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How To Deal With Toxic High Achievers

Here’s what to do when someone is great at their job but poisons everyone around them.

How To Deal With Toxic High Achievers
[Photo: Flickr user phlubdr]

How do you handle an employee who’s a top performer but toxic to everyone around them? It can be a tough combination, but it isn’t all that uncommon. In fact, it’s often partly because certain personalities excel at their jobs–and know it–that they become so difficult to work with. Needless to say, these “toxic achievers” pose a serious dilemma for business owners, managers, and colleagues. On the one hand, they get the job done–quickly and usually better than their peers. They look great on paper. But they cause problems in the way they interact with others. They’re arrogant, prone to starting conflicts, and tend to push for personal exceptions to company policies. So what do you do?

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Identifying A Toxic Achiever

For starters, it helps to pin down a few characteristics of the type in question. Toxic achievers:

Are brighter, faster, and more productive than anyone else in their part of 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 skills and productivity as a cause for special treatment. They freely share advice with colleagues (even when they aren’t asked to), and dismiss others’ feedback (often rudely and publicly).

Can be hotheaded, vindictive, and destructive with their words. They don’t hesitate to chew you out if they feel you deserve it, whether privately or in front of colleagues. They speak their minds bluntly, and their comments can be cutting and derogatory.

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Have no compunction about using others to help them accomplish their goals. They believe that since they’re so successful, it makes sense for others in the organization to serve them, imagining that their own additional success is always for the good of the organization.

Believe they’re above the rules, which exist mainly for everyone else. Standard procedures and paperwork–whether it’s resource requests or more personal things like expense reports or logging vacation time–just get in the way of them being able to achieve more, so they try to bypass those duties or pass them on to someone else.

Create frequent turnover in staff around them. Whether it’s their administrative assistants, their direct reports, supervisors, or colleagues who have to collaborate with them, toxic achievers plant revolving doors all around them. Nobody wants to work with or for them for long.

Butt heads with their supervisors and managers over a range of issues–including how best to deal with they themselves. Eventually, toxic achievers even cause strife among their superiors. Upper management typically wants to keep them because they produce such high-level work and don’t interact with the toxic achiever each day, while everyone else is at their wit’s end.

Poison Control

The question ultimately becomes: Can we be successful with this person as part of the company or realistically survive without them? Some managers view toxic achievers as irreplaceable because of their expertise, skill set, or output. Others see the collateral damage as outweighing those factors, pointing to the tension and turnover they instigate.

But more often than not, there’s only one solution. You have to get rid of the toxic achiever if you’re going to have a healthy organization. Until they’re gone, chaos and conflict will continue (they will see to that personally) and they’re unlikely to reform their ways. You need to cut your losses.

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A toxic achiever is like a large black walnut tree–it generates pounds and pounds of walnuts, but nothing else can grow nearby due to the toxicity of its leaves and root system. It produces, but nothing else lives.

As long as a toxic achiever is firmly planted in an organization, the surrounding environment can’t heal. Some personality types and certain kinds of office conflicts can be managed, but this one can’t. And while it might appear otherwise at first, it’s rare that the organization’s survival depends on a toxic achiever’s output. In some cases, they have some core knowledge or key relationships the company can’t exist without, but it’s wise not to let a toxic achiever acquire that level of power–and all the more reason they need to go sooner rather than later.

It’s important to note that expelling the toxic achiever from the system requires a paper trail. Document their negative impact on the organization, including incidents with colleagues, their repeated unwillingness to follow procedures, or their inability to collaborate with others. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit once they’re 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. You can set about putting your team back together–with the knowledge that they’re off poisoning someplace else instead.

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Paul White is a psychologist, speaker, and consultant. He is the coauthor of three books including Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, along with Gary Chapman and Harold Myra.

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