Harvard Business School: Talented assholes are more trouble than they're worth

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Totes agree. If you’ve got talent (lucky you!), learn to be nice.


It must have been pretty convenient for the researchers to have access to a school which specializes in producing toxic assholes…


So they’ve basically mathematically proved that it’s better to have an average group of team players than one talented asshole who thinks it’s all about him.

Anarcho-capitalists, please take note…


Toxic assholes reduce the productivity of other workers - some of those “average” workers might actually be above average if they didn’t have to deal with the assholes.


Then there’s the real world.

Sometimes companies run technologies that are uncommon, and the available pool of talent is relatively small. It can be difficult to even find one “adequate” worker to replace them. Doubly so outside of urban centers.

Most offices have pretty strict limits on headcounts. Even armed with this study and a signed petition by everyone sitting within earshot of the troublemaker, companies don’t just let you hire 2 to replace 1.

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“are 1%, superstar workers worth the trouble they cause in the workplace?”
Um, no they are NOT!


The problem is that a strict limit on headcount ignores the fact that having one superstar toxic worker is actually less productive than two people doing average work (or unhindered by the toxic worker). Headcount is measuring the wrong thing.


There’s an important difference between a “1% superstar” employee and an employee who is literally irreplaceable… In the latter case, you are correct - there may very well be no alternative to catering to the irreplaceable prick. But in the majority of businesses that prick is just really really good at a job lots of other people can do at least adequately. And this study is suggesting that -again, if you have any alternative at all - keeping that prick happy at the expense of pissing off all his/her coworkers is just not worth it.


Good workplaces take this into account from a management perspective. You will get asshole working too many hours and being smug douches about it, and they will likely be used as an individual contributor on projects to avoid interaction with the two workings working on projects that can support greater headcounts. You see those guys all the time in emerging marketplaces because that is where they belong - projects with no real market, questionable revenues, and may be a boom or bust. The day-in-day out produce generation after generation of the high revenue products (or at least reliable income without a lot of innovation) are often in the hands of those type as well just because one guy operating like that can cover a large amount of work on his own.

Most projects need collaboration to improve and develop to grow as a product, and those are the ones you see the “average” worker and en masse. The “superstars” are pushed to the extreme fringes where their personalities get isolated and their work can be highlighted. The real problem comes when they get promoted, which is a dangerous trap.


For example?

What is this situation where an asshat can’t ever be replaced…or at least kept so far away from everybody else that their toxicity is irrelevant?


This has been another episode of simple answers to simple questions…if you don’t want to live with it - don’t bring it into your home.


everyone is replaced eventually


I’ll take an incompetent coworker over an asshole super-competent coworker any day of the week. Envy doesn’t factor because I’ll take a super-competent non-asshole over anyone.

Assholes are unnecessarily hard to work with, and contribute to turnover like nothing else.


I don’t know about truly incompetent, but perhaps trainable.
Good managers don’t want assholes around, though. This is nothing new, of course.
One thing about super-smart people that are impossible to deal with - when they make mistakes, they never admit it, or they try to literally cover that shit up. Only to have it become a pain for someone else down the road…

You’re not at all wrong, but man, your Breakfast of Champions avatar makes it seem strange for you to say anyway.


The responses here (and a lot of other places I’ve read conversations about this) seem to be [mis]reading the paper’s definition of “toxic worker” as socially toxic since that’s the more common use of the phrase, but as I’m reading the the definitions in the paper, it’s primarily about professionally toxic behavior.

This isn’t a paper about people who hurt your feelings because they don’t tolerate saccharine office politics well (assholes, nerds, weirdos, whatever the appropriate slur right now is), it’s about people who were terminated for engaging in behavior that was costly to the employer, like fraud. Think sociopath sales people and ladder-climbers.

Also from the paper, in opposition to all the “codes of conduct will save us from interacting with people who don’t follow our preferred script” talk, it found that people who believe firmly in the inflexibility of rules and have high self-regard (the rule lawyers) were the most likely group to be terminated for toxic behavior.


Yeah, you’re totally right. I had just printed it out and was instantly disappointed.

I mean, it’s still likely accurate stuff, but has nothing to do with team-ruining or productivity-nuking behaviors…which are what I (and I might add everybody I’ve consulted for, worked with, or met with) generally associates with ‘toxic’…and I’ve worked at a pretty high level.

What they’re describing are individuals that would normally be defined as ‘high risk’ rather than ‘toxic’


I think that there is some overlap between the popular definition of “toxic” as a social term, and the meaning in this paper based upon professional ethics.

There was a clash of these definitions at my previous job. They seemed to really be trying to work people to death (100+ hour work weeks for weeks at a time), and even still I had a reputation of being an overachiever who was repeatedly told to “turn it down a notch” to preserve morale. But this business - a large privately-owned corporation - had their own, deeply-entrenched ethical problems. It had the same rules supposedly apply to everyone, yet they would tell different strata of employee groups entirely different things. Eventually, I got singled out for resolutely following their actual rule book, the actual corporate policies, instead of conforming to deliberately ambiguous expectations. So I was made out to be “toxic” in the lame rhetoric of “(somehow) not a team player”, for pointing out that the company itself was “toxic” by unethically ignoring all of their own rules in the course of everyday business.

Playing weird status games was/is far more important to these people than efficiency, profit, or any other real-world goals they claimed.


Okay, now I’m completely confused as to why they’re lumping a few of these categories together.

They DO include classic workplace toxicity (i.e. contributing to a toxic work environment), but only count individuals that were fired or displaced for that reason…so they’re obviously going to miss out on a lot.

Meanwhile, they also include individuals that they describe as toxic that I’ve never heard described that way…specifically high risk/high reward or independent but unethical individuals… as @PAPPP mentioned.

So they don’t seem to have any capture of productivity losses for the classic ‘toxic’ employees (which are HUGE)…which is documented all over the place elsewhere. They’re just capturing …cost to replace, legal loss…and I’m fuzzy on what else right now.

I’m a bit busy to dig too much further, but I’ve got to say that they’ve got at least a couple of groups that should have been completely split from each other… in particular socially toxic vs. high legal risk. They’re kind of apples to oranges to each other and there’s no way they share predictors well. Lots of the legal risk sorts are very charming and get along great with their co-workers and don’t create a toxic work environment.