Thought Leadership

Managing Performance and Attitude in Two Common Types of Toxic Employee

By Karen Cates, PhD

When talented or experienced labor is scarce, even the best companies may find themselves facing two separate-but-similar types of toxic employee. Both are common, and both have been around since long before I started consulting. One is a cornerstone of productivity, but creates more problems than they’re worth. The other is no longer productive, but will be difficult to replace.

The former may complain a lot about others wasting their time; they may skip meetings and be rude to co-workers. The latter may try to compensate for sub-par performance by building their social capital while their actual output continues to decline. Both need to be dealt with.

Morale falters when leaders fail to manage both performance and attitude. Super-performers who leave carnage in their wake generate frustration and anger in other high performers who wonder why these noxious co-workers get away with bad behavior. Meanwhile, better-behaved underperformers generate frustration and anger, too, because eventually, fellow workers see through the veneer of niceness when the numbers just don’t add up.

In both scenarios, grumbling and turnover increase. And neither are good for productivity or the bottom line.

In today’s workplace, where a low unemployment rate means that recruiting skilled, hard-working employees requires herculean effort, can you afford to spare the few at the expense of the many?

Intervention Is Key

Without motivation, employees who fail to deliver on either performance or attitude are unlikely to change. Toxic performers are sure that the way they work is best — just look at their numbers! Social-capital builders, on the other hand, know that they are compensating for failing to deliver on the goods. But why change when the paychecks keep coming?

You probably didn’t hire these folks knowing they were derailers. People migrate to these corners over time, often in very small increments. When undermanaged, bad behavior or poor performance goes unchecked or unnoticed and, eventually, flourishes. Your job is to discover whether you can get them back on track. Replacing people is costly and, for many, firing is not an option. Guidance requires putting a name on what is happening, crafting a plan, creating and enforcing consequences and giving the situation an appropriate level of attention.

Just Do It

  • Name the problem. Exercising your best feedback skills, meet privately with the employee. Use behavioral terms to describe the behavior you want to see changed. Keeping an even tone is important, but so is expressing your emotions about the situation. “Chris, we need to talk about your input at the sales meeting yesterday. You talked over Jose while he was presenting. I’ve noticed you tend to interrupt others in meetings. This is frustrating my attempts to improve the team’s collaboration, and it’s starting to frustrate me.”
  • Paint a picture of the ideal resolution and your enthusiasm for a mutual solution. “You’re our top sales person, and we need to hear your point of view. But we function better as a department when the entire team respects each other and works together.”
  • Involve them in creating a plan to get there. “Let’s talk about these meetings and how we can make them more meaningful for everyone, including you. What do you need from our team meetings? How can we change the dynamic?”
  • Identify benchmarks of success. This can be as simple as noting the number of interruptions Chris and others make at meetings, total team sales trends or even how those interruptions shift the general demeanor of the team at meetings.
  • Follow up a week, a month and three months later. Provide feedback on the plan’s progress. Is Chris interrupting less? What have you noticed about the workings of the team in general? Recognize progress, revisit areas that are still wanting and identify new goals and opportunities for Chris.
There is no blanket prescription here. Some employees will not respond well to a change in the status quo. After having a new opportunity to be a well-rounded employee and a list of what needs to change presented to them, those who choose not to alter their paths are making a conscious decision.

If you complete the steps above, you’ll find you no longer have a problem. Instead, you’ll have your own decision to make with a new awareness of who you are working with and their ability to deliver on expectations.
Karen Cates has been teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University since 1994. As a lecturer in executive programs over the past 15 years, she has developed programming and consulted with client companies (domestic and global) around issues of organization alignment, leadership development, communication, strategic planning, and employee relations. She is currently an Academic Director in Kellogg Executive Education's Energizing People for Performance program.

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