Highly-talented or personable? Which attribute brings more value to an organization?
The topic of toxic personalities in the workforce is popular for many reasons, mainly because no one benefits from working with a toxic person, no matter how talented and smart. Toxic was even the 2018 Oxford Word of the Year. The conventional wisdom may be that toxic workers may bring more positive attributes than their terrible disposition – and that those skills merit keeping them on the job.
But is talent really more valuable than personality?
Not according to a 2015 Harvard Business School study on toxic workers. According to the study, spanning 11 companies worldwide and including 58, 542 workers, managers often deal with toxic workers by avoiding them, which is hardly a good or sustainable solution.
The study also showed that workers exhibiting toxic behaviors are strong producers, who complete tasks more quickly, and are overconfident; which explains how they are often tolerated for so long — especially by managers who have learned to avoid them and don’t feel the pain of dealing with them.
But is high productivity and results worth the cost of having a toxic person in the office? The potential costs of dealing with illegal or unethical behavior and constant complaints can affect every facet of a project and erode morale and motivation within an organization.
For me, a less productive but personable and thoughtful worker who is respectful and has proper boundaries is far more valuable in that they don’t cause distractions and discomfort to those around them. The Harvard Business School study supports that, noting that the business costs of toxic workers are varied, but often significant. A balanced, functional, and healthy work environment is just as important to productivity as high performing workers.
The cost of keeping toxic workers
In my own experience – and as the study shows – toxic workers can be quite intelligent and talented. But having to work with them day after day can wear their coworkers and bosses down to a point where those around them get less accomplished. It takes incredible energy to manage negative, abusive, or rude personalities. The toll can be overwhelming. To compound that, toxic workers often feel company rules don’t apply to them – the legal and financial liability of keeping such a worker on staff outweighs any financial benefit of their productivity.
Another cost of employing toxic people is turnover. No one wants to stay in an office where toxic behavior goes unpunished or ignored. It’s a leading cause of stress and job dissatisfaction and can even cause health problems if nothing is done to remedy it.
Managers and bosses must work diligently to correct toxic behavior and protect staff from the effects, even at the cost of losing a high performer and self-starter. Extremely talented people can be hard to find, but if they abuse others in the office, or are dishonest, the price for hiring is likely greater than a company will be able to recoup.