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The Astronaut: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

This series of articles explores the toxic behavior profiles that persistently generate workplace conflict and provides tips on how to respond.

In Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, I discussed one of the key features that distinguishes toxic conflict from creative conflict.

Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.

Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.

Think of these “Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile” articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.

Code Name: The Astronaut

Favorite Song: Space Oddity by David Bowie

Favorite Movie: The Martian

Behavior: A business professor of mine once told me a story about working at a major international tech company during the heyday of the still-new computer industry in the 60’s and 70’s. This was a time when some of the brightest minds in tech were still designing computers without much help from, well… computers.

That meant that coders and engineers were doing lots of new and complicated mathematical work longhand. No AI assistance was available. Much of the coding work still involved chalk on boards and ink on paper. The calculations and tests that could be run, produced reams upon reams of paper printouts even for the simplest of functions.

Finding an error required long painstaking work reviewing miles of code using the most powerful computer in existence at the time – the human brain.

The company had a small army of the best mathematicians drawn from leading universities around the world collaborating on these crucial binary puzzles from the dawn of computing.

However, there was one guy who worked entirely alone. Always.

While everyone else showed up to work in short sleeve dress shirts, pocket-protectors, and slacks, this guy wore dingy cut-off jean shorts, flip flops, and was famous for his poor and somewhat offensive hygiene. He didn’t graduate from an impressive school. In fact, as I recall, he hadn’t graduated from any school – either because he dropped out or was never interested.

He was… their Astronaut.

He wasn’t literally a space explorer. However, he was a singular individual who lived alone in the outer reaches of the company – mentally as well as physically. He was unwilling or unable to integrate into the regular life and culture of the organization.

Few people knew how he passed his time. Word was that he largely snacked and watched television in his little windowless room most days. Apparently, he was also well-paid to do so. Why?

Well, there were times when an entire team of brilliant computer engineers could not fix or find an error in a mountain of code. In those rare cases, they would deliver a wheelbarrow of data (on paper mind you…) to him.

Most times he would simply scan it with his eyes for a few moments, pause, cock his head to the side and point. “Here”, he would say, identifying a microscopic bit of code. He’d then go back to his sandwich and watching the latest episode of Hee-Haw.

Without fail, when the engineers checked what he had identified they would realize that, yet gain, their Astronaut had discovered the error. In mere moments, he could find a mistake that a whole team hadn’t been able to pinpoint in days or weeks of troubleshooting.

Their Astronaut was beyond genius. He was a true mathematical and machine-language savant.

You might ask, why did the company only deploy his abilities occasionally? Why wasn’t this mental giant leading the entire division?

The problem was that the Astronaut lacked the ability and/or desire to relate to others. True, he was fantastically gifted, but only within a narrow bandwidth of human activity. Successful companies are not built by superstars, they are built by teams.

There are rare cases like this one, when an Astronaut can find a small valuable niche in the life of an organization. However, in the vast majority of cases there is more long-term value in finding bright and motivated people who might not be savant-level performers, but who know (or can be taught) how to relate and collaborate with others.

Do Not: Do not punish brilliance or socially ostracize outlier high performers. Some organizations are so committed to the “team mentality” that they actually disincentivize the surfacing of genius in their staff.

We are all of equal inherent value, but humans are not innately equal in all areas of talent and ability. Avoid the misconception that being a team means being the same. Mutually reinforced mediocrity helps no one.

That being said, when faced with a stellar talent who is having difficulty integrating into the relational life of the organization, you have some decisions to make.

Do: First, if the Astronaut is knowingly and consciously leveraging their abilities as a means to create their own special rules, norms, privileges, and favors – that must stop.

Never let your organization be held hostage by divas and top performers. The long-term benefits of a healthy culture always outweigh the short terms gains offered by singular brilliance.

It is also possible, as in the case above, that the Astronaut is so talented that they truly have difficulty relating to people through no real fault of their own. For all the reasons mentioned above, actual geniuses and practical savants are far more likely to be drawn toward more solitary work, rather than team-based collaboration. They need time and space to run at their true full speed. However, that doesn't mean they get to run roughshod over others.

As a leader, don’t allow someone’s exceptional smarts to let them off the hook for learning how to work effectively with others. While others can admire the Astronaut’s talents, the Astronaut should be humble in admiring the ability of others to collaborate effectively and learn from them.

Not everyone can be a genius, but everyone needs to learn how to work together.

Lastly, don’t overestimate the value of outlier performers and Astronauts. If your organization has a few that have managed to integrate (in a healthy way) into the organizational culture, that’s great. Count your lucky stars and treat those people well.

However, avoid cults of personality and trust that grit almost always beats innate talent in the long run – personally and in team-based work. As a leader, I’ll take a committed group of gritty dedicated professionals over a loosely connected gaggle of divas and astronauts every single time.

The biggest battles in life and in an organization don’t require genius. They require guts, fortitude, and a rock-solid commitment to the success and welfare of people standing next to you.

And if you happen to be the rare Astronaut, remember, no one gets to the Moon alone.

To learn how to put these ideas into action, check out these upcoming live online events.

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