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Toxic Workers Are More Productive, But the Price Is High (tlnt.com)
200 points by tarunupaday 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 214 comments



This reminds me of a story about hen breeding:

Selecting the hen who lays the most eggs doesn't necessarily get you the most efficient egg-laying metabolism. It may get you the most dominant hen, that pecked its way to the top of the pecking order at the expense of other hens. Individual selection doesn't necessarily work to the benefit of the group, but a farm's productivity is determined by group outputs.

Indeed, for some strange reason, the individual breeding programs which had been so successful at increasing egg production now required hens to have their beaks clipped, or be housed in individual cages, or they would peck each other to death.

While the conditions for group selection are only rarely right in Nature, one can readily impose genuine group selection in the laboratory. After only 6 generations of artificially imposed group selection - breeding from the hens in the best groups, rather than the best individual hens - average days of survival increased from 160 to 348, and egg mass per bird increased from 5.3 to 13.3 kg. At 58 weeks of age, the selected line had 20% mortality compared to the control group at 54%. A commercial line of hens, allowed to grow up with unclipped beaks, had 89% mortality at 58 weeks.

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/KE8wPzGiX5QPotyS8/conjuring-...


I really like this insight.

However, just to play the devil’s advocate, software engineering is not like chickens laying eggs (a commodity skill). Sometimes, you have problems that most normal people can’t solve on their own and the only people who can solve them happen to be brilliant but toxic.

The existence and importance of these very difficult problems can give rise to a higher ratio of toxic brilliance in a field.

Of course, you can get lucky and have brilliant and nice. I am so grateful to have worked with some of these as well.


It's about costs though, not skills per se. Like the aggressive hens, you'd want to isolate those toxic employees or accept the lower retention rate (higher mortality). At some point the one is not worth the other.

Isolating a toxic employee can be costly (giving them a private office gives a sense of favoritism, do you give offices to the rest or alienate them?). Permitting them in general population causes good, but lower pain threshhold, employees to leave (they know they don't have to put up with it, they can get a job anywhere). You can afford to lose some, but how many is this toxic employee worth?

> Sometimes, you have problems that most normal people can’t solve on their own and the only people who can solve them happen to be brilliant but toxic.

If it's occasional, consultants on retainer. They aren't around long enough to drive (many) people away, and if you isolate them to a seemingly nice office/area people know it's temporary.


The moral of the story is not that the needs of the many (group selection) outweigh the needs of one (individual selection). The moral of the story is that some incentives come with perverse effects.

In India, the British government issued a law paying people by the weight of cobras they killed. They came back next year and found cobra farms nationwide. That was a perverse effect of their incentive system.

And Yudkowsky jumped to a conclusion prematurely: group selection must be immune to perverse effects because switching from individual selection to group selection eliminated the perverse effects in one singular instance. There are ways perverse effects can emerge from and supervene over group selection.


This is not because hens are getting more vicious, is because they live crowded.

We had positively selected chicken for agressivity since 1000 years, we have sumatrans, aseels, old english game, cubalayas, the most vicious animals possible for generations and generations of people. All of these are really terrible layers.

There is a lot of variability in character also between different individuals from the same chicken race.


I guess the rub is, hens aren't adversely affected by being members of underperforming groups, whereas humans tend to feel demoralized.


> the most dominant hen, that pecked its way to the top of the pecking order at the expense of other hens. Individual selection doesn't necessarily work to the benefit of the group

but wait... our entire economical system is based on this.


I don't think that's entirely true. I think the idea that the only way to "win" in business is by pushing others aside is incorrect. This thinking assumes that the economy is a zero sum game and there's plenty of reason to question that assumption. There are certainly elements in the economy that take value from others without creating any value in the process, but there are also people / companies that get wealthy by creating value, then capturing some of that value themselves.

Even at the most level of the most fundamental unit of the economy -- the worker -- being a team player is just as important as being a good individual contributor. For most jobs, "fit" is a huge factor in hiring.


US Productivity grows by 2% a year which suggests in aggregate, most people are playing a zero sum game.


I think productivity is better conceived as the first derivative of value wrt. time. So productivity growth is the second derivative. It’s good news if that number is positive at all.


That just suggests disposable income is a zero sum game. Within GDP you can have massive disparities in value generated.


Over an undefined time span it isn't zero-sum, but on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis it might as well be zero-sum unless you can somehow get the world economy to grow faster than a few percentage points at a time. Especially when so much of that growth is tied up with not very liquid capital assets of a much smaller demograph of wealthy people.


I don't understand this argument. Just look at the hen breeding comment. The entire point is that "losing" can be more beneficial than "winning" but the highly efficient winners end up pushing out the sustainable losers. The end result is a local maximum (in relative terms, please spare me the fixed pie bullshit).


It’s neither true nor false, and value is subjective.


> but wait... our entire economical system is based on this.

Hence our problems. If there's something I've learned to notice recently is that most world issues are or were very profitable for someone. I think we're past the point where "nature" is really that big of an issue, and now it's mostly just us pecking each other down either in the smaller scale, or in large, systematic ways.


> most world issues are or were very profitable for someone

Can you elaborate a bit more?


We offload to others the externalities of our activities as much as possible. We are not sustaintable, and nobody is eager to bear the costs of whatever they are doing.

This is a result of our narrow vision.

Slavery - treating people as property, like we treat animals - is an extreme example of this, and to this day we are still facing the consequences. But we still treat animals that way - as things that are bought and sold and exploited to death. Even after such animal slavery is abolished, we will still experience its consequences, for a long time.


Where to start? Wars? Global Warming?


In a perfect economic system, greedy, self interested parties would recognize this and hire accordingly. The reality is far from it, though.


> but wait... our entire economical system is based on this.

This is a difference between those who believe in Scarcity from those who believe in Abundance (at least in theory). The Takers and Makers.


can you elaborate, I don't understand what point you are making in relation to the OP.


If we can find a better system we'll use it, but this chicken system isn't it. It relies on an all-powerful farmer with the power to arbitrarily reshape chicken society. It isn't based on getting best welfare for the chickens, and from the chicken's perspective isn't optimised for their welfare.

It would be very easy to outperform capitalism if you could find leaders who care more about the output of the system than their personal power. There is no evidence that it is possible to find such leaders, and lots of evidence that capitalism resists bad leaders for extended periods of time.


It's not just our economy. It's the duality of human nature. We function better as a group yet we are competitive at the same time.

As a result in practice a hybrid system of capitalism and communism tends to work the best aka socialism. See Scandinavia.


Work best according to whom?

Just because something works in a tiny and homogenous country, under the shadow of a few hegemonic superpowers, does not mean that same thing will work in a super power like the US, which is larger, more heterogenous, and already contributes expenses to world society that benefit Scandinavia.

Take the military for example. In any real world war, Scandanavia would depend on the help of NATO; and yet their contributions to NATO are significantly smaller than those of the larger countries.

Would the Scandinavian system work if any of the Scandinavian countries had a population as large and heterogenous as the US? Or if Scandinavia did not save costs by relying on the power projection of larger allied countries?


If the country is too large and heterogeneous to be governable then the obvious solution is to break it apart, not to accept horrible outcomes.


Let's extend that obvious line of thought: what would the basis of this division be?

What about the benefits reaped from the heterogenous nature of giant countries like USA? Are you willing to give all that up for this single goal?

All said and done, I strongly believe USA as it is moves the humanity forward considerably in the mid-long outlook. Hence my questions.


Works best according to the best available data we have.

I dont have data on whether or not the system will function well as a big country or not because the data doesnt exist. The nonexistence of said data unsubstantiates any claim I can make or you can make and pushes it into the realm of speculation.

But speculate we shall. Military seems like an arbitrary choice. Socialist countries can choose to either spend on military or education and they have chosen the latter probably because there has never been a century where human society is more at peace than ever before according to all available data we have.

Why has the current century broken all records for peace on earth? Perhaps it's because, unlike previous centuries, war no longer offers spoils as it once did. A country that goes to war in the past had a net gain in wealth while a country that does the same in modern times will have a massive net loss. Information and technology have replaced territory and gold as our treasure and such a treasure can only be destroyed during war. Either way, data shows that conflict as a percentage of human population is currently massively smaller than all previous eras.

Still america chooses to build a huge army. Probably because of something called the military industrial complex. Powerful capitalist entities infiltrate a deliberately weak government and proceed to manipulate it into building an impressive yet uneeded military. Maybe? Just speculation.

Would such capitalist powers be able to influence a socialist government? What industrial complex tells Scandinavia to redirect those tax dollars towards free education instead of war?

All speculation.


Our economic system is based on the ability for Capitalism and Democracy to, together, deliver us the best of Capitalism, with the protections of a democracy.

While we tend to spend more time reflecting on failure modes (in order to continue expanding the necessary protection set), we also take for granted so many protections democratic legislation have provided us from the raw algorithmic selection of capitalism.


How so?

Naively, it seems like capitalism is a means of “top group” selection, so long as there is relatively high chance for social mobility and opportunity.

The method which worked better for chickens still involved selecting the best cohort (capitalism), and this improved over open breeding (socialism) or winner-take-all (monarchy).


How often do people get promoted on the basis that they will make the team better? Have you ever heard of that? How often do you hear "the IT guys kept things running well, enabling the sales people to bring the money in, so they get a piece of that?"

Most of the time people who get stuff are the ones who have been attributed the most output individually.


That depends on the management and is part of what makes a good manager. I have heard of many accounts of successful and well liked technical managers admitting their job is to be a shield to their team/abstraction layer to allow them ability to focus and explore appropriately while not being buffeted by contradictory direct commands and meetings - all while not ignoring them unduly either.

Upper management was perfectly okay with that because they had good release quality and time tables.


But how often do people who do the work that brings in money (in this example, the people coding the project) get a fair share of that profit?


Define "fair". Surely the CEO is worth 800 times what any single coder is.


I think you forgot the sarcasm tags.


Sometimes it's fun to leave things a little ambiguous. But, yeah, you figured it out.


This mindset can spread to higher levels if it's allowed to. At one point during the dot-com bubble the company I worked for was acquired by one where ad sales and biz dev were granted credit for all income and everything else in the company was considered a loss. This was a _financial media_ company and without fresh content the entire thing would have keeled over immediately, but via appearing to hold the purse things had slid to the point that ads and business development had power over almost all decisions. They bought us because they were trying to move into premium subscription products like we did, but we didn't know how bad it was until we found out that every dollar we brought in was attributed to the business development group and on paper our entire subsidiary was a money hole.

From individual employees up to the C-level divisions they judged everything solely on what was easiest to put into a spreadsheet and it destroyed them in less than a year. Sad to say my hope they were unique was wildly optimistic.


My point was not that this happens as often as it should, but rather that the system we use now is built around the recognition that it’s important to do so, and consistently produces the most of that kind of result out of any of our systems. That is, if you look at market based systems against the others, in practice, they have the most people who end up wealthy due to merit — and why McDolands is one of the largest minters of “minority” millionaires ever.

This is important, because it implies the solution to our problems with the present is not to throw it out for a system that does worse asymptotically (eg, swap capitalism for socialism), but rather to further optimize and refine capitalism.


Right, that's a single company's management system, but our economic system selects for best companies == groups of people. So, no, the point was completely wrong.


If you consider the hens in the analogy to be companies (rather than people) I think it holds.

We select for companies that can outcompete other companies rather than ones that contribute the most to the system.


> If you consider the hens in the analogy to be companies (rather than people) I think it holds.

If you consider a fern to be an alligator then it's an example of a deadly reptile.

> We select for companies that can outcompete other companies rather than ones that contribute the most to the system.

I think that the whole point of our system is to ensure that firms which outcompete other firms are the ones which contribute the most total value to the system. Where this isn;t the case (e.g. as with the effects of mass advertising, monopolies &c.) it's a bug, not a feature — and should be adjusted for.


I've played a minor support role in numerous fraud and antitrust lawsuits. Although experts and counsel said a great deal about economic and social welfare, the key evidence involved what people intended and planned (based on documents, email, etc) and what they did (based on business records).

Determining which firms "contribute the most total value to the system" is just too hard to be a useful strategy.

Translating that back to the workplace, I'm more inclined to agree with TFA.


> Determining which firms "contribute the most total value to the system" is just too hard to be a useful strategy.

Yes, it is — which is why we have a free market instead of a central authority trying to determine who contributes the most. Wisdom of crowds & all that.


The companies with the most money that have been a long time can afford to buy their competition, buy influence in government and essentially rest on their laurels. I'd hardly call those companies the best.


Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft etc seem to prove your argument wrong.


Founder CEO's who built the company up from nothing tend to be good. Non founder CEO's are often the worst kind of toxic "fake it till you make it" yes-men who just play politics. The worst part is that they will fill the entirety of upper management with people like themselves. If this didn't happen then there is no way startups could ever compete with the massive resources, domain knowledge and data of incumbents.

It is correct that the economy corrects a bit against this, but the incumbent advantage is so huge that even extremely mismanaged companies can live on for decades, letting these parasites thrive, build competitive resumes and then spread to healthier companies.


Companies are rarely optimizing to give you as many eggs as possible for basically free.

Companies are optimizing for survival and draining their environment of as many resources with as little compensation they can get away with.

Companies are not optimizing for the benifit of the public. benefit for the public is PR and just like billionaire philantropes they would help humanity by magnitudes more if they paid their taxes instead of tossing cookies. No big company on earth would ever limit their usage of ressources just on their own in any significant way. if the resource runs out, they die or find another resource.

This is of course a polemic statement, and reality is more shaded than this. But capitalism can and will get nasty with increasing company size and revenue. They also get better in hiding the nasty, which doesn’t make it any easier


It'll reward the companies with the best groups of people, but not the best groups of companies, which I think the other comment was getting at.


I am not sure what best means in this context..?

Most utilitaristic? Best in stealing public resources while being seen as a philantropist?

What the best is, depends on the incentives, the goals and the company culture. The best Mafioso in a group of the best mafiosi will be without a doubt a damn good Mafioso – but what does this mean for the rest of society?


The definition of best is irrelevant. The point is the distinction between maximizing something for an individual versus maximizing that same thing for the group.


It isn’t irrelevant in practice, not for those who suffer from it and not for society as a whole because of missed potential.

I understand why a isolated look at these things could make sense though


> The method which worked better for chickens still involved selecting the best cohort (capitalism), and this improved over open breeding (socialism)

The method that worked best for people that is. It has been pretty damn horrible for chickens. From the comment:

> Indeed, for some strange reason, the individual breeding programs which had been so successful at increasing egg production now required hens to have their beaks clipped, or be housed in individual cages, or they would peck each other to death.

That doesn't sound like "better for chickens" at all. If I were a chicken I'd take open breeding any day.


The thing you quoted isn’t related to what I called the better method, but rather the one I compared to monarchy/central planning — a poor idea.

The one I called a better method was the top cohort selection, not individual selection.


Oh gotcha, misunderstood your comment.


You’re confusing economic systems with governmental systems. It’s entirely possible to have capitalist monarchies, for example.


Nonsense. The rich do not have larger families, just the opposite. "Our entire economical system" subsidizes and incentives high birthrates among the poor and low ones among the educated and successful.[0]

[0]: https://www.statista.com/statistics/241530/birth-rate-by-fam...


Imagine I happen to think that social and group dynamic factors are more important than individual competence. So I decide to start hiring prioritizing these characteristics over individual ability. If my hypothesis is correct, I'm going to be able to outcompete other companies in my industry and grow, achieve success, and so on. Having a large array of amicable charismatic employees at my disposal would even help for things such as favorably lobbying government to my benefit. It's win win all around.

This is the nice thing about capitalist systems. It simply selects for whatever works. At times this is not a good thing (e.g. - perhaps convincing people to buy drugs they don't need could be more profitable than making drugs people genuinely need), but in general it tends to be better, and more organic, than what any individual or group might try to dictate as what should be desired.


Maybe “So I decide to start hiring prioritizing these characteristics along with individual ability?”

As for capitalism and productivity I highly recommend Dan Lyons’ Lab Rats exposing the complete chaos that human management is in.

People dynamics are complex and well, dynamic. Changes and rules carry potential for difficult to predict outcomes.

Humans are not hens and capitalism has turned out to be extremely unproductive in many situations requiring collaboration — who would’ve thought that putting short term self interest above everything else is not the best of ideas.


Let's imagine you and I play Roshambo - rock, paper, scissors. The game theory optimal solution here is easy - I randomly pick one. This means I will never score better than 50% (in the longrun), but I will also never score worse than 50%. Now if I actually tried to play and beat you then I could, in theory, win every single time if I somehow I just managed to really get into your head. But at the same time, I now open myself up to exploitation and you could end up beating me every single game.

So there are two ways we could approach this game. In the game theory optimal solution my goal is to minimize my worst possible outcome. In the exploitative solution my goal is to maximize my best possible outcome. This has an oddly direct analog to this conversation.

> "..who would’ve thought that putting short term self interest above everything else is not the best of ideas."

I fully agree with you. Elevating self interest to the highest assumption is an awful idea. But in practice it's the least awful of other even more awful ideas. By assuming the lowest common denominator (self interest > all) you create a scenario where the worst scenario, of people behaving in this way, is not catastrophic in any way. In fact it's wholly expected. You will probably never have a utopic outcome, but you'll also probably never have a catastrophic outcome.

Other systems have been trialed multiple times. These systems are phenomenal in theory. So long as every person agrees to cooperate and play their assigned role in a fair and equitable way we can have a utopia where no one ever need go without and everybody can live a comfortable life without fear of ever going without. The problem here is that these systems are extremely dependent upon good behavior. With good behavior, you get what some might call a utopia. But when bad behavior emerges, instead of a utopia you get starvation, oppression, and a general nightmare of existence.

---

Maybe one of the coolest things about capitalism though is that you're free to try any system you want, even within it! For instance the Garden of Eden [1] has been a phenomenally successful fully self sufficient independent commune. By contrast, if you'd like to try out a capitalist (or even some sort of communal system) within an enforced social economic system, you can't. And trying to do so would generally be met with a rather aggressive response from the government. Because once again, the sustenance of such systems require everybody play their role. If people just start doing whatever they want, the whole system would collapse. With a half dozen ideologically aligned people on a few acres of land, this works out phenomenally well. With millions of diverse people on millions or billions of acres of land, it tends to be somewhat less successful.

[1] - https://www.intothegardenofeden.com/


"Probably" applied to catastrophic outcomes isn't particularly reassuring.

It also requires a certain wilful denial of the mounting evidence that catastrophic outcomes - including starvation, oppression, and worse - have already happened for many people, and are likely to happen for many more people in the near/medium future.

Having said, it's true that this is the Number One problem that humanity has to fix now - how to deal with bad actors?

Clearly, elevating them to positions of immense power and influence through political, corporate, and economic systems that attempt to deny their toxicity isn't the correct answer.

Meanwhile there's a certain unaware irony in applying the "toxic" label to employees, but not to employers.

Most of the FAANGs (with the possible exception of Netflix) and many prominent unicorns could be considered toxic actors in exactly the sense described in the paper the OP is based on - self-regarding, high-performers generating high productivity gains for insiders, but a net social and cultural loss overall.


Its like we’ve forgotten the lessons of Standard Oil.


The reason you have to say probably is because nothing is 100% certain in situations like this. Imagine some virulent agricultural disease spread among large areas of production driving a sharp decline in production. It doesn't matter what economic system you have there - even if everybody is a 'real' millionaire, people are going to starve simply because there isn't food to feed everybody. The Irish Potato Famine [1] is a good example of this.

Things like this are pretty improbable, but far from impossible. The odds of catastrophe are probably higher than utopia, but your concern for catastrophe should still be at least somewhat comparable to your enthusiasm for the odds of a utopia emerging from capitalism. Neither is at all likely.

----

As for bad actors, I imagine at one point the vast majority of politicians probably thought about getting involved in politics to try to make the world a better place. They were likely good people, like I think most tend to be. But at the same time I think we are all probably alot more 'morally flexible' than we'd like to admit.

Imagine I tell you I'll give you a million dollars a year if you agree to spend an average of an hour a day to engage in divisive trolling online. I somehow have a mind-reading device to ensure you will genuinely and actively work to do this and further my malicious ends. Regardless, unless you're already quite rich, you're probably going to agree after approximately 0 seconds of thought. What's one more troll even matter, right?

Now imagine you're in power and I want you to do something awful. So I give you a nice long power point presentation, more than enough to ensure you can convince yourself it's a good thing to do, and then offer you a very enticing sack of incentives as well. You're suddenly going to do a great job of convincing yourself that that snazzy powerpoint was right on point. I mean if you hold the banks accountable the economy will really collapse, and people will starve, it'd be catastrophic. The only way to save the world is to not only not hold the banks accountable, but to give them billions of dollars instead and work to actively re-empower them. Yes, Mr. Sachs, I see your point. I completely agree with you! Now hand me those sacks!

----

So the whole issue isn't about getting rid of bad actors. You need to somehow elevate people to power that cannot be swayed by self interest. I don't think this is, or ever will be, possible. Even in a time where we have Star Trek style replicators that can pump anything out in an instant there will still be incentives - ego, sex, power, fame, legacy, desirable appointments, ideological victory, etc.

I do fully agree with you on your pointing out the quite hypocritical distinction between behavior of employer and employee. Our entire economy is increasingly be driven by culturally regressive business endeavors. I think there are some solutions there, but this is another topic altogether.

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)


I don't think the Irish Famine is a good example here at all. There was easily enough food for everybody in the British Isles, and certainly in the British Empire as a whole. But Victorian-era capitalism decreed that these people deserved to be left to starve to death.

Pure capitalism and pure socialism are both destructive ideologies that inevitably lead to cruelty. Hasn't humanity moved on from this false dichotomy yet? Successful societies manage the balance between the two.


This is an interesting viewpoint, thank you for taking the time to outline it.

I do very much appreciate the premise of being free to try different approaches within the framework of capitalism.

However all these approaches compete with actors who do not comply to good behavior and often use highly predatory tactics both internally and toward competitors.

Also, capitalism fails to account for external factors. Selling gas pollutes everyone’s air for free. Producing billions of plastic bags and bottles affects everyone’s oceans and rivers and surroundings, for free. Maximizing exploitation and squeezing one’s workers in an employer’s market creates dangerous levels of equality, chronic diseases and destroys families, for free. Extracting and exploiting attention from a full generation of children will cripple said generation in unpredictable ways, and is still allowed, for free. Same with the destruction of privacy, worldwide.

Capitalism is good at extracting and turning resources into money. It is not good in a world of limited resources.

And I’m not even mentioning the acts of lobbying and collusion which allow corporate entities to change the environment to suit them better than it does living human beings, not unlike a colonizing force.


Prisoner's dilemma, tragedy of the commons, etc. Local maxima. The best approach for the well-being of everybody is not always the most competitive approach. Your hypothetical co-operative company agrees to not testify and gets screwed over by the company that testifies against it.

Capitalism selects for what works for certain individuals.

We don't know that the success of capitalism isn't just a pyramid scheme that has yet to destroy the biosphere. We only know that on the scale of a few lifetimes, modern capitalism has worked ok-ish for us in the first world. It's been pretty rough on the former colonies and the proxy states.

Capitalism is very new. Mercantilism is just in the rear-view mirror. Capitalism has been subsidized by the simultaneous rise of industrial technology.

There have been flourishings of sudden well-being in the past. The Romans, the Mayans, etc. They discovered new techniques of agriculture, shipping, weapons manufacture, bloomed and expanded and collapsed and died.

Capitalism has not yet matched the long-term success of the Roman republic or the subsequent empire, let alone the Egyptian and Chinese systems of successive dynasties supported by a civil service.

It's a huge mistake to assume that capitalism works better just because we've been doing ok with it for a while and because it's the system embraced by the country that won WWII by being across an ocean. That gave capitalism a big leg up but the headstart is running out.

Kleptocracy has a good chance of out-competing managed capitalism in the next fifty years by using regulatory capture.

If you want to avoid regulatory capture by deregulating, remember that an unfettered market has always degenerated into kratocracy (government by the powerful) and kratocracy tends to turn into aristocracy.

Capitalism: Doing OK for now!


And the Romans and Chinese thought that they were at the End of History, as well.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_of_history


Thinking it and having the ability to single handedly enact it are two very different things.

It’s one thing for me to personally think I’m at the end of history chilling in a coffee shop in SF, it’s quite another when I’ve got the finger on the nuclear codes.


It's less about the annihilation of humanity and more about belief in the superiority of a particular form of Governance.

From Wiki:

> The end of history is a political and philosophical concept that supposes that a particular political, economic, or social system may develop that would constitute the end-point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.


Current form of Capitalism is only a century old and it's ridden with abusive practice. It will be stretch to say its successful. We are already seeing impacts of profit seeking on Environment and Society.


Yes, because farm chickens and human societies are optimized for different things. We value only farm production and don't care about individual feelings of the chickets. In a society, however, we not only value the group effort, but also individual freedom and one's ability to freely compete with others.

There were a couple of leftist experiments when societies were managed like farms, but they are now considered atrocities.


That is a perfect example of individual part optimization creating a suboptimal system. To optimize a system you have to think globally (all parts).

In manufacturing environments, this might mean running some pieces of equipment or processes at a slower-than-potential rate to reduce errors or variance. Accelerating that process may seem to make things go faster, but increases the amount or frequency of later rework.


https://news.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/16-057_d...

It comes to a figure of 12k loss as the cost of replacing the toxic employee. Yes, replacing an employee is always a net loss in isolation.

It seems to be using a tautological definition:

defines a “toxic” employee as: “A worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.” Yes, that causes a net loss. By definition.

They also state they don't consider "productivity spillover" because they found spillover can sometimes be negative so they just assume it all cancels out. If Bob rebuilds something and saves every other employee lots of time going forward.... this analysis just ignores it.

The news coverage makes it seem like a tickbox study tailored to HR interests in large orgs, so they can pat themselves on the back for 'proving' that teamwork trumps uncharismatic productivity, despite the study saying nothing about that.

If one wanted to truly study these costs, they'd also be looking at charismatic unproductive people who, despite all making each other feel good, don't actually bring any value to an organisation.


> tautological definition

There's a picture that gets re-posted on LinkedIn periodically of Netflix's CTO Reed Hastings captioned with a quote attributed to him: "Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high." Although this is the sort of feel-good positive fluff that is perfect LinkedIn-bait, I can't help but notice that the people who re-post it and re-share it tend to be people who I remember personally as being mostly just regular jerks. Look, I know better than to characterize myself as "brilliant" on the internet (and I honestly don't think I am, although I do think I'm competent), two things I indisputably am are educated and experienced. Since the subjective words "talented" and "brilliant" and "rockstar" are usually used as a stand-in for the more objective but contentious terms educated and experienced, I can't help but think that somewhere in the back of their minds, they're including me in their list. The people in my network who re-post this platitude usually didn't like me very much because they found themselves in a sticky situation that they expected me to be able to get them out of. When you're educated and experienced, but you still can't solve somebody's crisis on the spot, they don't think, "oh, well, I was asking a lot", they think, "he could have helped me, but he didn't because he's a jerk who thinks he's too good for me".


If more than one person has thought you are a jerk, especially more than one at a single job, and you don't know why, you're probably a jerk. The classic sign of a jerk is someone who can't pinpoint why someone would think they are a jerk in the first place. Or worse, you know why but you just don't care.

As far as toxic workers go (jerks included), there are a lot of reasons they are toxic:

* They are negative all the time. They sap the enjoyment out of the room. * They are highly critical of other's work. No one else has a problem with the work others are doing, they just nit-pick every little thing. * They avoid hard work and only go after prestige projects. They'll try to push stuff like maintenance work onto others, and half-ass it when they have to do it. * Anything they do wrong is met with a strong defense mechanism and a need to deflect into someone else.

I'm sure there's more, these are just off the top of my head. Contrary to belief, being 'brilliant' has absolutely nothing to do with whether someone can be toxic. I've met a few toxic people in software and out, and some were downright mediocre.


Maybe. (Actually, no, not, but for the sake of discussion). I have worked with people that would be considered "brilliant jerks" as in, they were amazing but they were so hard for most people to get along with that they actually were fired for being difficult to work with. It's never happened to me, but I've seen it happen maybe a half-dozen times to other people. What I couldn't help noticing about each of them was that: a) I never had any problem getting along with them. They just came down hard enough on the incompetent that they got a reputation for being unreasonable. b) there were people who were much, much more abusive, but not people that anybody would call "brilliant" (the opposite, in fact), who seemed to be applauded for their ability to anger people. The difference was that they people who got away with it always directed their arrogant attitude down, never up. It just seems to me that the more competent you're _perceived_ to be, the lower the threshold for bad behavior gets you labelled as a "jerk".


>It just seems to me that the more competent you're _perceived_ to be, the lower the threshold for bad behavior gets you labelled as a "jerk".

Yep. If the 80/20 rule is true(and I keep finding anecdotal evidence it is), then wouldn't the natural frustrations of the 20% doing the 80% simply be perceived as toxicity by the other 80% doing the remaining 20%?

Take a team of 10 people. If 8 people get together and decide to say the 2 top performers are "toxic"(by whatever metric that is defined), what chance do those 2 people have, even if they are doing 80% of the work?


The cost of "just being honest" over learning some subtlety.

I'm smart, I'm competent, I know what I'm doing, and, most importantly, I know how to get you to come along with me willingly.

If that fails, well, I know how to say something that only becomes devistating once I leave the room and I'm better friends with all your co-workers anyway. Come at me.

The people you saw fired lacked that final quality. They bought into the narrative that our field is a meritocracy and that's a downright lie. They poured all their effort into their skills and ego and left zero room for learning to navigate office politics. They deserved to be fired.


Having worked at Netflix, I can tell you the difference: An experienced person says "In my experience, this is the best way to go because of X, Y, and Z". A jerk says, "The best option is my way and if you do it any other way you're wrong and I don't have to justify myself to you because I'm that good."

In both cases what the person is suggesting is in fact the right way to go most of the time. The difference is whether or not you feel you're better than everyone else.


Being the smartest person in a room puts a lot of extra pressure and stress on you. Proving certain kinds of people wrong is hard. Doing it without upsetting them is even harder. After a while you just give up and either stop teaching people making you "toxic because he only cares about himself", or you give up trying to explain properly making you "toxic because he think we should just listen without proper explanations". Only solution is to leave and find smarter coworkers.


This sounds like a dangerous mindset to get into. If someone believes "I'm the smartest person here and nobody understands me" then I agree leaving right away is the best solution for everyone.


If you are the smartest person in the room consistently, you are in the wrong room!.


>"The best option is my way and if you do it any other way you're wrong and I don't have to justify myself to you because I'm that good."

...but if they've been with the service, let's say Netflix - as you eluded to, since it's inception, then I would think that they would know the answer far better than an engineer that's only been around a month or so.

What you're taking for arrogance might be the engineer simply stating that they've been around the block or two and, having had people try to discredit them before, they want to establish that their experience trumps someone else's own arrogance.

It's not the best way to put it, to be sure, but people have different ways of expressing themselves and/or different expectations of others.

The problem is two-fold: Understanding everyone's personalities and their expectations; and then using that knowledge to build channels of communications with those principles in mind.

If you haven't heard of Insights trainings[0], I highly suggest checking it out.

Anyways, so while one engineer might care about other things, which I might find arbitrary because I only care about the datasets (e.g.: something tangible), it doesn't mean that either of us are "wrong". Just because all I care about is the data surrounding a bug defect doesn't mean I'm an asshole, compared to someone who cares about the end-uer's experience. We're simply driven by different aspirations.

The same goes for your jerk engineer. Maybe they're tired of people trying to disprove their statements and tack on the, "I'm that good" at the end precisely because they're tired of the bullshit, A-type personality shit that comes with everyone trying to one-up them to look cool. Or maybe they're actually a jerk. I don't even pretend to claim to know.

...but immediately attributing malice, where other answers can just as easily suffice, does everyone a disservice because you don't rely on communication to understand the why behind whatever was said. You take this assumption you've made, let it create a bias, and then that bias affects your interactions with them.

All of that could've easily been avoided by a simple, "Hey, man (or chica or your flavour of vernacular), I wanted to ask what's up and see if you knew/understood/comprehend/what-have-you how what you said came across when...." A lot of the times, you'll probably find that they had no intention of it sounding like that but 'x' was on their mind or some other factor was in play. You could also find out that they are, indeed, a jerk; but that would, at the very least, be a confirmation and not just an assumption, yeah?

Anyways, this was a long, fuck-all, pointless diatribe to say that someone might come across to you as a feckwad but it doesn't - implicitly - mean that that's who they are, in their day-to-day.

I've experienced people I thought were arrogant as feckall, until I had 1:1's with them and got to know their personalities and perspective a lot better. Once I understood where they were coming from and how they think and/or react to things, I could tailor my behaviour better towards their personalities and they could do the same in kind.

(Sorry for the feck-all novel.)

[0] - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sP6QbVND04g


Also "toxic" is a term abused to mean "heretical" at times. The guy pointing out HR works for the company not you and is encouraged to some negative dynamics to justify their salary by reducing liability and claimed productivity may be branded toxic.

Charismatic people building their own fiefdoms that view networking as king and actual productivity gains a threat are building not just houses of cards but full scale card mansions are more actual organizational harm toxic than any ill-mannered productives.



Alternatively, you found GP's Reddit account.



I found the guy.

If I try as hard as I possibly can and output 20% of an amazing individual. do I have no place in this world?

Listen, this is the basic level of human interaction. manners are oil for bodies at friction, and respect is a gateway to team participation.

If you cant see the value in that, then you are the problem. You can output a million times the output of your team, but if you dont have a team then you have nothing except yourself. and if you are the only reason for success.. why arent you Jeff Bezos?

"charismatic unproductive people who, despite all making each other feel good, don't actually bring any value to an organisation." -- This phrase stinks of devaluation. if you have a team that you view every member of as providing nothing of quality, then again.. you are the problem. Everyone has something to provide, on many different levels.you are failing to see that, and that is your problem.

but carry on my friend. if you are as amazing as you say, then ill read about you in the news soon.


As someone proclaiming that "manners are oil for bodies at friction", the ridiculousness of your rudeness is only surpassed by the unbelievable strawman you just set up.

blue1379 brings up some very valid questions. If a snobbish, but highly talented employee builds toolkits/engines that double or triple the production of the average employee, does the same equation used in the study apply?

On the other hand, what constitutes a "non-toxic" employee? Does everybody's buddy who convinces half the team that 2-5pm is ping pong and beer time not disproportionately decrease productivity?

He's asking for more nuance, which is never a bad thing. You seem to be demanding that things stay binary.


>If a snobbish, but highly talented employee builds toolkits/engines double or triple the production of the average employee

That person is not 'toxic' because the qualifier is that they have trained their coworkers on the frameworks they created, thus they actually get along.

I think the toxic version would be making statements like, "I spend all my time building frameworks that if my coworkers used them, would double their productivity, but they're obviously too stupid to understand. The more I hear their silly questions on how to use it, the more I realize how f'd hiring is around here that these people are 'coworkers'. So please, I give up, I'll use my frameworks and I'll be 8x more productive than them, just make them leave me alone so I can work."


> If a snobbish, but highly talented employee builds toolkits/engines that double or triple the production of the average employee, does the same equation used in the study apply?

What if we fire Mr Snobby Pants and hire someone who's both socially and technically competent?


A talented employee can be rude and disruptive to a team? but lower valued employees play beer pong.

My unbelievable straw man is looking great in your yard. Along with the many things I "seem" to say versus the things I actually say.


I think you need to take a walk and cool down from internet conversation. If this is how you talk to your coworkers when confronted with disagreement then I don't think you're the "non-toxic" one in your office.


"If I try as hard as I possibly can and output 20% of an amazing individual. do I have no place in this world?"

You have a place in this world, no question.

But it may not be at the company of your choice, in the job of your choice, at the pay of your choice.

With the genes I rolled, there is no amount of work I could have done to become an NFL quarterback. C'est la vie. The NFL owes me nothing.


100% agree. People dont always make the right decisions, you may be dealing with a fish out of water in a job they chose, but dont belong in. People make mistakes. We all do, thats how we learn. Excellent comment.


What if they are all find slacking off together super fun and make each other feel great...but don't get any work done?


>Everyone has something to provide, on many different levels.you are failing to see that, and that is your problem.

Totally false. Some prople are really bad at their jobs and gang up with other unproductive people to rag on those who are carrying the team. If you cant see that, you are probably insecure and rationalizing your hostility to people who are better and make you look bad in comparison.


Hold up.. there are "gangs" of bad employees who team up together just rag on those carrying the team.. (you... right?)

Man.. so glad Im insecure enough to rely on these gangs to fight my battles for me. Millions of bad employees but only 5 rockstar developers like yourself.

I dont stand a chance.


> Man.. so glad Im insecure enough

I know you're saying this sarcastically, but in the context of the rest of your comments, it sounds a lot more like self-pity. Take a second to read the comments you're responding and realize how much you're projecting your own complexes onto comments that are saying nothing close to what you seem to think they are.


"It sounds a lot more like self pity" is the very definition of you projecting onto my words. I dont need to read my words, I wrote them.


> charismatic unproductive people

Not to drag politics into this, but, seriously, I think Trump has this category covered quite nicely. The costs are staggering.


Just read the study itself and am kind of scratching my head. I think the authors really just fail to consider the concept that the real problem with toxic employees is that they usually figure out to have their productivity measured very positively.

The authors build their thesis around a dichotomy between "toxic employees" and "superstars" (not "rock stars" as claimed in the article summarizing the study). The authors rather woodenly make their way through various analyses that make productivity the dependent variable, while also delving into the question of whether toxicity is contagious within workplaces.

Overall I get the impression that the study authors have never actually spent time in toxic workplaces.

The most toxic employees are not those who "[engage] in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people" -- as another commenter mentioned, this is a comically tautological definition. Rather, toxic employees are those who convince their boss that they are a superstar while making the company a worse place to work. A toxic employee isn't, as the study seems to imply, somebody who writes mean graffiti in the employee bathroom -- it's someone who berates junior staffers under the auspices of demanding excellent execution, and who finishes the year with sales growth in his division up 23%.


Yeah, the problem with this kind of study is that workplace politics are highly contextual to the individuals you are dealing with. And I can think of no situation where citing a study about “toxic” individuals is going to change the mind of any executive. At this level of abstraction senior leaders already have beliefs about the human dynamics in their org and how they should be managed; the way to influence them is with specifics in the context they know rather than broad proclamations based on a raft of dubious assumptions.


In college I worked at an environmental testing company. I worked there for 3 summers. The first summer I worked there I worked closely with a woman named Shawn (name not changed because fuck her). I'm not saying she was bipolar, but she would wildly swing from having good days and having bad ones. Good days were fine sometimes really great, the entire department would be productive. Bad days were fucking terrible, she brought everyone down with her attitude, nit-pickyness, and comments (mind you she wasn't a manager).

Fast forward to the next summer, I was dreading working there because of her. But they gave me a raise to come back and I needed the money for college so I sucked it up. Day one - she's not there! She was pregnant, close to her due date, and was taking time off. That summer the office ran like clockwork. A few ups and downs here and there, but very even keeled. I spent another summer there and she never returned, I guess she decided to be a stay at home mom for a while.

Even years later it's hard to pinpoint just what exactly she did that was insanely toxic, it was just a number of things. But it was clear as day it was happening and made it easy to spot at other places where I've worked.


The one thing I value in co-workers is consistency, I'd sooner someone be a consistent dick than wildly swing about the place like a wrecking ball, I can route around dickheads when I know where they'll be at that point in time..


I've worked in a couple toxic MSPs.

There was 1 guy who had been working there for 10 years. He was a 'senior' guy who was more intermediate and took days to work on fixes that would take a couple hours for most others.

Early in my time there I was given a client of his. I was working hand in hand with him. All decisions were bounced off him and agreed upon. The customer complained and when I explained to the boss that I had been working with him all along, he denied it and let me take the fall.

Then another day, couple other techs were given a ticket to work on. They determined a new NAS needed to be deployed because the backups arent working. I was sent onsite to deploy a new nas; that's what I did.

I email everyone involved including him, he was on vacation. He replies all but excludes me; and I'm told he took me down a notch and bad mouthed me badly. Mind you I just did what I was told. He then publicly in front of me told everyone that I was screwing over his client. So I replied instantly, "For the record, I was told to deploy a NAS. I did as I'm told. I did got above and beyond and see if I could get that vmhost back alive; I couldn't and so I agree with the techs who recommended a NAS.

He did this kind of shit often to people; but he was the only person who could work on the internal network. The owners of the MSP loved him. He then got promoted to be the IT manager. This pretty much started the process of literally everyone quitting.

Of note, right after he got promoted. There was another coworker who was beyond angry that he got promoted. He was flipping his lid and tells me that he is going to kill the new IT manager. I report this death threat and I got fired the next day. I was apparently the toxic one.


But from a company's perspective, isn't that 23% the only number that matters?

The point of the study (and I have some issues with it too) is that the 23% could be 30% if you dealt with the toxic employee, or at the very least 23% is still doable without them, even though it seems like it isn't because they're better than average.


There are many ways to raise your short or even mid-term numbers that have a net negative effect on the company over the long term. For example, if you want to get monthly active users up over the course of 3-6 months to get a promotion, there are lots of ways to do it - you can do discount promotions, or even pay users to download and install and use your app. But the moment you stop doing that your numbers are going to tank, and in the long run you just cost the company money while also doing damage to how people perceive it. The massive drop in numbers after that is going to demoralize the team, as well.

I've worked on a couple different teams where leadership did short-term-focused things like this to get numbers up and then the company paid for it later (typically after the leadership had exited or been pushed out).

This is a type of superstar toxicity that can be really harmful to your company even if people aren't quitting in droves because of the toxic employee.


I get the concept of what you're saying with, "the 23% could be 30% if you dealt with the toxic employee", but I think that unfortunately is not true in a lot of cases. There are a lot of really talented, hard-working people who are also toxic leaders (some maybe not fully intentionally), and the challenge of dealing with them in an organization is that, as you point out, measurable performance is often all that matters.

I think the cost-benefit in an example like this is usually not so much "replace the asshole and get a 7% bump in growth"....it's more like, "it'll cost you a point or two of sales growth but that'll more than pay for itself in terms of lower turnover because we'll save $200k a year in recruiters fees because we won't have to pay them to find replacements for miserable junior people who don't stick around for very long".


This isn't exactly what you were talking about, but one of the best pieces of advice I've heard was this:

It's never worth promoting a potentially toxic manager into a managerial role, even if they're great in their current role. If you do, the whole team suffers. If you don't and they leave because you didn't promote them, they weren't going to let you keep them as an IC anyway. Best case is you reform them, but do that before and not after you promote them.

I've seen this pattern more than I'd like.


I have recently been labeled a “brilliant jerk” at a FAANG company and threatened with termination. In actuality I now know that I have acted like this (not always but sometimes) and I take ownership of it. In trying to come to terms with it, I’ve been doing a lot of research and I think the research is overly simplistic particularly when it comes to motivation. I am not a psychopath and I am not purely self interested. My motivations have never been money or climbing or anything like that. I’ve wanted to build cool stuff that people say can’t be done but that is also successful. I have always pulled in the direction of the company and not my own (at least in my mind). I have never treated anyone badly simply to treat them badly to make myself feel better or to put them down. I always thought it was best to give people direct and honest feedback. It’s almost never what I was saying that was wrong but how I was saying it. I was too harsh and I ignored emotional data. In trying to be objective, I tried to keep things logical and data based always; I would get upset when people could not follow a logical line of thought. I often used, in a modified way, the Socratic method to show someone that their argument was wrong. This led people to feel I was disrespectful to them because it would force a contradiction. By doing this, I meant to teach them but I was wrong; it simply made people feel foolish. I ignored the emotional side of things and that’s a big problem for me. It’s also not true that I would never concede I was wrong. You just had to have a really strong case.

Up until now this has also “worked” as it’s gotten things done on time. In one case, my work saved a product line that would have failed entirely. It took a lot of courage to stick my neck out and said we had to change direction. The change in direction meant abandoning something I had spent a year designing. Nobody wanted to abandon that work and shift. It was the right thing to do though. I took a huge amount risk and flack at the time and probably was almost fired. So there is good and bad to this. I am working to change but something is going to get lost. I probably won’t stick my neck out like that again.

I am also human. I make mistakes too and I’m trying to learn from all this.


> I have recently been labeled a “brilliant jerk”

Nobody's ever come right out and labelled me that way, but I suspect there are at least a few people in my past who probably would describe me that way (they'd probably backtrack and say, "well, he wasn't all that brilliant - he just knew a lot of stuff is all. But boy was he a jerk!"). Not all, not even most, but at least some. Like I said, this could all be in my head, but I don't think so - see, I've had co-workers who really didn't know how to do their job, and basically demanded my help. I'm not talking about interns who I was in charge of training, I'm talking about people with 10 years experience who had the same title, benefits and perks as I had. And they were completely incompetent. I have to work hard to keep my patience with those people, and I usually give them hints as to what to do (have you tried loading it in a debugger? Have you checked to make sure you're pointed at the right database?), but yeah, I have some disdain for these people and in spite of my best efforts to hide it, they sometimes seem to pick up on it. What's unfair about the "brilliant jerk" label (or the "competent jerk" to be less self-aggrandizing) is that the more competent you are, the more likely you're going to get the label, no matter what you do.


Oh I know that too well. Having to explain that when the system says file not found, it means your program is trying to use a file that is not there. Or pasting error messages into google and summarising the first result for them.

At one point it was so bad I felt like I was just tech support, and was in a reactive not a proactive mode because the next question is surely coming soon so I'd better not start any deep work.


> I would get upset when people could not follow a logical line of thought.

I think that's one of the biggest things I struggle with and have tried to get in front of for myself.

I know picking one sentence out takes it out of context. But this is the thing I find myself working on the most to not seem like a jerk. Most of the time, if I take the time to try to understand people, then I can teach them. I've been learning this with my wife, when I got way way deep down into something and she has an opinion on it but hasn't researched it like I have, I try to throw information at her until she "sees" what I see. We actually fought about this earlier this week. I was doing what you're talking about right now.

When I catch myself doing this, I have to scale back. Not everyone will get what you are saying at the same level. Find people who do and talk to them, about the details and figure out a way to abstract your ideas for people based on figuring out what they know and how to best simplify the concepts for what they already know. It doesn't work for me all the time, sometimes I still seem like a jerk. But I struggle with this too, although I assume you are probably quite a bit more intelligent than I am.

I also use self deprecation strategically to give people I'm talking to an insight into my faults. Sometimes it helps me build kinship. Always something I believe about myself, but in a way that helps me show I'm not perfect.

>I probably won’t stick my neck out like that again. When I find myself in this situation (which I do from time to time) I find something else worth sticking my neck out for.

>I make mistakes too and I’m trying to learn from all this. That's what makes you an awesome human.

Good luck.


I had the same experience. My manager refused to see what was in front of him. After I left that jobs, my mental health greatly improved because I no longer had to deal with unrealistic deadlines from my incompetent manager. The next time I run into this situation again, I know not to voice my concerns and just start looking for a new job. There is no point disagreeing because it is alway you that will lose no matter the outcome. People like sweet talkers, not naysayers. Let them find out themselves when the hard way.

P.s. after I left, my manager couldn’t ship anything for 1 full year. It turns out, I was the only one keeping the boat afloat.


It's... scary sometimes, reading comments like these.

On one hand, I identify with what you've written here. I too had issues (still have) with working on a team.

On the other hand, I find myself identifying with someone with clear narcissistic tendencies, or at the very least is supremely unaware of themselves.

Why write this little confessional here, a place that's clearly not about you or your specific issue? Why couch it with tons of "but I didn't actually do anything wrong" notes? Why write it in such a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style? Why put these weirdly specific anecdotes, and why would the reader (who is the reader, by the way) even believe you?

I see these comments, and I get scared, because I recognize that this is how some people view me, and that's... not good.

wppick 28 days ago [flagged]

It's... an anecdote. It's very related to the linked article, and adds insight into what the industry is considering toxic. You must be very easily scared if a personal anecdote causes this kind of a reaction from you.


I vouched for this comment — previously it was flagged and you had to have showdead enabled to see it. The last sentence is a tad aggressive, but no more rude than statements from the person they're corresponding with.


Yes, I am easily scared by strangers on the Internet espousing clearly deranged, off-tilt rants that remind me of some of the shit I say.


Judging by your comment I'm guessing maybe the GP's comment hits a little too close to home.


Yes, that's exactly what I'm trying to say. Seeing it laid out such as it is disconcerts me.

Does this trouble folks? Went from +2 over an hour to -3 in like 30 seconds.


I appreciate your comment; it gives me hope that formerly toxic people can change.

EDIT: toxic might be too strong; let's say difficult to work with.


> I often used, in a modified way, the Socratic method to show someone that their argument was wrong.

you do know how Socrates was punished for such a behavior ...

The Socratic like approach seems on practice to be "win the battle, lose the war", while, for comparison, Carnegie would be something like "win the war while may be loosing the battle". Being myself that typical "battle winner war looser" with the effect amplified by the typical Russian lack of soft skills, i was at some point given a enlightening talk by a friendly American which sounded something like this "Look, you're a <high compliment of my technical abilities, i mean he is an American after all :) >. You say the technically correct things which you always start with 'No,...' and that doesn't let it to result in the otherwise possible productive effect. "

honkycat 27 days ago [flagged]

I am not convinced you have actually learned your lesson here. You still sound extremely condescending. This sounds like a post from /r/iamverysmart.

Leadership and emotional intelligence are part of intelligence.

Have you thought that maybe, instead of all of your coworkers not understanding, that YOU are the one that doesn't get it?

> In actuality I now know that I have acted like this (not always but sometimes) and I take ownership of it.

Have you taken ownership? In this post, you are still trying to justify your abusive behavior by building it up with some kind of pseudo-intellectual BS.

"As the genius-king of (random FAANG), I must be gentler with my subjects. I can see now why the NPCs were upset by my mental lashings."

Also, you still cast a lot of the blame on your co-workers for "not being smart enough" instead of owning up to your own antisocial behaviour.

> I was too harsh and I ignored emotional data.

Emotional data? Do you mean the feelings and thoughts of the people around you?

"Ignored emotional data" - I didn't care about how my co-workers felt, just that I ended up being the person who looked the smartest in the end.

> In trying to be objective, I tried to keep things logical and data based always; I would get upset when people could not follow a logical line of thought.

I seriously doubt that at a FAANG people "could not follow a logical train of thought." Maybe you just were not as convincing or clear as you thought you were.

Or maybe people were just tired of you and the way you treated everyone, and you burned all good-will when trying to get your agendas passed.

Also, here, you still make it other people's fault. "I would get upset because they were dumb." No. It is not their fault you struggled to communicate. It is not their fault you cannot control your emotions. That is your YOUR problem.

You can kick and scream all you want, but YOU have to go to the world, the world will not come to you.

> I often used, in a modified way, the Socratic method to show someone that their argument was wrong. This led people to feel I was disrespectful to them because it would force a contradiction. By doing this, I meant to teach them but I was wrong; it simply made people feel foolish. I ignored the emotional side of things and that’s a big problem for me.

This is the big one for me. "using the Socratic method to show someone that their argument was wrong" is incredibly pretentious. You are not their professor, these are not students. These are adults with degrees and jobs. Who have been through tragedy and triumph and built up at least a nugget of wisdom ( hopefully ). Not your peons to whip with "Socratic method" that makes you feel oh-so-smart. People have pride, and what your describing completely ignores that. In fact, it seems like it is seeking to HARM their pride.

"using the Socratic method to show someone that their argument was wrong" - Is that what you were doing? Or were you forcing people to play your weirdo sociopath games for longs periods of time? It sounds like you would trap them in a room and be an unpleasant sociopath instead of just explaining your reasoning like an adult.

You really do not seem to value other people or consider their thoughts AT ALL. You seem to think you are the only person with a brain. Me, personally: I would have seen through the Socratic method BS immediately, I would have found it extremely condescending, and it would have pissed me off.

> It’s also not true that I would never concede I was wrong. You just had to have a really strong case.

So you would just argue until you won. Contgratulations. You sound like a lot of fun to work with.


Although I understand your point of view, you are being as condescending as you claim he is.


"Toxic Workers Are More Productive"

Isn't this just an instance of Berkson's paradox? [0]

You might keep someone around because they're nice, or because they're productive. So if they're neither nice nor productive, then they wouldn't be hired/retained. So 100% of surviving not-nice people are productive, whereas the nice people is a mix of productive and non-productive people.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkson%27s_paradox


I think you're talking about survivor bias, not Berkson's paradox.

Also the study intentionally focuses more on the cost-benefit of retaining a specific population - productive toxic people - and doesn't care about non-productive (toxic or non-toxic) people since they don't factor into that specific C/B equation.


I think the reference to Berkson's paradox is spot on:

> The most common example of Berkson's paradox is a false observation of a negative correlation between two positive traits, i.e., that members of a population which have some positive trait tend to lack a second. Berkson's paradox occurs when this observation appears true when in reality the two properties are unrelated—or even positively correlated—because members of the population where both are absent are not equally observed.

But you are also correct, survivor bias can lead to Berkson's paradox.


You might also keep someone around because there are not enough candidates to fill all positions, never mind hire a replacement for them.


I liked the article, but I find the definition of a toxic worker difficult. It's more like the article defines a toxic worker by the result, not the symptom.

In reality, what are the symptoms of a toxic worker? What are the causes? What are the situations where someone might be labeled "toxic" but the real problem is something else?


This is a good question. I think I was labeled the toxic worker in my previous job. I was a team lead and kept bring up concerns to my manager:

* 'this deadline is unrealistic'

* 'we can't continue at this pace, we have to have time to address some serious technical debt'

* 'I heard marketing saying that we can do X, but it isn't true and to add feature X would destroy our timeline'

* 'Adding more contractors isn't going to speed this up or improve the quality, we need time not warm bodies'

Of course none of those things were what my manger wanted to hear. When things inevitably went south it all came down on me and I was managed out of the company. I'm much happier now, as I see that the job was what was toxic. My manager wouldn't listen to me and I wouldn't drink the kool-aid that all was well. In fact, I saw it as my responsibility to share these concerns and to not just go with the flow. Now that I've had time to look back on it, I just think that is his management style: grind people to the bone for all that they are worth, then throw them out and repeat to the next poor sap.

Anyways, the article is about toxic workers - but if the managers are the ones deciding what is considered 'productive' and who is 'toxic' then that isn't a very complete view of the actual environment.


Ironically, not drinking the kool-aid makes you toxic.

And managers are technically workers too. There's no reason to put them in an ivory tower and assume they can't hate their job, hate people they work with or want to exact revenge for some wrong done against them.


The truth is somewhat more nuanced IMO, and it’s mentioned somewhere here — behavior is contagious. Keeping upbeat and positive to your coworkers will make them upbeat and positive even if they’re not naturally. Positivity like negativity is contagious, but the latter is the steady state for many while the former requires continuous effort. The issue here is the won’t/can’t/stop/oh god in heaven. Showing up at your managers desk ready to listen and propose solutions and iterate is much more positively viewed. I’m confident the manager sees the issues for themselves, what they need are solutions.

Check out the difference a little wordsmithing makes:

* 'this deadline is unrealistic' — “id love to be able to get all this done for you, and with 8 weeks left, I’m only going to be able to get through half of this; let’s sit down and figure out what we can deprioritize without compromising the core of our next release”

* 'we can't continue at this pace, we have to have time to address some serious technical debt' — “I’ve noticed im having trouble moving quickly in the codebase with the level of testing we have right now, I’d love to lead an effort to improve testing and testability. Let’s resdefine ‘performance’ to include velocity, and with this new metric I’m sure we can find some time! Happy to do the leg work here.”

* 'I heard marketing saying that we can do X, but it isn't true and to add feature X would destroy our timeline' - same as 1: “I’d love to be able to get X out for you in the next release, and to do so requires we cut a few weeks scope elsewhere in the product — let’s sit down and see what we can deprioritize without compromising quality!”

* 'Adding more contractors isn't going to speed this up or improve the quality, we need time not warm bodies' — what will? “Let’s see if we can save the company some money by finding a way to work more efficiently! I’ve noticed x and y, and I’d love to take the lead on it. Let’s define some metrics to show this is as good as or better than bringing in some more contractors! The finance team is going to love our proposal.”


Seems like the manager was the toxic employee here.


Certainly from my point of view, but that's the point of my comment, and the parent comment. Who gets to label the toxic people and the criteria that must be met for someone to get that label is a very important aspect that the article does not address. I'm not sure if the study its reporting on goes into that detail or not. Since they are specifically using the term 'toxic worker' and not employee, I'm left believing its purely from the viewpoints of the managers


Indeed. Reading TFA, I couldn't help thinking that managers who think this way are in fact the toxic ones. And so are slackers and the clueless, who can't hear constructive criticism straight, without getting their feelings hurt, and gossiping to management.

But then, maybe it's just that I'm prototypically toxic. And why I've always been happier as an independent consultant. Because I've tended to have slack to declare bullshit.


> I think I was labeled the toxic worker in my previous job. I was a team lead and kept bring up concerns to my manager

If someone was using the term "toxic" simply because of those behaviors, I'd say they were just using the wrong word.

Based only on what you wrote, another possibility seems to be that some aspect of how you communicated those concerns, or some other aspect of your behavior entirely, is what caused people to consider you "toxic". It would be interesting to hear your former manager's view of things.

In my own experience, I've had plenty of cases where my own view of my conduct was very different from how my coworkers viewed me. The cumulative impact of miscommunication and my occasional lack of self-awareness has caused me some serious grief.


That's why sometimes you just need to go around your manager's head and talk to people up the chain.

If they're all doofuses, it's time to leave!

But, if they're reasonable people, things will change for the better.


You're not toxic, your manager is.


Absolutely, there's a sort of double-speak going on here. If we define toxic as they did "harmful to the org" then HR, or even the CEO can be toxic (i.e. not good for the company). Heck, by this definition, even unions might be "toxic."

But in practice, 9/10 times when somebody says "toxic" they really mean rebellious (i.e. disagreeing with management decisions, calling out dishonest messaging, asking for transparency over management mistakes, sharing frustrations).

The article uses a loaded term to create a false-equivalence between "harmful to company" and "rebellious."


Couldn't disagree more w/ the 9/10 part. That's the sort of thinking self-identified "rebellious workers" who are worried about others (mgmt) perceiving themselves as.

"toxic worker" is a pretty textbook definition now: -horrible team player -plays for the spotlight, claims credit in the spotlight, does little work privately -if in mgmt, verbally/mentally terrorizes subordinates -etc etc


Yeah, too bad in many cases in companies where people play politics, the term toxic will be used as it suits best the person in power and their personal agenda, regardless of the textbook definition.

People took the notion of a fluid language and took it too far, by letting words mean whatever they think they mean and refusing to get corrected and/or abide by a standard definition.


Well yes, those instances would be companies that aren't on the train quite yet of understanding what a toxic worker actually is.

Which is the whole point of these sorts of studies: education

In areas where "toxic working" is ID'd as the risk it really is (i.e. this study is old, old news), it's never a term thrown around as a political term like you're concerned about. It's a specifically cancerous, horrible way of working that's seriously easy to identify. It's like trying to play politics with the term "water leaking" to describe anything other than water leaking.


Honestly, your 9/10 bit makes you sound like a manager who has been called out for making poor decisions. That isn't what I'd consider a toxic employee AT ALL. If you're making stupid decisions, you should be called out on it. Going by your definition, the manager would be considered toxic to the company as well.


Example: a person is being singled out by manager and assigned the junk work and not supported. Other employees start using the black sheep as a scapegoat and “othering” them. Scapegoat is unskilled at interpersonal conflict, has few personal boundaries. They start drinking or otherwise coping, because overall they like their job. After 2 years they’re laid off and nobody reaches out to them or responds. Is the laid off employee toxic? Perhaps. Were there ignored warning signs? Is that toxic?

Lots of nuance in judgement. Most people feel toxicity, but there are strong incentives to maintain situational homeostasis and capitalize on others’ blind spots.

Personally I’ve dumped a lot of that programming and am looking for non-judgemental and discerning workplaces, like I remember from early in my career. Hopefully not a pipe dream.


In my last company the toxic guy was the one who was extremely loud and obvious, always burning the midnight oil, running around like he was on fire. i.e. squeaky wheel.

In reality he was causing 10x more problems than he fixed, and for multiple years in a row his personal overtime spending was significant in a company of 500 employees.


"toxic worker" is a pretty textbook definition now:

-horrible team player

-Unfortunately hugely effective at getting results

-plays for the spotlight, claims credit in the spotlight, does little work privately

-if in mgmt, verbally/mentally terrorizes subordinates -etc etc

It's just a truly poisonous person, who tends to be extremely performant so they can stick around in orgs, whose lack of interpersonal skills in the above realms more or less destroys teams in the long run.


Depending on circumstances this sounds like the description of someone who moves up the ladder. It seems there is a very fine line between this description of “toxic” and “achiever”.


False, there is a very distinct line b/t descriptions of "toxic worker" and "achiever," assuming "achiever" is something to be emulated, is positive, and is good for the company.

That's why literature on toxic workplaces tends to not define toxic workers as "achievers" but as "high performers."

Frankly, that confusion is why this study exists. Orgs have to learn to figure out what who is "achieving," and who is "toxic working and getting results." It's a really common confusion point, but is only solved by education and good leadership.

Put another way, it's 10000% possibly to be a high achiever, and do none of that type of behavior.


Isn't that the point of the study? The system is broken if individually productive but net counterproductive people are labeled "achievers" and promoted.


I guess I am looking at it from the employee perspective. If you want to advance it’s probably better to risk being called toxic instead of being a good team player who never gets anywhere.


That takes some faith that being an unselfish team player will in fact get you somewhere.

From a mgmt perspective, assuming a good manager, it does.

If your team/org doesn't approach it that way, the solution is find a high performing team that does approach it that way, not become toxic yourself. 10/10 high performance, long term successful teams approach things this way (source: this study, and people who have experienced this approach luckily).


"That takes some faith that being an unselfish team player will in fact get you somewhere."

From my experience in most cases it's not getting you anywhere. You will just be taken as granted.


There are many unethical things you might be prepared to do if your goal is "getting somewhere". Where do you draw the line? Or is it a case of not hating the player but hating the game?


It’s certainly about hating the game it also accepting that if you want to make some money you probably have to play it.


Asking that question might itself be "toxic". If "the group" arrives at that decision, consensus is better than correctness etc


When you are blaimed individually for the failure later on, is that also "the group" consensus?

In the long run always individuals are blamed and not groups..


> It's more like the article defines a toxic worker by the result, not the symptom.

What does this mean? Symptom and result are the same thing.


Perhaps "underlying" cause was meant / as a symptom of something else. Unrealistic demands with high pressure for results may lead to cultures of misconduct for instance. If the policies lead to the behaviors getting rid of the result won't fix it.


It's good that we are finally figuring out what Prussian Field Marshal, Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) knew almost 200 years ago. He devised a system to evaluate soldiers, a very simplistic explanation and chart is included with the link below.

Essentially what we define as toxic, he defined as dangerous, and felt those people should be eliminated from the Army at all costs because they cause far more harm than good.

http://soldiersystems.net/2012/05/27/kind-leader/

Von Moltke (the elder) is also considered as the creator of a new, more modern method of directing armies in the field, which is still used today. He also commanded by intention than by direct action, von Molkte felt that strategy needed to be adapted as battle progressed, so rather than having his staff officers be held to rigid direct action orders the had everyone working toward a series of goals, making adjustment along the way, sounds a lot like Agile software development.


A friend told me some time ago that in the German army every person is trained to be able to do the duties of anyone up to 2 levels above him. This is done so any unit, or even just individual soldier, can carry out their mission as intended, rather than as ordered, and so they can keep agile even when communications are down, i.e. they can plan their own strategy based on what the overall objectives are.


It's called auftragstaktik or mission command. I experienced it during my conscription (not German, but we apply it in my country as well), and it worked really good. Before the end of the service I'm certain my division could have retained most of its effectiveness, should you have removed all the ncos and the division commander.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission-type_tactics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_command


The USMC also trains this way. If your team leader or squad leader is wounded, you're expected to be able to take his place and be effective.


> Essentially what we define as toxic, he defined as dangerous,

Are we? To me, it seems that what is meant by "toxic" in the article and this comment thread falls on the "COMMANDERS" square. Smart and lazy.

In full honestly, I believe "toxicity" is orthogonal. Dumb "toxic" people are easy to get rid of. Smart "toxic" people are the ones over which a company may agonize.


"Toxic" is a meaningless word used by people to identify themselves with particular social movements. I mean, of course it does have it's original meaning. But that's not in use here.


Exactly; happy someone said this before me.

'Toxic' is just a slightly more sophisticated way of saying 'big mean jerk' (i.e. something completely subjective and open to interpretation).


This just sounds like the same as the nice guy paradox. If girls are looking to date guys who are both nice and good-looking, you only date guys who are assholes if they are really good looking.

Same thing with a "rockstar" asshole engineeer. If you weren't an awesome engineer on top of being an asshole, you wouldn't even be employed and we're not talking about you.

It's not because there's this magical correlation between being a "rockstar" and an asshole. This is just an outcome of sampling.


In the last few years, the metagame strategy of work politicking has evolved to include the act of labeling things "toxic." Article like this are just ammunition in that.

I get that this article is about the trade-off between productivity and a less-easily-quantifiable loss to morale. But only a sliver of the people hearing about the study from this article will be carefully applying the lessons learned in towards their personnel decisions.


I am of the belief that in many cases if not most cases toxic workers are created and that most workers hired are not initially toxic for that work environment. So the question I have is what are the company's doing that turns people from good workers to toxic workers? How do you turn a toxic worker or situation into a positive one? That seems like it would be cheapest solution.


Best to get ahead of the curve and self-identify as toxic.


The "safe space" work environment will end up becoming the new corporate behemoth style office type, and we'll start seeing 2012 style trendy startups looking for "toxic 10xers" or some sort of similar label. Having that edgy ground floor dev ends up being a new selling point.

I do wonder, if your whole team is made up of these "toxic" individuals, does productivity skyrocket as a result of the constant competition?

On an aside, isn't the end outcome of the article just an office full of mediocrity where no one really sticks out? How do you get natural leaders with that kind of situation?


That tech is already months old. There was even a blogpost on HN yesterday where someone humblebragged about controlling their toxicity in code reviews.


The dose makes the poison, better to self identify as therapeutic


I think thats a toxic article


This article doesn't say anything.

I'm left to imagine what exactly is a "toxic worker", what it means for them to be "productive", and how that definition of productivity allows some metal shop in Pennsylvania to become more profitable ("value of shipments per labor hour jumping from $85-90 to $123) after losing these so-called productive employees.

No definitions of "toxic", or "productivity" are given, nor any concrete (or even vague) examples of behavior or work output from which these definitions could be deduced.


How about toxic managers? For example the ones that hire the wrong person, or allow toxic environments to build up? Or the ones that promote people based on optics?


Sadly, with our irreproducability crisis in research, p-hacking, and agenda driven media I’ve stopped taking articles like this seriously. Sad because you don’t need a lot of bad apples to spoil the well and I’m sure more research is legit and intellectually honest.


You need not question their statistics to say the study is of little value. They define a toxic worker as someone who is harmful to an organization, and conclude with the tautology that organizations are better off without these harmful people.

In other news, red apples emit more red light than green apples.


Apples generally spoil barrels or bunches. Dead animals will generally spoil a well.


There will always be people with high ambition that want to perform and grow, and those people will likely be in contention with another type of person who wants a relaxing, stable, fun, and sustainable work environment. It's the job of leadership to match the right people together and set values and boundaries so that both of those employee types can satisfy their desires. It's lazy to just start labelling people as toxic. It's an oversimplification. Imagine putting a high performance athlete who is driven by the need to push themselves and compete with a bunch of lazy couch potatoes who just want to socialize and get a light workout.


>A 2015 study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor published by the Harvard Business School defines a “toxic” employee as: “A worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.”

If this is how they defined toxic, then the findings of the study are simply tautological.


the study finds that

> avoiding a toxic worker (or converting him to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker


Per their definition:

>avoiding a (worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people) (or converting him to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker

Well yeah, of course it does. A harmful worker causes harm. Duh.


It is not obvious or tautological that removing a bad employee is more valuable than acquiring a superb employee.


A bad employee can affect the whole department quickly - its so easy for corrosive attitudes to spread. But a good employee? It takes time and effort to build goodwill and teamwork.

It is better to remove a bad employee, than hire a better one. More urgent anyway.


> so easy for corrosive attitudes to spread

citation needed


Lifetime of experience. If you have other observations, feel free to make them.


One person's experience is basically useless, statistically speaking.


How about one person, experiencing the same thing dozens of times?


Dozens is a drop in the proverbial bucket.


What is a 'toxic worker'? Can the 'toxic worker' of somebody be the perfect employee for someone else? Does everyone refer to the same thing when referring to a 'toxic worker'?

I don't think that's appropriate. Flagged.


The word toxic is far too subjective to be meaningful. To a toxic boss, the employee who says "no I won't work 80 hours a week and lie on the reports" is being toxic (insubordination). If that employee tells other workers to stand up for themselves or act ethically, well know he's undermining his boss and sabotaging the company, and is considered really toxic.

When person A calls person B toxic, the only thing we can really conclude is that A really dislikes B. The study gets around this subjectivity by defining toxic to mean "harmful to an organization," but this definition make the study's conclusion a tautology: firing people who harm an organization is beneficial the organization.


If it floats, it's a witch

I highly doubt that 'toxic worker' has a consistent definition. Humans are tribal animals, and if you look through history I'm sure you can find see examples of 'toxic' members of tribes. Maybe at one point being left-handed made you a 'toxic' member of your tribe. It all comes down to what values and truths exist in the hive mind, and whose agenda is being served


> Toxic Workers Are More Productive,

Not my personal experience. I have seen that they are perceived as better as they have less self-doubt and sound more authoritative. But, the ones I have work with were bad.

Usually toxic workers seen as more productive and bad/inexperienced management go hand with hand.


> The findings show that avoiding a toxic employee generates returns of nearly two-to-one as compared to those generated when firms hire a rock star"

Why do you need to choose between these two though? Can't an interviewer pay attention to both the technical skills and the attitude of a potential hire? This sounds like a forced dichotomy just to justify a study nobody needs.

> While toxic employees are more productive, meaning getting more things done, the quality of that productivity often is less than desirable

If work is not up to standards then it's not done work and can't be considered productivity, can it? Again, do we really need a study to tell us that bad personality people who rush half done jobs to get that KPI are not what you want as employees?


  > do we really need a study to tell us that bad personality
  > people who rush half done jobs to get that KPI are not
  > what you want as employees?
I suspect this is a rhetorical question, and what you may be saying is, "It's ridiculous that large swathes of business needs to be told this thing over, and over, and over again, and yet they will not learn."

That is my slant on this, because I observe that often times, the incentives in organizations are to do the wrong thing that leads to the local optimum, where we define "local" as, a particular manager's well-being.

If a manager is rated by the measured productivity of their teams, the will hire for the ability to make the number and manage to the number, regardless of whether the number reflects the overall good of the team or organization.

As they say, "You show me a metric, and I'll show you a game."

In a dysfunction organization, everyone can be individually aware that the organization's management is dysfunctional, but it can't be changed without an overwhelming majority of managers simultaneously cooperating.

<insert citation to game theory and cooperating vs. defecting>

Not only that, but some managers actually do better by "quelling rebellion" and enforcing the dysfunction. They will actively undermine any effort to organize change.

You don't need people to be ignorant of things like this, you just need people to be attached to their individual incentives, and you need a culture where those who try to make change are rejected by the host culture.


Leadership and management is probably the biggest differentiator between a successful, growing organization and an organization that is decaying or stagnant. They say people don't quit jobs they quit managers. I've found that the role of manager self selects for people with more ego than brain, or someone who desires to have power over other people. I really agree with that quote, "You show me a metric, and I'll show you a game." There's a book The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller that talks about this. Essentially metrics are the mapping of a complex high-dimensional system into (sometimes) a single number, so that some self-important manager can make an easier decision. Metrics are in my opinion an instrument of power (which could be used for good or ill). The book Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott also has some interesting examples on how metrics and measuring things in general is used to control groups of people, and simplify complex systems.


I'm beginning to notice a trend with these kind of organizational pop psychology pieces. There is usually (especially in this piece) a bias towards overvaluing the risk contribution of an individual and a devaluing of the risk contribution and ownership of the leadership structure.

This piece is, to borrow a term, "not even wrong." There's no proof that "toxic workers" are more productive. By all accounts, toxic workers come in all shapes and sizes -- and what is a toxic worker, really? Is it someone who is physically and psychologically harmful to everyone in their lives and should probably seek rehabilitation before being reintroduced to society? Okay, that's one thing.

Is it someone who is not being managed properly, pushed into the wrong role, not given the right tools to do their job? Are they stuck in a dysfunctional culture run by sycophants, idiots and bullies? Are they unintentionally paving a road to hell with the best of intentions and the worst of consequences?

What I'm trying to get at here is the necessity of supervision. Organizations have command structures and hierarchies, whether implicit or explicit. The risks and consequences of those structures ultimately lies with management and leadership -- after all, it's with them that the true agency lies!

If it's not the job of management and leadership to train, manage out or fire misfits within the organization, what exactly is their job? After all, it's not individual contribution. There's sales, marketing, fundraising -- but except for the last one (and even that's a stretch), these are all team efforts. You maximize output from your team by removing unnecessary friction. If that can't happen passively, active changes need to be made.

Of course, such a brain-dead thinkpiece never couches with such responsibility or collectivist realities. They're comforting kernels of individualist tactics, sold to give the illusion of control. They're as attractive as a trendy new diet built on poor foundations, but about as effective: that is to say, not at all.

Nothing can kill a company as quickly as poor leadership. As a company gets larger, logistics rears its ugly head. Pragmatic structuring can mitigate that, and good leadership can bring about directional change towards that. But, nothing can stop bad leadership until it wants to improve.


> If it's not the job of management and leadership to train, manage out or fire misfits within the organization, what exactly is their job?

I personally agree with this.

But, there's this other school of thought out there (which I'm tired of, frankly) that seems to believe management is supposed to "hire the best", pay them well and stay the hell out of their way. The reasoning is that "all these geniuses we've hired" will create a vast new pool of profitability through unfettered innovation, deep insight, and wild creativity. Or something. I believe that Google and Facebook think they are doing this with their hiring practices.


I sympathize with your disdain. I prefer to reject this school of thought directly when I can, because it is a cultural abetting of incompetence. A company that practices this will atrophy and lose to a competitor which doesn't, even if that takes a while. Hiring the best requires hiring teams, not individuals. A group of star ICs that don't mesh well together could form a mediocre team, and a group of otherwise unremarkable (being a bit hyperbolic for the sake of discussion here) ICs who work well together could mesh together to form an all-star team.

Of course, I'm being hyperbolic when I say that because I think that part of what makes a star IC is someone who's good at assisting the team -- that's part of what makes great teams so devastatingly effective. That's part of what makes me very skeptical of that school of thought -- if you're really naive to believe that great teams come when you group a bunch of star ICs together (hint: it doesn't), how would you even know if you ended up screwing it up and it came out dysfunctional? You wouldn't, because you're not incentivized to. Your job as a manager and leader ended when you hired them.

I find this kind of laughable, honestly.


Can't you just have team made up of only "toxic" people? Do "toxic" people negatively affect the productivity of other "toxic" people?

I personally wouldn't want want to give up entirely on all the socially inept assholes whose in-depth knowledge on crap that I don't care to know about (but rely on) seemingly knows no bounds. More specifically, I do want to keep the IT department.


They define a rockstar as someone in the top 1% of productivity. In order to know how many average employees that equates to, you need to know something about the distribution of productivity across employees. Only then can you judge whether the harm caused to normal employees by the "toxic rockstar" is worth the price.


There seems to be a conflation of toxic and productive which I don't think is necessarily true. In my case the most toxic coworker I ever had was one who was notoriously unproductive but managed to kiss upwards and kick downwards in ways that made it take a while before management noticed.


The mil caught onto this in a serious way somewhat recently, the commissioning sources really lean into preventing this. Great to see this catching on in the business world


> Toxic employees don’t care about a company’s goals, nor do they care about building relationships with co-workers. More than just self-centered office bullies, toxic employees are actually strategic and covert.

This sort of describes the sociopaths of the Gervais Principle.

I don't necessarily see how this is a Bad Thing to be. If relationships help you through the day, sure, go for it, but it doesn't help you in your goals. Furthermore, your goals are, unless you are working for your own company, quite often directly opposed to what the company wants.

EDIT: let me expand on this:

Companies want (basically) the following:

- You to do as much work as possible

- You to require as little payment as possible

- Be completely loyal to the company, ie: work whenever they need you to, don't even think about changing jobs, etc etc.

What you (should) want:

- Have job where you'd be most content, which could be at your current job, but probably isn't. Let's be fair: your own ideas for projects would be much more fun to work on then whatever you do for the company.

- Get paid as much for the work you do

- Do as little work as possible, so you have more time for yourself, your family and friends.

I don't really see how their definition of 'toxic' checks all the boxes above. I don't care all that much for the company goals, since they are (to me) much less important than my own goals. I don't care too much for relationships with co-workers; they're my co-workers, they're not the life-long friends I already had before I started this job. Furthermore, given that on average they'll be gone in 2.5 years, spending too much time and energy into creating a relationship with someone who'll be gone by then seems like wasted effort. Furthermore, I am covert about this (since saying these things outright would be bad for my career prospects). However, my input in this company is still a net win (for both parties).

Their definition of 'toxic' is therefore inadequate.


It is a matter of degrees really. Someone merely asocial and there to build up experience so they can launch their own pursuit isn't even really a bad thing. That is accepted as a free market fundamental - people need to get funds and experience from somewhere. The 9-5 guy with dreams elsewhere isn't really a problem.

Someone passionate about their work would be better for the company but well perfect being the enemy of the good. Trying to get all "perfect" employees for everything is usually a "juicero" approach in majorly overspeccing for what could be better handled by the common. Just because rocket science and self driving cars need top talent and passion doesn't mean that your IoT waffle-iron company needs fanatics. Not meantcas elitism but "there are places for all kinds of people - and nobody is entitled to them".

To bring the metaphor to a creepy but apt conclusion the AK-47 was legendary for its reliability with imperfect parts and loose specs while being roughly comparable to more expensive and precise rifles prone to issues in harsher environments. There are many valid approaches to things.

However more pathological in a parasitic dynamic is clearly bad and sadly prevalent high and low in organizationsm


Worker goals and company goals are incentive incompatible.

Economics 101.

I see no reason why a worker should ever care about company goals, unless they align with her/his own goals, or that not drinking the kool-aid is a short ticket to get fired. (Or unless they have equity - but this is very rare in the general employment market, compared to HN)


This is precisely the toxic attitude talked about in the submission. Your goals shouldn't be opposed to the company's goals, and if they are, you're creating a problem on the team.

Doing "as little work as possible" in particular would immediately put you in the category of "toxic" here, specifically because it's completely unnecessary to living a balanced life. The only person that helps is you, as opposed to what a healthy person does, and that's find ways to help both themselves and the company.

It's not zero sum, and treating work like it is makes a person toxic.


> Your goals shouldn't be opposed to the company's goals, and if they are, you're creating a problem on the team.

Wait, let's step back there.

I didn't say I'm opposed to the company's goals. That's something different. I'm not saying: "well, I think we should have no customers whatsoever, and lose as much money as we possibly can". I'm saying: "If you want me to do deployments outside of business hours, you will have to pay me extra for doing so, since you're eating into my time with friends and family".

> Doing "as little work as possible" in particular would immediately put you in the category of "toxic" here

I said 'want to do as little work as possible'. That's something different from doing it. I'm not sitting at my desk browsing the hours away on forums. If I could get paid the same for working 5 hours less a week though, I'd take that option in a heartbeat.

> specifically because it's completely unnecessary to living a balanced life.

Life doesn't come easy to everyone, and a balanced life even less easily. Some people need more time than others to recuperate from a week's work. If it comes easier to you, all the more power to you, but it doesn't to everyone.

> The only person that helps is you, as opposed to what a healthy person does, and that's find ways to help both themselves and the company.

Sometimes there is no good way that helps you and the company at the same time.


> Sometimes there is no good way that helps you and the company at the same time.

and

> I didn't say I'm opposed to the company's goals. That's something different.

Are in conflict. It's possible you only think of goals as in, "Grow by 50% this quarter" and not, "Maximize the productivity of my team," but that's incorrect. If the company has a goal of "deploy during off hours", it can be done in a way that benefits the employee and the employer. CI/CD for example.

The thing is, even the productivity goal can be done in a mutually beneficial way, but your philosophy doesn't allow for that, and that makes the "zero sum" or "as little as possible" philosophy a toxic one.


this is one of the very best articles i've ever found on HN.

it addresses the most important aspects of the toxic employee syndrome which i personally have encountered in multiple working environments. every manager should read this article.


Net negative is the correct description.


The article seems to equate "Rock Star" to "toxic". Whatever the definition of a Rock Star employee is surely, well...by definition, they must be a net positive for the organisation :-)


It does the exact opposite of that. The argument is that the focus on finding “rock stars” who act as a positive force is less efficient than a focus on avoiding “toxic” employees who act as a negative force.


The article compares the return on the cost/investment of hiring a rock star vs NOT hiring a toxic. It acts as guidance on what part of one's hiring pipeline is most worth investment.


> Whatever the definition of a Rock Star employee is surely, well...by definition, they must be a net positive for the organisation :-)

What?




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