What to Do When a Destructive Attitude Outweighs Talent

Thumbs DownWorking in our industry can be exhilarating, especially when you factor in the unique peculiarities of the crazy-talented practitioners developing the work. I still get a kick out of watching clients lean forward in eyes-wide-open amazement, taking a closer look at the fruits of our labor, unanimously embracing ideas born out of daydreams and a few scribbles on a whiteboard. It’s a privilege, really, a true gift to the visionary’s tenacious hard work and strategic insight. The very best part of this utopian, albeit rarefied experience, is that I get a bird’s eye view by navigating the entire process.

In both calm and rough seas, I’m the accountable in-house manager with an insatiable appetite for mind-crafted beauty. I’m also completely down with a seasoned crew heavy on talent, craft, good personality and a collaborative spirit.

One thing I’m not down with … destructive attitudes that tear down and alienate teams. When bad, disruptive behaviors continuously outweigh a creative’s talent, that’s not being crazy-talented; it’s just crazy. Dealing with these types of extremely difficult employees, and managing their destructive behaviors, as they jockey for dominance while poisoning good team dynamics can be extremely challenging.

The truth is that in-house managers can’t afford to constantly clean up the messes left by these brutish teammates. The in-house manager must be sensitive to the well-being of their entire team as well as the clients they serve. Why hire these types of folks in the first place? Unfortunately, the most dangerous ones are skilled at evading screening mechanisms used to separate the potential superstars from the saboteurs.

Fit is hard to determine in a few short hours. Don’t blame yourself for getting razzle-dazzled by this chameleon’s glittering creative during the interview. We’ve all experienced the work’s blinding glare and have been disappointed by our slip in judgement and our inability to see former project collaborators wiped out in the wake of this person’s wave of destruction—their references won’t reveal this fatal indicator.

What should you do if one bad egg is continually wreaking havoc on your team’s efforts to get the job done or worse the efforts of the greater organization trying to reach its goals? Consult with Human Resources and (if budget allows) an I-O psychologist. Their advice will help you through the process of documentation and give you tools to coach appropriate behaviors and provide other necessary plans of action.

Robert SuttonThere are also many interesting books on the topic that can provide great insight and a little entertainment too. I was recently flying to the west coast and picked up Dr. Robert I. Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t. Dr. Sutton’s book promised to be “the definitive guide to working with—and surviving—bullies, creeps, jerks, tyrants, tormentors, despots, backstabbers, egomaniacs, and all the other assholes who do their best to destroy you at work.” First appearing in the Harvard Business Review as a scholarly article, I was intrigued and amused by the book’s title to say the least.

Dr. Sutton is a Stanford University professor who focuses his research on the connections between managerial knowledge and organizational action, organizational creativity, and evidence-based management. In reading Dr. Sutton’s book, I was captivated by one Silicon Valley organization’s decision to calculate the financial impact of a notoriously difficult employee during one fiscal year. In this age of big data, the company’s real costs in managing the shenanigans of this guy totaled a whopping $160,000! Ask yourself this question: Can you afford to pay those very real costs?

Look, some of these extremely challenging employees will try their best to convince you that their creative or strategic talent can be used to hone the skills of the entire team, making the work better—again, razzle-dazzle. These individuals don’t care one iota about the health and well-being of the team nor the success of the organization. Unfortunately, many are blind to the fact that they’re destroying their own careers and often don’t realize it until it’s way too late. In actuality, their antics will be the whetstone that sharpens your managerial skills. They’ll also strengthen your relationship with Human Resources, and you’ll become a much better manager and coach in the process for everyone who contributes to the team.

If destructive behaviors start to negatively affect the performance of the entire in-house team, HR may suggest the bad influencer be placed on a work performance improvement plan. If you find yourself in this situation, heed HR’s advice and dot every “i” and cross every “t” in the implementation of the work performance improvement plan. If you sincerely tried to coach this person through to positive reformation with little to no avail, you’ve done your job. Show ‘em the plank. Learn from the experience and restore the in-house team that remains.


Additional Resource
Learn how to master effective communication and conflict resolution skills that encourage positive team dynamics and shut down poor behaviors by downloading Saboteurs and Saviors: Managing Creative Team Dynamics, a design tutorial facilitated by Ed Roberts.