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


Yeah, this seems like a pretty obvious issue. I mean, there are two ways to be the best: by making yourself better or by making everyone else worse. What if the other employees, realizing that their company clearly doesn’t give a shit about their well-being, just don’t really feel they owe their company any special effort.

Or, here’s another one. What if that toxic worker is actually just good at taking credit for things? Maybe no one told their manager because they figured that the manager was exactly the kind of incompetent idiot who fell for that toxic person’s nonsense?

And, let’s face it, a good part of the time it is your manager who is the toxic asshole because their “accomplishments” got them promoted.

Human beings! To me, this is the very height of being “toxic” but in most workplaces this isn’t only normal, it’s the way things ought to be. People tell you with a straight face to work on your “personal brand.”


But as hierarchical as human organizations often are, people seem eager to discredit themselves by being clueless as to what their goals, values, or methodologies are. Why take anybody seriously if they lack any formal rigor? There’s nothing to them!

Then why do so many workplaces say that tattoos are “unprofessional”? It’s a typically self-contradictory bit of lip-service which disintegrates upon inspection. I have no tattoos, but I have literally given myself a “personal brand”, and noticed that body (and mind) modifications are exactly the kind of things they like to use to dismiss people’s input.

Being a formalist, I like that groups are not personal. They can have the ability to focus on goals which most humans are too fickle or short-lived to accomplish. I strive to be polite, and helpful, yet assiduously avoid having personal goals - except for in my artwork, which is a compartmentalized area. It seems obvious that organizations can be more efficiently and effectively organized around functions rather than roles. Basically, if I wanted “personal”, I would not look for it in a group.


I think that most people are simply primarily motivated by establishing a social standing for themselves. Some small part of the population wants to be socially dominant, a very large portion of the population wants to “fit in” and know the have a secure social standing, even if it isn’t necessarily at the top. The idea of trying to appeal to some standard outside of social hierarchies to validate yourself is not uncommon, but I don’t think it’s the majority. Being able to totally cast aside social hierarchies in favour of something else is rare.

I see what you did there.

Yeah, that’s just not what the majority of people want. I discussed this with a friend recently - our common experience of being a kid and thinking, “I’m nice to other people, I’m polite, why don’t people like me?” All that stuff they tell you about being polite and whatnot is just platitudes. The reality of social interaction is a brutal mess that I doubt we are even capable of untangling. We wouldn’t be able to perform that dance if so much of our brains weren’t built for that function - and for some of us, I think our brains weren’t built for that function and we just have to accept that we can never really get it (this discussion is now overlapping with the simultaneous one win the I’m so smart thread). People don’t operate on rigour or formality, they work on tangled heuristics and self-serving guesses.


surprising no one who has ever had at least a passing interest in sport (as distinct from people who go to sport to drink and/or “be seen”)


It was Woodchuck45’s assertion I was responding to… he specified a situation where the toxic worker was skilled in some critical technology, and I could envision a situation - especially in a startup or someplace with a lot of proprietary code or tech - where it could be impractical, or even impossible, to replace a key person “on-demand”. The only real solution then would be, as you say, to keep them as far away as possible from the rest of the workforce until they could be affordably dumped.


i have 5 rules for living that have allowed me to navigate my world without ever being in a situation where i was hated by anyone to the point of them wanting to cause me harm, nor have i ever been so depressed or angry i needed to be medicated. one of those rule is–talent and a kind word will get you farther than talent alone.

the article reinforces the impulse that convinced me to keep that rule.


For me, that mess qualifies as neither “social”, nor “interaction”, It’s like the communications discipline of “pragmatics”, which is a loaded term if I have ever heard one - because it seems designed to be anything but pragmatic. It’s basically summed up by the axiom: “Assume that everybody is playing obscure games with you, rather than actually attempting to communicate”.

People build their own brains as they develop, and both conditioning and selection encourage this sort of growth. The tragedy is people wasting most of their brainpower upon such things, when they are so impractical. Learning and using formal reasoning at a very young age seems to help.

I don’t mind tangled heuristics, so long as people are deliberate about them. But I would prefer if self-serving people dropped the pretense of social interactions, or else met its challenges.


SO true in IT in my experience. It’s always the analysts fault, or the programmer, or the QA department, or the business owner, or … everybody else but them.

The toxicity of the person can also be caused by management - if the wunderkind worker can get away with shit everyone else gets in trouble for, morale goes out the window. >.<


IT is my frame of reference as well. Infrastructure engineering.
I worked with a guy that did a prod cutover at a remote site which included migrating all the NTFS shares. When I had a look because someone asked me, all the permissions were set to “everyone” full control. I kept it to myself other than to let him know. Shrug. “Who’s asking you to look around in that shit anyway?” End of conversation. I wound up fixing the permissions so our team wouldn’t look like dickbags…


WTF? That kind of stupid gets your hands slapped by the security folks where I work. They actively scan for that stuff. And it isn’t like copying permissions over is hard stuff either. More of a PITA to clean up afterwards than to do it right the first time.


It’s like Al Capone, only…not.


I’ve actually seen this one play out many times in real life:

Hire an asshole employee and eventually they’ll be fired.

Hire an asshole manager and eventually everyone else will be fired.


Nope. The robocopy switches are simple and they work…
It was a major pain for me to put it right.


Or they get promoted. >.<


Good, it’s not just me being nuts, while I was looking through the article I was seeing it over and over allude to social toxicity, but all the specific factors/indicators/definitions they concentrate on are all professional misconduct. I think it might be the standard over-representing your claim to make it more publishable thing.


Of course if you only hire Toxic Arseholes, then its all great.


every audit firm uses this basic principle


Yep - measuring headcount is measuring the wrong thing. And it’s primitive, in the truest sense.

In-fighting means that people look at other teams and shout at the boss “hey, Jane has 8 people, and I only have 3 - that’s not right! Not fair!”

Jane’s total budget is 100,000; and dickwad’s budget is 115,000.

Dickwad is a toxic asshole, so they fire half of Jane’s team to calm him. Two months later, dickwad complains that Jane’s team isn’t giving his team what they need.

I’ve seen it so often, that I’m almost over my disbelief in the idiocy.


Slightly parrallel to the concept of talented assholes destroy teamwork is Adam Grant’s framing of Takers, Givers, and Matchers.


A good manager will isolate the superstar-but-incompatible worker into a bubble in the organization graph, possibly allow working remotely. That way you can have the benefits without most of the problems.

…but good managers are rather rare these days…