Managing Employees

What the NFL's Toxic Achievers Can Teach You About the Workplace

  • ---Shares

Right now, the NFL has a major problem with some players who have made poor choices in the nonsport areas of their life. So far this season, the league has suspended at least 20 players for actions including assault, substance abuse and use of performance-enhancing drugs. Increasingly, NFL managers must grapple with individuals who could be called toxic achievers. 

Toxic achievers are found in all workplaces. They are talented and skilled individuals who succeed in their area of expertise due to advanced skills. But they create all kinds of problems as a result of their distorted view of themselves, others and the world. They tend to overvalue their abilities and are proud and condescending when relating to others.

They don’t accept instruction or correction well, and when something goes wrong, they might blame others or make excuses. They believe rules don't apply to them. As a result, they think they should not be held accountable for their actions but rather others should help them out of a tough spot. Most important, they are focused totally on themselves. Everything is all about them -- and not their team, teammates, spouses or girlfriends or family. 

One might argue whether any of the NFL players currently involved in personal drama due to stupid things they’ve done qualify as achievers. But in the world of football, anyone who plays in the NFL is a standout achiever.

More than 1 million students play high school football. But only 6 percent have the opportunity to play football in college. And the number of football players in the NFL was estimated to be about 2,000, according to a 2012 estimate based on research at the Center for Injury Biomechanics.

Related: In Business, the Cameras Are Always Rolling

Contributing to the problem. 

Lots of factors affect individual choices: current circumstances, a person's background and upbringing, hunger, fatigue and habits developed over time. There's no one reason for why people make the decisions they do. Yet, ultimately people are responsible for their choices and actions. 

But the NFL's culture has some characteristics that have helped create an environment that encourages players to continue making poor choices. Like other toxic work settings, the NFL has an extreme overfocus on achievement. That may sound insane to some people, who might say, “Of course, it's focused on winning. That's the purpose: to win games and championships.”  

But football should not be primarily about winning no matter the cost. Sports should be about individuals and teams competing at the highest level possible according to the rules and in the spirit of friendly competition. Remember these are games. When these goals are not understood and accepted, then an anything-goes approach becomes acceptable. The NFL isn’t the source of the problem. Rather, it is the players who are shaped by the distorted values and policies of college football programs and this country's underlying cultural institutions, including youth-sports programs. 

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy won games and championships by emphasizing teamwork, respecting individuals (including opponents) and focusing on the habits and behaviors that lead to winning. His approach of personal and corporate integrity stands in contrast to the approach of the New Orleans Saints football program, which offered bonuses (or “bounties”) to players who took out opposing stars by intentionally injuring them.  

In the world of work, achievement is measured by increasing sales, beating competitors and making money. But work should not just be about making as much money as possible. Work should be about providing quality goods or services that meet the needs and desires of customers. 

A second characteristic of toxic workplaces is an extreme focus on image. The NFL, especially lately, seems to be more concerned with looking good (perhaps doing whatever will appease public opinion) rather than doing the right thing. I know the NFL makes its revenue from selling its product to the public and so what fans think about the league is important.

But there's a difference between making a good presentation for an organization and totally covering over facts to present an image that has little connection to reality.  

Related: The 3 Ways Roger Goodell Failed to Show Leadership in His Press Conference

Taking action.

To turn around the current problematic pattern f some professional football players, serious changes must occur. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's leadership should start by determining the principles and values that form the NFL's foundation. I vote for setting up healthy practices instead of just trying to make the organization look good. They should communicate straightforwardly and hold players (coaches, general managers and owners) accountable for their choices. Managers should not be solely punitive. They need to give people the opportunity to prove they have changed and grown.

Ultimately the NFL leaders need to do what is best for the league long term and quit worrying about public reaction over the short term. They need to do the right thing, making principle-based decisions that can shape the future of the league in a positive direction and reaffirming the idea that winning matters only when people follow the rules and act in ways that are best for all involved. When the NFL begins to take these steps, then it will have started on the path that will lead to long-term health for pro football, the teams and players and will regain fans' respect for the sport. 

Whether managing a sport team or a business in another field, leaders need to lose the toxic achievers who create problems. Teams and organizations falsely believe they need these star players. Toxic achievers undermine the success of an organization over the long term. Exceptions to rules are often made to keep them employed, which hurts the morale and motivation of other members of the team and calls into question the organization's integrity.   

If a business has toxic achievers (even if they are top performers in their field of expertise, say, sales, coding data or financial analysis), they might create problems wherever they go, especially in terms of working cooperatively with others and following policies and procedures. So get them out of your organization if the problem persists. They may be great technically, but the negative dynamics, conflict, and managerial headaches they create costs far more for the company than the benefits they bring. This often is tough to do at first, but once they're gone, you will be asking yourself, Why didn’t I get rid of them sooner? 

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated with estimates of the number of high school and NFL football players as well as the percentage of high school players who have the opportunity to play in college.

Related: How Business Is Regulating Good Behavior in the NFL