What to do with Toxic Superstars at work?

By Aditya Mishra | May 13, 2018

Your worst nightmare

Bill Gates said, “The key for us, number one, has always been hiring very smart people. If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become some mediocre company.”

“When you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work”, said Steve Jobs.


Who are the Toxic Superstars?

Organizations do their best to attract Superstars and retain them. They deliver top-class productivity, set benchmarks in the organization and inspire others. Their number is small but they deliver high impact. They become the blue-eyed boys or girls for a manager, earn highest bonus and set on a fast-track career path.

The problem arises when one such A-grader is toxic corroding the fabric of the organization. Such a person is normally focused on one’s own interests, own goals to meet, earning bonuses and accolades for self rather than for the team. These individuals walk the extra mile to learn and adapt to the situation, but are sharply focused on their own requirements. They de-prioritise goals of the team and purpose of the organization over indirect outcome of one’s actions. They firmly believe, “I am right and the others are wrong”.


How do their Managers deal with them?

Managers find it very difficult to reprimand them for this behaviour. They are willing to overlook the attitude issue in the name of rough edges. This is all because of the track record and the results that a superstar delivers.

Goals and budgets for the quarter and the year are important. Because these superstars contribute significantly to those numbers, the manager does not want to upset the performer with a reprimanding conversation. Moreover, many managers are not sure how the conversation would take shape and do not want to upset the applecart. They do not want to risk damaging their working relationship with the performer and losing the person from the team.


What should be done?

Tough task for the leadership team to call a spade a spade! This calls for open communication across the rank and file. The norm in the organization should be clear to all. The values of the organization have to be lived by the leaders and the employees should be able to see them. In this kind of a situation, it is highly unlikely that a toxic superstars will be bold enough to act in a self-centred way on a consistent basis harming the ethos of the team.

Secondly, some organizations encourage their troops to be super-competitive and are quite fine with the skirmishes that a top performer brings to the table. In those situations, the toxicity may not be about the attitude of one-upmanship, rather it could be about lack of integrity and honesty. The leadership needs to recognize these behaviours and take a stance on this. Most importantly, their stance needs to be visible in the organization.

Last but not the least, leadership ability of managers across the organization plays a very important role. Most often, the front-line managers and their supervisors hold the key to the way behaviours of superstars are observed and promoted. While the top leaders set the tone, the behaviours of the managers on the ground on a day-to-day basis determines how a superstar is dealt with. They need to be able to build high levels of trust and open communication with their sub-ordinates. They must be able to leverage their relationship with the superstar to discuss violations from code of conduct and toxicity in their behaviour. This is the most important aspect and most difficult to operationalise.

Rome was not built in a day. As an organization matures, they do better!