How to Handle the Brilliant but Toxic Employee

Asian manager of businessman complaining to employee by pointing to him for mistake work, stressed feeling in cafe office
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We all know a “Joe.” Maybe it’s “Jane,” but we all know this individual. There’s one in every firm. They are wicked smart—subject matter experts or functional specialists with an extra helping of ability we all respect. However, when the brilliant employee is also toxic to the culture and colleagues, the manager is faced with a daunting challenge. Does she protect and defend this challenging character as a precious asset—a competitive advantage—or, does she focus on getting the toxicity out regardless of the skills the employee brings to the firm?

There are few management tasks more daunting than navigating the brilliant-toxic employee situation. I’ve personally lived through this on several occasions, and I have the battle scars to show for my experiences. I have also debated this case on dozens of occasions in MBA and executive settings as well as in the court of public opinion. The topic is always polarizing.

In every discussion of this situation, one camp immediately suggests terminating the brilliant-toxic employee. They make a strong case. One person cannot destroy the environment for the rest of the people. Give the individual ample warning, due process, even coaching, and at the end of the day, if they don’t change their ways, fire them.

The other camp offers a variety of creative ideas and half-measures, including isolating the employee to minimize the toxicity, promoting the individual to lead the team and offering team coaching for all parties in an attempt to get them to play nicely together.

The rationale of this camp is best summarized as, “It would be horrible to fire Steve Jobs,” and, “Do you really want to see this big brain in your competitor’s booth at an industry trade show?”

It makes for a fun and spirited debate, until you have to actually manage the situation on your team. Use this hard-won, real world guidance to help you navigate your own brilliant-toxic employee situation.

9 Tips to Help You Manage the Brilliant-Toxic Employee Dilemma:

Avoid being blinded by this employee’s brilliance. It is incredibly easy to be blinded to some less than desirable behaviors or characteristics by the gray matter and technical prowess of the expert on your team. You recognize the importance of their knowledge to your group’s success and you easily dismiss concerns and complaints over toxic or disruptive behaviors. As soon as you begin rationalizing or defending their behaviors because of their brilliance or alleged value to the firm or team, you are in trouble.

Accept that you cannot create a culture of accountability with two sets of rules. Establishing and reinforcing accountability for behavior and results in any team setting is essential for your success as a manager. When others perceive there are two sets of rules: one for most people and one for the brilliant-toxic character, you have effectively invited dysfunction to take up permanent residence on your team. One set of rules please.

Your instinct is to walk on eggshells around this individual. Your instinct is wrong. While it may be uncomfortable to open a difficult discussion on inappropriate or destructive behavior with your resident genius employee, you must provide clear, constructive behavioral feedback in a timely manner.

Anything less will be perceived as tacit approval of these behaviors by all parties. 

Learn to recognize the signs of a simmering problem. When your team members excuse aberrant behaviors with statements that sound like, “That’s just Joe/Jane. We expect that from her,” know that you have a problem. And while people might expect jerk-like behaviors from the subject, it doesn’t mean the behaviors should be allowed to persist.

Gauge the level of toxicity. My focus in this post is on the types of behaviors that annoy others, reduce collaboration and add stress to the culture, and not on those that fall into the categories that demand immediate escalation and formal investigation. In my own experiences the brilliant-toxic employee stepped on toes, treated critics rudely, violated team and individual trust, bypassed the chain of command, alienated team members and genuinely irked everyone in their way.

However, if the issues involve harassment, threats of violence or others, skip this post and directly escalate to the designated authorities in your firm.

Observation, feedback and coaching are your primary power tools. Move quickly to create opportunities to observe the individual in action. Offer timely positive and critical feedback and importantly, work with the individual to define specific, real-time behavior improvements. Provide positive feedback on improvements when they are earned. Leverage Coach Goldsmith’s concept of Feed-Forward to help the individual develop a view to how situations are handled in a positive manner in the future.

Consider professional coaching. This is a controversial point in my live debates on this topic. Many perceive that coaching should be reserved for good citizens. In many instances, this brilliant but less-than ideal citizen merits additional investment. Of course, coaching only works if the individual genuinely embraces the opportunity and commits to recognizing and changing behaviors. I have no qualms exploring this option assuming I am living up to the conditions in the other tips outlined here.

Do not ignore the politics of the situation. There will invariably be individuals in other roles of authority who both recognize your employee’s abilities and believe that you as the manager may very well be the problem. Your best ally is your boss. Keep her informed; ask her input on your handling of the situation and ensure that she has an opportunity to understand the impact of the employee’s toxicity on the entire team’s effectiveness and morale.

Face reality: if there’s no progress, put teeth into your program. If you’ve invested time, energy and capital in a robust program of feedback and coaching to no avail, you should work with your manager and H.R. specialist to develop and implement an escalation program. This program may very well include termination for non-compliance. This is an unfortunate place to end up, and too many managers stop short of this step.

The Bottom-Line for Now

There’s no easy way around dealing with the brilliant-toxic employee. Your credibility as a manager is at stake, as is the performance of your team. The best approach is to play fair, engage, follow a deliberate process, document your steps in accordance with your firm’s policies and resolve the dilemma. And remember, everyone is watching.