Toxic high performers are individuals who deliver great results but by means that can completely undermine an organisation’s culture. Over a decade ago, we developed the Chiumento Culture Matrix to help clients explore this concept and challenge their willingness to live their expressed organisational values.
We started from the premise that high performance is about more than just results. The world of sport, for example, is littered with examples of how individual’s have achieved results through illegitimate actions – from cheating to doping scandals. What these stories tell us is that we care about how results are achieved.
Restaurants provide a great example
If you read reviews on websites like TripAdvisor, you quickly establish that the hospitality experience is about much more than what’s on the plate or in the glass. Where people leave bad reviews, they are regularly centred on the behaviours of the front-of-house staff. Being left waiting to be served or the orders being wrong. Staff who are rude or inattentive – or simple create the impression they don’t want to be there.
When running courses on high performance I often ask groups which is more forgivable. The restaurant that delivers greal food and bad service or the one that delivers mediocre food but a great experience? Invariably the answer is the latter. We’ll forgive things being less than perfect if the experience is great.
In the same way that winning Michelin Stars is about experience and quality, high performance in organisations is about outcomes and behaviours. The how as much as the what.
“Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback”
This is apparently an old Dutch saying. And its true. Building trust in organisations takes time. It is like filling a piggy bank one coin at a time. Then when you need your people to respond you can call on that banked trust to achieve remarkable things.
One of the core pillars of trust is the willingness of leaders to tackle poor performers. That includes those whose behaviours do not match up with the organisation’s values.
“Turning a blind eye”
There are lots of ways an organisation can “turn a blind eye” to toxic high performers. Starting with simply not challenging individuals when they fall short of the values the organisation promotes. If you allow someone to get away with bad behaviours simply because they are the best sales person, engineer or IT specialist it sends a message to everyone else that the values are negotiable or optional.
Equally awarding big bonuses or pay rises to individuals who hit targets but don’t make good corporate citizens sends the wrong message. It can so easily look like rewarding people for the wrong things.
Of course, if your culture is “the ends always justify the means” then you just might think that behaviours don’t matter. I’ve never seen an organisation publicly say that – and I wonder how many individuals would want to work for an organisation with those ethics?
Your values have to be meaningful
If you publish corporate values then they have to reflect “how things are done around here”. And line managers and leaders must walk the talk. Several times in my career I have gone into organisations and found the values they publish are just “marketing speak”. Things the organisation thinks customers or clients want to hear.
The problem with that is people join because of the culture you promote. And then leave because reality doesn’t match. By stating values you create expectations and by not upholding them you create, intended or not, a potential breach of trust.
Effective performance management
Your performance management process must balance the what and the how to be effective and respected. It must deal as effectively with toxic high performers behaviours as it does with those who fail to meet quality, sales or productivity targets.
If you’d like to find out more about the Chiumento Culture Matrix and how we use it to develop simple but effective performance management regimes get in touch.