How toxic personalities hide genuine productivity
  • leadership
  • Blog post

How toxic personalities hide genuine productivity

Can we talk about jerks for a minute? Sure, we could use the term that shows up in the management literature—”toxic personalities“—but that’s so clinical it fails to capture the essence of the problem. And sure, there are far more descriptive and satisfying terms we could use, but those are beneath the dignity of this forum. So we’ll stick with “jerk.”

Jerks come in so many varieties—bullies, blamers, blowhards—but what unites them is the effect they have on you and the rest of your team. They make everybody miserable, not just today, but almost all the time. The effect is pretty much impossible to quantify. No research psychologist or business school is going to come up with a viable jerkitude quotient. But the effect is real, and a manufacturer outside Philadelphia came awfully close to proving that.

Jane Von Bergen writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that of the 29 workers fabricating precision metal parts at M&S Centerless Grinding in Hatboro, Pa., one guy was pulling down the morale of the whole plant. He’d bully other employees, tell insulting jokes… other workers asked to have their lunch hour rescheduled so they wouldn’t have to be in the break room at the same time he was. Like a classic playground wedgie artist, he even had a pair of minions who fed off and amplified his negativity.

Their manager was aware of the problem. He knew the guy was creating a toxic work environment. But the boss had a dilemma on his hands: This toxic personality was also the most productive worker in the company, a fact the bully used to justify and validate his behavior.

So what’s the manager supposed to do? When does standing up to a bully become a greater priority than the company’s productivity?

Answer: Immediately. You deal with him immediately.

Here’s why:

The company measures the productivity of its shop floor with a simple metric: sales shipped per labor hour. During the time the toxic employee worked there, every hour of employee labor translated into a reasonable $85 or so in value for the company.

After years of hand-wringing, the manager finally cut the guy loose, and something amazing happened. Sales per labor hour shot up to $123 then settled to about $104 when his position was backfilled—a 13 percent increase in productivity.

The moral of the story? It always looked like the bully was the most productive. He wasn’t. In reality, he was holding everyone else back.

You might be thinking, “Yeah, but, who’s to say who is and isn’t a jerk?” You might even be thinking, “People are usually pretty nice. So… what if I’m the jerk?” If so, that’s you being a pretty decent person. In fact, if you immediately started thinking in those terms, then you almost certainly are not a jerk. And there’s even some science to back this up.

Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Claremont Graduate University “sampled” people’s life perspectives periodically throughout the day to determine their overall view of the world and the people around them. Those who more often than not saw the people around them as generally decent and trustworthy tended not to have qualities like narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy—the building blocks of jerkitude. In other words, if you’re cool with the people around you, then the people around you are probably cool with you.

Still another way of looking at it is this old saw: If you met a jerk this morning, then you met a jerk. But if you meet jerks all day every day, well… you’ve got some work to do.

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