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Toxic Performers Can Kill Your Culture. Are you sacrificing company culture for short-term performance?

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.

Success, execution, delivering results—what gets measured gets done and recognized. However, in thinking about your team members and their contributions, it is vital not only to look at what results they are delivering but also to make sure their contributions are not sacrificing more important company principles. A number of leaders we have worked with grapple with the challenge of excusing bad behavior from employees who deliver results. In our experience, the potential long-term negative impact of overlooking or even excusing destructive behavior far outweighs the benefits of short-term positive outcomes.

Imagine a situation where a few leaders undermine the culture of your company, create a toxic environment, belittle other employees, and say negative things about their leaders to customers. What would you tolerate in the name of performance? Yes, this is a worst-case scenario where a few employees truly go rogue. But think about it, how much would you, or do you, tolerate today from the employees in your company in the name of performance? How much are you risking by tolerating such behavior?

In a client company we worked with, the leaders made concessions and excused a range of bad behaviors because they believed they needed certain sales employees and were concerned about the impact on revenue if specific employees were fired. In the course of not taking action, bad behavior was reinforced, and long term damage was done to company culture and morale.

These employees created an us-versus-them culture that pitted operations, marketing, and product development against the sales organization. Regretfully, this unchecked behavior got so bad that employees started to quit, and information was shared that sales leaders were saying nasty things about the company and company leadership to the company’s customers. It was even to a point where they initiated calls with customers after group meetings with the company’s leaders and bad-mouthed their leaders. Needless to say, once the word got out about what was actually occurring, action had to be taken, and the individuals were let go. Why did it have to take so long to take action? For this company, it was fear of disruption and of not hitting short-term financial goals.

Identifying and course-correcting bad behavior is vital to the long-term success of your team and company. By excusing bad behaviors in the name of results, you are communicating with other employees that this bad behavior is actually OK. This risks legitimizing and spreading these bad behaviors. And worse, employees who behave in a way that reinforces and aligns with your stated culture become alienated as a result of the hypocrisy that what is said is not in fact reinforced or valued. These employees whom you want to retain will are at risk of leaving. Once these employees leave, you are then left with rogue employees and poor performers.

Looking at your team, what do you see? Look at each individual’s performance not only in terms of what they get done but how they behave. This is a great opportunity to confirm the elements that make up your culture, the behaviors that bring the best of your culture to life. Write down the behaviors that make up your culture. The behaviors that you want to reward. Identify the values that you want to reinforce. Review each team member and consider how their behavior makes a positive contribution. Also, identify if they are exhibiting any negative behaviors. If you have identified people whose behaviors are not reinforcing and strengthening the culture and values of the company, then you need to take next steps to manage these individuals so that they are aware of their behaviors and what is expected of them. In a scenario where these behaviors cannot be changed, the individuals need to be quickly managed out of the company. These individuals are toxic to your team and company.

Some guiding principles:

- Culture and values are the foundation for individual behavior expectations.

- Reinforce not only the result but how the result is achieved.

- Star performers are not only those who achieve business impact but reinforce and role-model the right behaviors.

- Communicate and remodel the behaviors you expect from your team.

- Squash bad behaviors quickly.

- Manage out employees whose behaviors undermine team and company culture—no matter how important you think they are. Hire slow and fire fast.

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