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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There’s one in every firm. They are wicked smart subject matter experts or functional specialists, but their brilliance comes with a measure of toxicity that is detrimental to the workplace culture and surrounding colleagues. The manager is faced with a daunting challenge—protect and defend this challenging character as a precious asset and source of competitive advantage or vainly attempt to extinguish the damaging toxicity?

I have 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 and 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?”

Use the following hard-won, real-world guidance to help you navigate your own brilliant-toxic employee situation.

Don't Be Blinded by Brilliance

Brilliant or not, you cannot dismiss the concerns and complaints from employees about toxic or disruptive behaviors from another employee. By rationalizing one employee's behavior you are creating a culture of accountability with two sets of rules, which undermines your role as a manager. One set of rules, please.

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. 

When your team members excuse aberrant behaviors with statements like, “That’s just Joe/Jane. We expect that from her,” know that you have a problem. And while people might expect unacceptable behaviors from the subject, it does not 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, not those behaviors that demand immediate escalation and formal investigation. In my own experiences, the brilliant-toxic employee steps on toes, treats critics rudely, violates team and individual trust, bypasses the chain of command, alienates team members, and irks everyone in their way. However, if the issues involves harassment or threats of violence, skip this post and go to the designated authorities in your firm.

Take Proactive Action

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. Use Marshall Goldsmith’s concept of feed-forward to help the individual perceive how to handle situations in a positive manner in the future.

Consider coaching. It is a controversial point in my live debates on this topic. Many perceive that coaching should be reserved for good citizens. However, in many instances, this brilliant but less-than-ideal citizen merits additional investment. Of course, coaching only works if the individual 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.

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.

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 include termination for non-compliance. It is an unfortunate option but a necessary one, 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.