Bad apples distract and drag down everyone, and their destructive behaviors […] are remarkably contagious.

Sutton, 2011

Welcome to part 4 of the office hours series, discussing real life workplace challenges. Leadership should not be a lonely endeavour. I’m a leadership coach and I’ll help you shine your leadership light bright.

Challenge #4 – How to deal with toxic employees


How do I deal with a work colleague with a God complex? They are extremely talented, but hard work.

J.D. (no their real name)

This week’s column is going to read a little differently, less coachy, more opinionated. I hope, more challenging. My focus is on you and how you contribute to the patterns that trigger you.

When I built engineering teams at Google and long before, I was very clear about one thing. I don’t care how brilliant you might be – there’s absolutely no place for jerks on my team. I’ve seen the damage jerk-like behaviour leaves in its wake. I spent many hours dealing with the fallout of poor communications between colleagues who weren’t even jerks (that’s part of the job description).

Software is easy, people are hard.

Bill Coughran

I’m unequivocal in this view. That’s easy. The hard part, for all of us, is correctly identifying the brilliant jerks. There’s a world of difference between a talented employee that has a difficult interface, and a talented employee that’s just plain toxic (a.k.a. a jerk). Our job as managers and leaders is to correctly identify the jerks and deal with them. For the non-jerks we have to figure out their interface, and to promote self-awareness.

Navigating a Difficult Interface

We each have our own working style – preferences, strengths, weaknesses, biases. (There’s plenty of profiling tools out there). If you have little awareness of your own style, and you collaborate with a colleague that has a different style (which you are equally unaware of), then your colleague is likely going to feel like ‘hard work’/

So, your colleague is hard work?

Hard work like what? How do you know? How does it show up for you  what’s happening with you when you feel them being hard work?

What’s important to you about how they are being, or not being?

Surface Your Mental Models

I see this most where people have different or conflicting values. For example, working towards a deadline where you have a preference for action (“move fast, ship it”), and you need sign-off from a colleague who is more of a perfectionist, or risk-averse, who routinely asks for rework.

There are countless work examples where colleagues have different viewpoints on what is important. Conflicts arise when people carry different mental models and neither does the work to make them visible. Empathy is lacking.

Tip: Reflective practice helps us become more aware of how we form our mental models – what filters, values, stories, experiences, biases we use to interpret the world around us.

Tip: Practice using a balance of enquiry (‘Can you describe an example of…’’) to surface someone else’s mental models and advocacy (‘Here’s what I think and I how I got here…’) to make your own reasoning accessible to others. 

Co-created patterns of communication

There are two people in a conversation, co-creating, and patterns form and replay. I might ask JD to record some of the typical co-created patterns they encounter with their colleague.

To this end I offer JD the enquiry, how might you be co-creating, or contributing to the patterns of behaviour you observe

Tip: Ask a small number of trusted colleagues for specific feedback on your own interaction style. How might you be unintentionally co-creating the patterns at play? (This is one reason to continually work on self-awareness – specifically the awareness of how you are perceived by others).

A challenging perspective is that JD has no control to change the colleague, but JD can experiment to change their own side of the communication. And this might generate different results. It might disrupt the patterns.

Is the effort to experiment with communication style worth the potential gains from the colleague becoming less ‘hard work’?

Building Empathy

You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is to know what it’s like to stand in their shoes. It can be practiced, and it takes effort. An effective tool to help build empathy, from the field of NLP, is called Perceptual Positions. It can be challenging and thus best to have a facilitator run it.

Don’t tolerate brilliant jerks

So let’s return to JDs situation and assume the issues are larger than peer-to-peer tensions.

How do we know there’s a problem?

What is the impact? Who feels it, sees it, hears it? How, where and when does it show up?

It’s about behaviour, not people

If the challenging behaviour is from a peer over whom you have no authority then your responsibility is more limited. You can show personal leadership and have a respectful conversation with them in private, offering specific feedback about the nature and impact of their behaviour on you. This might be a big ask for someone for many reasons.

Tip: Always make it about the behaviour, not the person. Behaviour can be changed.

Failing that, seek advice or bring it to the attention of your manager. Do not engage in gossip and do not spread your own interpretation of things.

Among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivilty, 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined

Porath and Pearson, 2013

If the challenging colleague is under your reporting chain then it is your responsibility to deal with the situation. And you must deal with it.

As a manager or leader, you set the tone. This is what you get paid for.

If you want to know who in your organisation sets the standard for how things are done and what’s the right way to Behave with each other – take a look in the mirror. Robinson

In any feedback conversation you must deal with specifics. And have a clear way of communicating the agreed standards of behaviour required. If you don’t have these, then go do the work to get them.

As a leader or manager you constantly model behaviour that is, by default, acceptable. The things you do and say; the things you don’t do and don’t say; the things you ignore. Our own acts of day to day leadership set the tone for others.

You cannot not be a role-model; so be the right kind.


If you know nothing else, know what you stand for. Know what you will take a stand for. I built my teams around the pillars of humility, respect and trust, and I regularly talked about these values in 1:1s, in team settings, and importantly in interviews with candidates.

So here’s what you can do:

  • Set the tone
  • Model appropriate behaviour
  • Recognise in public desirable behaviours
  • Call out disrespectful behaviour every time you see it (make it about the behaviour, not the person)
  • Reflect on how you contribute to the patterns
  • Model giving feedback
  • Model being open and receptive to feedback
  • Talk openly and regularly about team/company values
  • Recruit for cultural fit, not just intellectual talent
  • Ensure your people know what resources are available to support them

A growing body of research suggests that having just a few nasty, lazy or incompetent characters around can ruin the performance of a team or an entire organization—no matter how stellar the other employees

Sutton, 2011

We all make mistakes, we are all imperfect. 

Healthy debate and disagreement work best in an environment where there is support and respect for people – where the ideas, but not the individuals, are stress tested.” (Google)

Two of my proudest moments of leadership have been when I intervened in the moment, to alert someone to their insensitive behaviour, that was in conflict with our team values (and my own).

To conclude, it’s important to be clear on what is toxic, and what is merely self-limiting. I have worked with more than one superstar performer with a ‘tricky interface’. Their behaviour was not toxic. They were professional, work-focused, helpful, supported genuine approaches of help, and were direct when in ‘busy time’ and curt when unnecessarily disturbed. They were brilliant individual contributors, with a hugely net positive impact on the team, and entirely and knowingly at the ceiling of their own performance trajectory. 

I had to learn to adapt and flex my communication style to help them do their best work.

Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high Reed Hastings

What would you offer JD to lighten the load of this leadership challenge? Please add to the comments. And also please share your feedback about this office hours leadership challenge.

Further Reading

There’s plenty more information and research out there if you want to discover more about managing difficult or toxic employees. Don’t just take my word for it…

Bryant, A. (2014) Management Be Nimble. The New York Times. January 04. Available from: [Accessed: 25 September 2019]

Curnow-Chavez, A. (2018) 4 Ways to Deal With a Toxic Coworker (article). Harvard Business Review, 10 April. Available from: [Accessed: 28 September 2019].

Gallow, A. (2016) How to Manage a Toxic Employee (article) Harvard Business Review, 03 October. Available from: [Accessed 30 September 2019].

Gregg, B. (2017) Brilliant Jerks in Engineering. (blog) Brendan Gregg’s Blog, 13 November. Available from: [Accessed: 30 September 2019].

Luay (2017) 7 Strategies to Deal with Brilliant Jerks (article) Medium, 26 April. Available from [Accessed: 27 September 2019].

Porath, C., Pearson, C. (2013) The Price of Incivility (article). Harvard Business Review, January-February, 2013. Available from: [Accessed 28 September 2019].

Robinsin, N. (no date) Leadership, Role-modelling and Behaviour. Available from: [Accessed: 30 September 2019].

Schleckser, J. (2016) Why Netflix Doesn’t Tolerate Brilliant Jerks (article), 02 February. Available from: [Accessed: 27 September 2019].

Schwartz, T. (2011) The Secret to Dealing With Difficult People: It’s About You (article) Harvard Business Review, October 12. Available from: [Accessed: 29 September, 2019].]

Sutton, R. (2011) How a few bad apples ruin everything, Wall Street Journal. October 24. Available from: [Accessed: 23 September 2019]]