Is Your "Best" Employee Really Your Most Toxic?

Strategies to ensure your most productive employees don't end up being your most problematic
Is Your "Best" Employee Really Your Most Toxic?
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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University
5 min read
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Do you want employees who will go above and beyond for your organization?

You might be thinking this question is intended to be tongue-in-cheek. After all, the benefits of having proactive and dedicated employees are self-evident. Employees who are willing to go the extra mile – whether its by developing and speaking up their good ideas and suggestions, assisting their fellow coworkers when needed, or embracing new initiatives or policies despite personal inconvenience – are crucial in today’s modern business environment, as the pursuit of innovation and growth has become increasingly competitive and elusive.

But such employee behaviors can also come with a dark side. A growing body of research suggests that employees who devote additional effort beyond their required job duties might also be engaging in toxic or destructive work behavior, such as coming to work late, withholding needed information from others, and even engaging in theft. This behavior not only incurs deep financial costs on organizations but when left unchecked, can spread to other members in the workplace.

Related: 3 Quick Strategies for Dealing With Toxic People

Several explanations have been offered as to why good corporate citizens can also be so toxic. Some of these include feelings of pressure to do more than their formal job responsibilities require, a strong sense of entitlement for having gone the extra mile, or a general lack of connection with others at work. Whatever the reason, it’s important to ensure the employee behaviors you’re looking for aren’t costing you later on. To avoid such pitfalls, consider the following:

1. Reconsider a carrot-and-stick approach to rewarding good behavior

Sometimes, employees go above and beyond the call of duty out of an intrinsic desire to help the organization succeed. Perhaps their drive to do more than what is expected of them is an expression of their innate tendencies (e.g., conscientiousness) or driven by a strong connection to the organization or the people within it. While ideal, cultivating a workforce of intrinsically motivated employees is no easy task as it requires a coordinated effort across all organizational functions, from selection and recruitment to leadership development and employee compensation. As a result, managers often look for other ways to motivate their employees to put forth additional effort, such as using rewards or punishment or even creating a competitive environment that pushes employees to try and outshine their colleagues. But the problem with this latter approach is that when employees feel compelled to do more for the organization than is warranted, they can feel licensed to subsequently focus on their own needs in ways that hurt their organization and fellow coworkers. This means that while tempting employees with a sweeter carrot or threatening them with a sharper stick might lead to some desirable behaviors, such an approach could be costing you by increasing employees’ willingness to engage in destructive and counterproductive work behavior later on.

Related: How to Keep Toxic Negativity from Infecting Your Team

2. Make employees’ social image a salient aspect of the environment

Research suggests that when employees care about their reputation, they may be less likely to engage in behaviors that can hurt their social image, even if they feel licensed to do so after engaging in a praiseworthy act. One study, for example, suggests that while creative employees are likely to feel emboldened to break workplace norms which can make them more inclined to cyberloaf, show up to work late, or engage in other harmful behaviors, their desires to preserve how they are viewed by those around them may help reduce their willingness to engage in such deviant acts. How can you motivate employees to care about their social image? One way is to publicly acknowledge and showcase their good behavior. Achieving a positive social image is often highly desirable. It can enhance our social status and recognition at work, and it plays a key role in maintaining positive self-esteem. When we are aware that we are viewed positively by those around us, we seek to maintain these impressions and therefore tend to be more careful about how we behave and present ourselves. This means that if you’re looking to curb bad behavior from those employees who go the extra mile, a good place to start is by highlighting desirable behavior in order to sensitize employees to the image-related costs of engaging in harmful behaviors later on.

3. Help employees feel connected to the organization

One final way you can mitigate some of the destructive behaviors described above is by nurturing employees’ sense of belonging to their organization and its members. According to research, when employees define themselves in relation to their coworkers or the organization as a whole, they are less likely to feel compelled to focus narrowly on their own interests, even after they've gone above and beyond in their work. Research on social identity suggests that when we feel valued by others, we are likely to incorporate these individuals into our sense of self and consequently act in ways that convey our solidarity with them. Likewise, when employees begin to see their organization as an important and central aspect of who they are, they are likely to put forth additional effort to help the organization not because they have to, but because they genuinely want to. When such motivation to give back to the organization is present, there is less incentive or reason to feel the need to “take back” more later on. Although cultivating such a collective identity among your employees requires considerable effort, a good place to start is to ensure your employees feel included and help them recognize that their needs, goals, and values are aligned with that of the organization.

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