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T.O. Syndrome Requires Resolve in Dealing With a Toxic Employee

It happens in many organizations, and is very destructive.  I call it the T.O. Syndrome.

Team Player?  Terrell Owens was once the best wide receiver in the NFL, which is why the Philadelphia Eagles signed him in 2004.  But although incredibly talented, TO also brought a legendary reputation included being self-centered, egotistical, and someone who alienates important teammates with outrageous, derogatory comments.  Definitely NOT a team player.

But the Eagles hired him anyway, and felt they’d be able to manage his behavior.  The benefits of his supreme talent as a wide receiver, they hoped, would offset his behavior.

Eventually, they realized they were wrong, and got rid of him, because his preposterous behavior became so disruptive.

Other Organizations:  The T.O. Syndrome occurs in many organizations, when someone is kept in the organization only because of his or her star performance in one particular skill or ability.  That ability, in management’s view, outweighs the star performer’s significant deficiencies.

Last year I met someone whose sales department was afflicted big time by T.O. Syndrome.  His employee, whom we’ll call Frank, was the most productive person in the sales department, bringing in lots of big ticket accounts.

But, the price was very high.  Frank was horrible and abusive to the support staff.  He alienated the other sales people by publicly badmouthing them and the smaller accounts they brought in.

Everyone considered Frank a disruptive prima donna, and they resented my colleague for allowing the behavior to continue.  But, as my colleague said, “What am I to do?  Frank won’t change, and I can’t get rid of him—he brings in so much money.”

A month or so later, I ran into my colleague, and asked about Frank.  “Oh,” he said with a wide grin, “he went to a competitor.”  I asked, “So why are you so happy?”  He answered, “Because now Frank’s messing up their sales team.”

Widespread:  I believe the T.O. Syndrome is more widespread than most people think.  And I’ll bet a lot of you, right now, are thinking of people who fit this description.  And they’re not always in sales.  I’ve seen them in fundraising, in technical fields, everywhere.

They may be frontline employees, or even managers.  Management sometimes seems genetically disposed to this disorder.

These employees always have two things in common:  They do an excellent job in a critical function, something others can’t do as well; and their people skills are so bad that the good they do only barely outweighs the destructive havoc they inflict on the rest of the team.

How to Solve:  What to do?  When confronted with a chronic case of T.O. Syndrome, first focus on yourself.  Ask, “What skills will I, as a leader, need to get through to my T.O.?”

You’ll probably need good communication and negotiating skills.  Also, a firmness of purpose that doesn’t let you get tangled in a lot of peripheral issues.

You must be clear and straightforward in communicating to your T.O. the specific behaviors that are causing problems.  You need to precisely identify the adverse effects those behaviors have on the team.

Give explicit instructions on what is needed to improve, and be forceful in explaining the particular consequences if improvement doesn’t occur.

Behavior Change: OK, that’s the easy part.  Now you also need to realize that behavior change will be quite difficult.  It will require changing behavior that has been going on for decades, so you must be willing to work with this person to change.

Behavior change requires a process that is long-term, sustained, and reinforced.  That’s exactly the prescription for the initial attempt at curing T.O. Syndrome.

After a reasonable amount of time, if change isn’t forthcoming, you need to stick to your principles and do what the Eagles did.  Let the person go.

It’s not easy, particularly when the individual excels at something important.  But if the overall team performance is being dragged down, you have to perform radical surgery to rid the team of this ailment.

Questions:  Who are the T.O.s in your organization?  Do you have the communication skills necessary to confront the individual?  Do you have a plan for helping that person change?  Are you willing to perform surgery if initial treatment fails?

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