What do you do when one of your star performers, the best salesperson, or the brilliant technical expert is a jerk?
Even worse, more than a jerk, your star performer is a dirtbag who lies, abuses others verbally, or worse? Or cheats to land a bonus?
What do you do?
We’ve seen this too many times. Too often, we fear making a mistake because we feel so much past, current, and future success is directly due to the “star.” We tolerate it; we rationalize their behavior; we try to persuade the person to change. All to no avail.
Only One Solution
There’s only one solution. We must let them go.
For many leaders, their inclination is to avoid the situation because it’s awkward and difficult.
“In my work with leaders and their teams,
I’ve discovered that a universal talent is the ability to
avoid conversations about attitude, behavior, or poor performance.”
-Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
Removing these people won’t hurt our team, our organization, ourselves, or our future. Our experience, confirmed by the extensive research we did for Triple Crown Leadership, including interviews with leaders in 61 organizations in 11 countries, is that we must remove them from the organization.
We learned from experience, and the testimony of leaders we admire, that overall performance doesn’t decrease. It increases. Things get better. Results improve.
How is that possible?
If we don’t act, everyone in the organization knows we’ve been tolerating a toxic person. They begin to see the good things we’ve been doing in a cynical light. We appear weak, unwilling to face the snake. People talk behind our backs and don’t give their best. When we talk about shared purpose, values, and vision, they wonder sarcastically, “What about the jerk who’s getting away with everything?” It sets up a downward spiral.
The toxic standout is a cancer to the organization that must be excised. We identified some of these types in Triple Crown Leadership:
- Ball hogs, who don’t play well with others
- Bad apples, who violate the values and poison the barrel
- Bullies, who intimidate others
- Unguided missiles, who lob verbal attacks in meetings
- Naysayers, whose negativity infects others
- Malicious compliers, who spitefully acquiesce to a request while secretly knowing negative consequences will result
- Saboteurs, who undermine colleagues and projects
- Destructive achievers, who hurt others while making their numbers’
- Energy vampires, who suck the very life out of us
- Raging egos, who make everything about themselves all the time
- Toxic personalities, who manipulate others, gossip, and poison the culture
“Toxic people will pollute everything around them.
Don’t hesitate. Fumigate.”
Failure to take toxic casualties damages the culture. It undermines our own credibility and moral authority. We become complicit in the bad behavior.
Leaders can’t build an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization (what we call the “triple crown of leadership”) while tolerating such behavior. Of course, we may need to make a judgment call about when a second chance is appropriate. And we may need to work with HR and Legal to document the behavior.
Taking casualties with toxic people is a critical part of the “steel“—the hard edge—of a triple crown leader.
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
Postscript: Quotations on Casualties and Toxic Stars
- “Nothing will kill a great employee faster than watching you tolerate a bad one.” -Perry Belcher, co-founder, DigitalMarketing.com
- “Dealing with employee issues can be difficult, but not dealing with them can be worse.” -Paul Foster, CEO and founder, The Business Therapist
- “It’s amazing how quickly things can turn around when you remove toxic people from your life.” -Robert Tew
- “Don’t let negative and toxic people rent space in your head. Raise the rent and kick them out.” -Robert Tew
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, trainers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards, and called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great.” Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or sign up for their newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!