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Managing the “Toxic High Performer”

Managing the “Toxic High Performer”

Dan McCarthy | Great Leadership

July 13, 2010

In a recent post, I was surprised by the number of SmartBrief leaders (11.74%) that chose “The high performer who is rapidly rising” as their most challenging team member to lead.

My response was “really?!”

Yes, it can be somewhat challenging to keep a high performer challenged and motivated, but come on, that’s the fun part of leadership. When you have an employee that handles every challenge you throw at them, is thirsty for development, and consistently exceeds your expectations, that’s leadership nirvana. I once heard these employees described as “self licking lollypops”.

Give me a team of “A” players ANY day, and I’ll gladly accept those “challenges”.

Yes, true “hipos” tend not to stay in one place for a long time – they get “pulled” into larger and better roles – but so be it. I’d rather have 1-2 years of outstanding performance from one of these “A” players than a team of average performers or slackers and no turnover.

I also pointed out that true hipos tend NOT to be arrogant, have over-inflated egos, or irritate their team members. If they did, than I wouldn’t consider them to have high potential.

A few of my readers were not quite satisfied with that response. Here’s a comment from Tim that sums them up pretty well:

“I agree that this is not a description of a true “great performer,” there are people who individually do a great job of meeting their own objectives, but simultaneously hurt others. Maybe it’s a sales guy who has great numbers but is abusive to others on the team, or the brilliant engineer who won’t get behind any product development idea that isn’t his own. Perhaps we can title this character the “Toxic high performer.” I believe that this situation presents a significant leadership challenge – I’d also be interested in hearing your thoughts on this."

OK, so for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll use the term “toxic high performer”. I’ll expand on Tim’s examples:

- A rainmaker salesperson that won’t refer to his/her sales partners, won’t submit paperwork, won’t train or mentor, and causes problems for customer service

- The technically brilliant scientist or engineer, who owns stacks of patents, but can’t or won’t collaborate as a part of a team

- The plant or branch manager that consistently meets or exceeds his/her performance goals, but cuts ethical corners and employees can’t stand working for them

- The trainer with the advanced degree and 20 years experience, who can design cutting edge, state of the art programs, but causes friction on a team and is always complaining about the company, coworkers, and management.

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