One of the most difficult decisions I had to make as the leader of the relationship management function at a Fortune 100 insurance and asset management company was to fire a very talented and highly functioning member of the organization. She was an excellent relationship manager, on top of every critical detail, sharp, experienced, knowledgeable about the business, and a real go-getter.

However, she was also toxic. While she was very productive, her action bias meant that she accomplished her work at the expense of others. While she delivered on her goals, she focused on the task, not the people she interacted with, which is an unsustainable long-term strategy. While she successfully managed important client relationships, she constantly found fault with the company’s processes and systems, and would dwell at length on the problems rather than offer ideas and solutions.

Eventually, her toxicity outweighed her strengths, and I decided to let her go. The minute she was gone, individuals across the organization breathed a collective sigh of relief. We quickly filled her role and were surprised to find out some important clients were pleased to see her replaced. At what cost had I relied on her strengths as a reason to keep her on board? In hindsight, I should have made the decision sooner. Her toxicity was felt far and wide, and it turned out that she hindered momentum and growth more than I realized.

The toxicity conundrum: why it’s so hard to address

What stopped me from making the decision to let her go? Apprehension that it would be hard to replace her. Consideration that the problems she was pointing out were valid and productive. Fear that clients would be upset about her departure. Concern about her as a person. And if I look deeper, discomfort about making such a difficult decision, and its reflection on me. I allowed these fears to keep me from making the tough call, even though the situation created damage across the organization.

I’m not alone in letting these thoughts stop me from taking timely action. We hear frequently from the HR executives and other senior leaders we work with that they struggle with what to do with highly functioning, yet toxic leaders. Do they keep them or let them go? How do they put forth a potentially controversial recommendation when the person is producing revenue and results? And how do they convince others that it is time to take action? These can be difficult questions to answer in today’s high-pressure environments, where bottom line results are paramount, and everyone is running hard towards that goal.

What’s lacking in these settings is what we refer to as Confidence in the Bates Executive Presence model (the Bates ExPItm), or the ability to make difficult decisions in a timely manner. In our model, confidence is about being self-assured in decision-making and action, and being ready to accept risk and responsibility for taking timely action. Confident leaders don’t avoid difficult conversations or tough issues; they look at the implications and act when they need to, exactly what is needed to take on the complicated challenge created by a toxic high performer.

Tackling the toxicity challenge

In working with leaders confronted with this kind of situation, where toxicity has been tolerated and possibly even celebrated, we suggest a process that helps shift the organization to understand the costs and risks of this situation, and take action.

First, it is important to clearly diagnose the impact that keeping a toxic person has on the organization. As the company condones this behavior (which is how tolerance is perceived), there is a very real risk of this bad egg spoiling the whole carton. Good people leave the company. In the increasingly visible world of Glassdoor, Facebook and the like, the corporate culture takes a hit. Employee engagement suffers, which reduces productivity and eventually revenue. And much of the negative impact remains deeply hidden until the person finally goes and the floodgates of complaint, concern and disenfranchisement fly open.

So, what should a leader who is faced with the talent versus toxicity conundrum do?

  1. Evaluate the cost of the talent. Look around and assess the cost of this toxicity. Is it impacting clients? Is it putting stress on the team? Are people quitting? Are deadlines slipping? Look for ways to understand whether the talent is really worth the toxicity.
  2. Give specific and actionable feedback. Be very clear with the toxic offender about the behavior that is negatively impacting the organization. Calling out the specifics and linking them to the costs is critical to paving a path to resolution. Agree on actions to remedy the behavior and establish dates by which a noticeable difference needs to be felt by others.
  3. Determine whether this person is coachable. It’s easy to coach skills, but it’s quite difficult to coach attitude. It’s important to honestly, and early on, assess whether this person will be able to truly change how he or she interacts with others. And if so, can the change be sustained over time? Often, by the time the decision is made to bring in a coach for a toxic person it is too late to make meaningful change. Intervention only works at the early stage.
  4. If you determine the person is not coachable, cut your losses. The sooner you set this person free, the better it is for the organization and the individual. Toxicity spreads and is demotivating to others, and imprisons the toxic offender in a no-win situation.

HR as the critical front line

In our experience, we see HR leaders as the critical front line in helping to prevent and minimize the destruction caused by toxic people. Here are places where we have seen our clients take action in tackling the toxicity challenge.

  • Take the lead on early intervention. As a skilled and experienced third party, HR leaders can often see the early warning signs and how the impacts are being felt before others in the organization. They can step in to slow the decline of a talented but potentially toxic individual into an irreversible situation, and provide checkpoints to allow others to catch up with the situation.
  • Help to make the case that it’s time to cut the cord. HR leaders have the unique lens to showcase and demonstrate the broader impact of the behavior of one toxic leader that others cannot see. Convincing leaders and others in the organization that someone “valuable” needs to go is not easy, especially if the behavior has long been tolerated, and creating an objective view of the costs can accelerate buy in and support.
  • Be the sounding board and the voice of reason. These types of decisions are tough and unpleasant, especially when the person in question is high performing in many ways. Sometimes it is easy for a leader to think they are overreacting to someone’s behavior and its impact, and it is critical to have a second chair on the decision to remove a toxic leader from the mix.

These decisions are never easy, but your organization, customers and bottom line will benefit from tackling toxic situations head on and taking timely action.

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