to work hard at it, people can change. And it sure is expensive to hire replacements for these people. Okay, I'm ready to take my licks on this one; I have before.

Heath Davis Havlick said...

Loved the distinction between the "how" and the "what" of performance! And I can't help thinking of EQ here. You can be a brilliant [fill in blank] and an emotional numbskull at the same time, and some of those low-EQ folks are the "talented terrors" you're talking about.

Take heart, Mary Jo; I agree with you! IF toxic hipo's want to change, they can. EQ is innately higher in some, but research proves it can be learned.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
No licks from me on this one. sure, please can change. The first step is awareness and desire to change, which can come from feedback or an assessment like the Hogan. Cocahing is one of the best way to learn to change behaviors, but sometimes you just need to know what to stop doing or start doing. You can learn this from a simple list of tips.

Dan McCarthy said...

Heath -
I'm no EQ expert, but from what I've heard, I agree, it seems sometimes talented people seem to lack it.

Donnie Berkholz said...

Just got bounced here from your post on management vs nagging. I've been focusing on this area for about 5 years now, and it's a keen interest of mine. Regarding your point on the "weight" of both results and values, I always argue that they don't counterbalance each other at all. Instead, they are completely orthogonal qualities, and you need to have both; a plethora of one cannot compensate for a lack of another.

Dan McCarthy said...

Donnie -
Thanks. Agree, BOTH are needed.