It’s Better to Avoid a Toxic Employee than Hire a Superstar

They lie, they manipulate and they pick fights: Some colleagues are ruthless, especially when it comes to their own professional advancement.

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Avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer.  The trouble with Toxics is that they are difficult to detect. Often, Toxics are popular with colleagues, seen as friendly and interested. It’s only after a while that co-workers begin to notice that the Toxic is sucking the joy and engagement of an entire workplace.  Poor leadership creates the perfect breeding ground for Toxics.

Who is likely to be toxic?

Overconfidence and narcissism are toxic.  I know these traits…  because myself, Conor Neill, at age 35 was massively overconfident and pretty narcissistic.

Overconfidence:

What it takes to get the job is not just different from, but often the reverse of what it takes to do the job well.

The main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence.  Men are more apt to show confidence, women tend to hold themselves back from overconfidence.

Unstructured interviews are a terrible method to evaluate a person for a job – they reward self confident individuals and fail to analyse real competence.

Narcissism:  

High-flying leaders dream of their faces appearing on the front of Time, Business Week and the Economist.  Not their brand, not their team, not their investors…  their own face.  (That was my dream when I was 35 – fame for me).  This is narcism.

Freud told us that there is a dark side to narcissism. Narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. Perceived threats trigger rage. Achievements feed feelings of personal grandiosity. Freud thought narcissists were the hardest personality types to analyze.

Narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison was described thus by a subordinate: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

The 4 Apocalyptic Qualities of Poisoned People

Harvard Research showed that employees who showed the following characteristics were more likely to be toxic workers:

  1. Overconfident – as described
  2. Self centred – narcism
  3. Productive – individually highly productive in visible areas; note: this is individual rather than team focus on productivity
  4. Rule-following – a stickler for the formal rules

A self-centred, overconfident productive and rule following person will poison their team – taking all the credit, ruining the spirit, enjoying and promoting the failures of those around them.

How to be Un-Toxic?

What can you personally do to be less toxic?  What can you look for in others to ensure that they are competent and serve others?

Jim Collins identifies the 4 characteristics common to Level 5 leaders:

  • Humility
  • Will
  • Ferocious resolve
  • Responsibility: Give credit to others while taking blame upon themselves

How do you achieve humility combined with ferocious resolve?  How do you stay responsible even as you do start to achieve more and more?  I believe there is only one way to keep our feet on the ground:

Feedback from Trusted Peers

You must be surrounded by a group of people who can keep your feet on the ground, but believe deeply in your capacity to be a powerful, positive, valued leader.  There is no way to keep this journey going alone.  We need others to regularly see something in ourselves that we become blind to when left alone.  As the story goes, we are 2 wolves…  alone we feed the bad wolf, supported by peers, mentors, coaches and inspiring people…  we feed the good wolf.

Watch people – do they seek feedback from trusted peers?  If not, they are likely Toxic.

Robert Fritz says that we each have two limiting beliefs: powerlessness and unworthiness.  We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are.  We don’t have to pretend that we don’t do shameful things that all humans do.  The only cure?  Allowing trusted peers to really know us, and let us see what they see in us.

Benjamin Franklin brought together a peer group of 12 friends who would be fully open about their lives, challenges and opportunities.  A group who aspired to live bigger lives, and who worried about the dangers of self-delusion.

I have been part of a peer group forum for 8 years.  Each meeting we push each other to share the real person, not the one we have created to impress others.  I have found over these years that each time I share something that I am ashamed of, it loses its power over me.  Each time I share my real me, the others respond in a more positive way than when I share the carefully crafted impressive version of myself.

For 2016, Get Trustworthy Feedback

In 2016, be sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you, and in turn, make every effort to give them the same gift.

Do you have a trusted group of peers?  If yes, let me know how you found this group.  If no, I’d love to hear from you – I can share some tools to help you get started.  


 

More on Toxic Employees:

More On Peer Feedback Groups

3 comments

  1. akldfjelkjfelkj · · Reply

    My firm has a junior level supervisor like this. No one he’s directly supervised has lasted even two years here. He bullies, manipulates, and sexually harasses subordinates. He pins the blame for his mistakes on subordinates and will never take responsibility for anything. The employee he directly supervised who lasted the longest left abruptly with the firm’s biggest client. He’s cost the organization far more than he’s ever contributed. The company would be better off if he’d never set foot in the door.

  2. Hector Perez Arenas · · Reply

    Hi Conor, I’d love to know some tools to help me get started. Thank you!

  3. Dear Conor, A very candid approach you’ve taken here to untangle and bring clarity to what we refer to as a toxic work environment or employees gone toxic.

    A good example you bring here because many of us or most of us need to look back at our own lives and detect our own imperfections and try to understand them and change them. No one else can do that better than ourselves. And perhaps this is an exercise that we need to do more regularly and not only when we are 22 or 32 and then it’s a done thing! This is especially important if we want to find our true purpose – we need to pause and take the time get back in tune with our true energy; our true selves which is not always an easy discovery. It can also be quite painful. However, live and learn, it’s the best way to move forward if we want to create a better world for ourselves and for others. We need to go back and then move forward. It’s like a dance. Thanks for this! Julie

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