Man playing air guitar at desk

When toxic rockstars can’t be fixed they must step off stage

How to end a cycle of bad behaviour in the workplace

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
2 minute read
Man playing air guitar at desk

In most workplaces there is one personality that stands out more than any other. The “toxic, high-performing jerk”, otherwise known as the arrogant achiever, brilliant bully or productive poisoner, can achieve impressive results at the same time as damaging morale or causing disruption in the workplace.

Disturbingly, managers tend to tolerate their behaviour despite it being inappropriate, offensive, rude, disrespectful or a direct infringement of important office rules.

Let’s face it. We have all worked with a colleague who is high on performance but low on teamwork.

High-performing jerks come in a variety of shapes and sizes but all stand out like black sheep in a herd of white ones.

One such varietal is the high performer who is a little too cocksure. Their success is attributed to recklessly agreeing to unrealistic deadlines to get a job done and then unreasonably piling the pressure on others to complete the work.

Another type can manipulate colleagues and sometimes their boss into getting what they want.

They might blame others for their mistakes, try to make their colleagues feel guilty for not helping them, intimidate co-workers if help is not forthcoming or withhold information to gain power over team members.

Even worse is the toxic high performer who harasses or bullies others because they believe their results speak for themselves – and therefore are untouchable.

The problem with their toxic behaviour is that it is contagious.

Allowing unpleasantness, rule-breaking and harassment to persist can lead to those bad behaviours becoming the workplace norm.

This can impact team morale, employee retention and productivity.

The most obvious response to a high-performing jerk’s behaviour is to part ways with them. After all, anything less than an uncompromising stand towards so-called “talented” jerks is just pandering to people who behave badly.

But things are never quite that simple.

Is this behaviour redeemable?

It goes without saying that a zero-tolerance approach should be applied to those toxic jerks who are high performers but engaged in illegal activities, serious harassment or discrimination.

At the same time, there are other high-performing jerks who can be rehabilitated.

A case in point is the “oblivious” toxic jerk. Such individuals might be unaware of the havoc they wreak on their workplace.

And then there are degrees of jerkiness, too. Some are full-on jerks and highly annoying all of the time while others are jerks just some of the time and perhaps tolerable at other times.

Of course, there is always a danger of labelling someone a jerk in the first place.

Such names end up sticking fast when used in the workplace even when inappropriate behaviours have been situational or are not a true reflection of the employee’s actual attitude.

Some organisations end up tolerating toxic high performers for far too long.

A better approach might be for bosses to call out toxic behaviours as soon as they present and then keep a close watch on changes in behaviour thereafter.

In every case, a no-jerking-around approach works best.