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

In Toxic Workers , a new Harvard Business School working paper, Michael Housman and Dylan Minor look at the paradox of "superstar" workers who outperform their colleagues by 2:1 or more, but who are "toxic" -- awful to work with and be around.

The connection between toxicity and productivity has been validated in several studies, but the question that Housman and Minor set out to answer is, "are 1%, superstar workers worth the trouble they cause in the workplace?"

Using a clever empirical methodology, they demonstrate that, basically, you shouldn't work with assholes. It's better to hire two average employees than to keep one "superstar" on the payroll, once you factor in the disruption that your talented jerk wreaks on their colleagues.

A good or bad hiring decision is multidimensional (Lazear & Oyer (2007) and Hermalin (2013)). We have identified several individual and situational factors that lead to a worker engaging in objective toxic behavior. Knowledge of these factors can be used to avoid and better manage for toxic workers. However, we also found the need to hire based on multiple dimensions of expected outcomes: We found that adding the dimension of toxicity can help improve performance by means of avoiding the wrong kind of highly productive workers that would have been thought a preferred hire had we not considered toxicity.

We have also discovered some important effects of toxic workers. However, there are surely additional traits that could be used to identify toxic workers. Similarly, it would be helpful to know which other environmental factors nudge an otherwise normal worker towards becoming a toxic worker and possibly creating the preexisting workplace conditions that lead to toxic behavior. Future research can shed light on these questions. This latter focus seems particularly important, because to the extent that we can reduce a worker's likelihood of becoming toxic, we are helping not only the firm, but the worker himself, those around him, and the potential firms where that employee may work in the future. Since we found some evidence that a toxic worker can have more impact on performance than a "superstar," it may be that spending more time limiting negative impacts on an organization might improve everyone's outcome to a greater extent than only focusing on increasing positive impacts. We have taken a step in exploring this notion and hope that we witness future progress in this area.

Toxic Workers [Michael Housman & Dylan Minor/Harvard Business School]

(via O'Reilly Radar)

Notable Replies

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

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

    Anarcho-capitalists, please take note…

  3. Bloo says:

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

  4. Legion says:

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

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

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

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