Years ago, I (Rip) was at a conference where Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, was asked what he wished he had done differently in his career. He said, essentially, “I always moved too slowly on the tough people problems. People problems are not like fine wine. They don’t get better with age.”
I have seen the truth of that played out innumerable times in the course of our work. One of the most devastating was the case of a toxic team member who got good results for the business but who treated her colleagues – including the members of the leadership team – atrociously. I spoke to the leadership team multiple times about the importance of giving candid feedback and requiring a change in behavior. Here’s what happened: the feedback was (reluctantly) given, but no consequences were ever administered when the bad behavior continued.
This pattern continued year after year: there were no consequences, so there was no change. The toxicity sucked away at morale and motivation across the company, making it harder and harder to sustain high performance. The leadership team itself began to self-destruct from the pressure this person caused. The negative energy was eroding what was a beautiful company.
Sadly, the CEO could not bring herself to actually let the toxic team member go. She was too afraid that the woman would take her sales accounts – which represented considerable company revenue – with her if she was fired.
I pointed out repeatedly that, in my experience, the CEO’s fear of what might happen if she took action was much greater than the reality of what would happen. Yes, firing the toxic team member might lose a few accounts – but it would not lose all or even most. The business outcomes of removing this poisonous presence would be overwhelmingly positive.
For example, I had witnessed the effect at another company that had a staggeringly toxic department head. After dragging their heels for months, the leadership team finally summoned the courage to make the hard call and let the man go. The relief that rippled across the company was practically tangible. The rest of the leadership team was transformed in their attitude, productivity, commitment, and energy because the poison was eliminated from their midst.
If you have a toxic team member who is not responding to redirecting feedback, it’s time to make the hard call. Don’t let fear of “what might happen” stop you from experiencing all the good that will happen when you act with leadership courage!