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How To Deal With ‘Toxic A-Players’ Before They Wreck Your Business

Picture the scene.  It’s Christmas in an M&S warehouse. A bunch of graduates have just been hired to help with the seasonal rush.  The Warehouse Manager calls all these enthusiastic young people together.  And this is what he says.  ‘Right you lot. If you work too hard, you’re going to get sacked.  I don’t want any of you showing up the rest of my staff who work here all year round.’  I kid you not. 

One of these keen new graduates was me and the Manager’s words have stuck in my mind ever since.   This guy worked for a branch that was turning over the best part of £100 million a year.  He’d risen up through the organisation in spite of his negativity and bad attitude.  And he was a classic example of a bad cultural fit.  He was a ‘Toxic A-Player’. 

What is a ‘Toxic A-Player’?

Using the terminology of Brad Smart from Topgrading, an A-Player is the top 10% of available talent for a given job, salary and location.  You can work out your A-Players by creating job scorecards for all your employees as part of a talent assessment.  Most of the time, you would enthusiastically re-hire these top performers but, just occasionally, you might have someone who’s great at their job but not in tune with your values.   These are the people who can be toxic.

Toxic As often have high levels of social currency but are negative, creating an orbit of despair around them.  Perhaps they’re a senior network engineer with zero emotional intelligence but, because they have specific knowledge, they’re tolerated and lauded for their achievements.  Or they hit their targets in sales but are horrible to everyone.  Whoever they are, they can be very destructive.

The dangers of looking the other way

Too often, senior leaders will shy away from confronting these bad apples. Maybe because there’s a misconception that they’re irreplaceable.  Because there’s no cultural framework in the business, their poor behaviour is tolerated.  Remember,  your culture will always be dictated by the worst behaviour you’re prepared to tolerate. 

If these bad behaviours are allowed to continue, they say to other staff that it’s ok to behave this way.  Myths can build around these Toxic A-Players.  Do they have incriminating evidence on the CEO?  Why are they allowed to get away with it?

Impact of negativity on team performance

say no

I’ve written before about the negativity bias. Unfortunately, the human brain is hard-wired to react more strongly when people say or do negative things.  In fact, negative behaviour is 4 or 5 times more powerful than positive. Bear this in mind when you’re working out what to do with your Toxic A-Player.

Will Felps, a University of Washington researcher, conducted a sociological experiment to investigate the effects of negativity on team behaviour.  He took groups of four college students and arranged them into teams.  Each had to compete against the other to solve management problems and were incentivised with a cash prize.  Unbeknown to them, Felps planted an actor in some of the teams to play the three personality types that tend to cause major issues: 

  1. The Depressive Pessimist – always complaining that the task that they’re doing isn’t enjoyable, and making statements doubting the group’s ability to succeed.
  2. The Jerk – saying that other people’s ideas are rubbish, but offering no alternatives.
  3. The Slacker – who says “whatever”, and “I really don’t care.”

Felps had assumed that the team would have the ability to overcome the bad apple.  In fact, he found the opposite.  All the teams with a bad apple performed 30% to 40% worse than those without.  Their ability to get on with each other, share work and collaborate dropped like a stone.  Worse, the groups with the negative team member started to take on their behaviour. The actor was the biggest predictor of team performance. There’s truth in that time-honoured cliché – a bad apple really can spoil the whole barrel.

Confronting bad behaviour

Now is the perfect time to confront and deal with toxic staff in your organisation.  We’re hurtling towards 2022 at breakneck speed so take action now.  Assess all your employees against the following criteria:

Ask yourself, would you enthusiastically re-hire each of these people?  If not, plan now how you’re going to deal with your C-Players and your toxic A-Players.  Don’t carry them into next year. Netflix calls this the ‘keeper test’.  If they resigned, would you fight to keep them?  

It’s vital to confront negative behaviours, discuss them and ask them to stop.  Sit them in a room and make it crystal clear that you’re not going to put up with their negativity or poor attitude anymore.  As mentioned earlier, get really specific. Check that it isn’t your remuneration system that’s driving the toxic behaviour. If it is, fix it.  Then give your Toxic A-Player an option to change. If they can’t, even if you perceive they’re going to be difficult to replace, they’ve got to go. It will be impossible for you to drive the cultural change you need if there’s a boat anchor dragging on the bottom.

This sends a clear message to other staff and ensures the ‘fence-sitters’ get off the fence. Every time I’ve got rid of a Toxic A, the whole organisation heaves a sigh of relief, if not doing a little victory dance.  It’s obvious to everyone. Suddenly the tension drops out of the business and you start to move forward again. People say, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t get rid of that jerk quicker’. 

Spotting great managers

There was one glimmer of hope in Felps’ social experiment that I mentioned earlier. One of the teams with a bad apple worked surprisingly well because of good leadership.  We know from Gallup’s research that 85% of staff engagement is driven by an employee’s interactions with their manager.  So get clear on who these great managers are that can help you fix the negative pixies.

Our recommendation here is always Friday Pulse.  It’s the best way to get a grip on team happiness week by week.  In fact, you can stack rank your managers using this tool which will quickly reveal the identity of your best managers. 

This combined with a regular talent assessment (every 90 days minimum) will tell you everything you need to know about the nature of your staff dynamics.  It will also act as an early warning system if things are going wrong due to the behaviour of a few toxic staff. 

Using your core values to create a new vocabulary

Your core values are bollox if you don’t use them to hire, fire and promote.  They should help you get really clear on the behaviours you want to see in every one of your employees.  If these aren’t obvious, you’ll have no mechanism for tricky conversations.  And by tolerating them previously, you’ve allowed these toxic employees behaviours to take hold. The implication is that this behaviour is ok.  If you’re not careful, it becomes the norm and, worse still, your whole company will know this.

Introduce a behavioural framework and you will start to fight against this.  It will give you and your managers a new vocabulary to call out negative and destructive behaviour and enable you to be clear that it’s no longer going to be tolerated.  

If this framework has been properly communicated, the toxic employees will know that they’re causing a problem. Managers can get really specific in their performance-based discussions, relating back to the core values and pinpointing exactly when they’ve observed negative behaviours.  Then they can set specific time-frames to review and re-visit until they’re satisfied that the problem’s fixed.


Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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