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

Motto: Get off of my cloud!

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.