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Toxic Worker Study

Management experts Michael Housman and Dylan Minor shared their research via a Harvard Business School working paper on people who are difficult to work with (referred to as "toxic workers" in their study).

Link to Study

One of the major findings: Don't hire them.

But many people know how to interview extremely well. The authors offered some toxic worker characteristics that I believe could be used during the application reviews, interviews, and reference checks:

Toxic worker characteristics:
1. Fanatical about rules
2. Outproduce normal workers but quality of work is lower
3. Overrate their abilities
4. Lack awareness of their impact on others

(Hey The Office fans, sound familiar?)

Perhaps if we were more intentional about searching for all of these characteristics in a candidate it can serve as a red flag to help us continue to reevaluate him or her during the hiring process.

Depending on the industry sector, once a part of the system some of these people can be difficult to let go. The ”solution" is often all too common -- they get shuffled to different departments, divisions, units, etc., leaving a wake of destruction everywhere they go unless there's an exceptional leader to manage and buffer their negative influence but what an abundance (and waste) of time and energy that takes!

In terms of higher education, it has been interesting to see the dynamics in committees and workgroups as campuses attempt transformational change. In general, the dynamics can be broken down into two types of people: talkers vs doers. Talkers tend to exhibit the characteristics noted above. They also hide behind archaic structures, processes, and comfortable routines they've established for themselves. In addition, talkers are typically unfazed about embarrassingly low student success and equity data. When they take control, the status quo is maintained and students end up paying the price.

Doers challenge the status quo and actually do some work. The work won't always be perfect but that's OK. Doers need to thoughtfully plan, execute, and make adjustments as they go. For campuses to be productive places of learning for students, they must also be for the educators! Change happens through the work!

Lastly, there's actually a third group: the quiet ones. If talkers succeed in thwarting all efforts to improve student outcomes, the quiet ones effectively become enablers.


Contact me about customized trainings or ongoing coaching support to help your campus plan and implement grants, projects, or comprehensive efforts such as guided pathways.  Use the contact form on the right (bottom of the page for mobile users).


(A. Solano)

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