Sunk Costs and Managing Assholes

You’ve hired someone toxic. Or someone else hired them. But you’re stuck managing them. It’s not a great situation to be in.

Perhaps this person is endlessly combative? Patronizing? Taking credit for others’ work? Are they refusing to share resources or information? Are they harassing others?

Regardless of *how* this toxic person is disrupting your team, you’re stuck with trying to balance the needs of your other team members with someone likely to suck up most of your energy and attention.

Fixing this is your job
As (hopefully!) most of your team is made up resilient professionals, they may attempt to work around the toxic employee. Don’t let the responsibility for managing inappropriate behaviour fall on your team. It’s tempting to assume the problem has been solved if work is getting done and employees aren’t actively asking for your help but your team creating new working patterns and workflows in response to a toxic team member isn’t a solution. As a manager, it remains your responsibility to identify and manage team dynamics and work to ensure that employees are able to work in a healthy and productive environment.

Having your team build informal processes to work around bad actors creates an environment where additional time and energy costs are included in all team activities. It’s the HR version of technical debt, draining the team’s time, energy and morale. It also teaches the toxic team member that their behaviour is acceptable and that the responsibility to deal will fallout from their behaviour will fall on the rest of the team.

Listen and Ask
To deal with toxic team members you need to be able to identify and keep tabs on the activity you’re hoping to prevent or manage. This will require regular clear, empathetic communication with your team, which can be especially challenging in larger teams. You’ll need to work to foster an environment where communicating sensitive issues is seen as low risk for your team. You’ll also need to seek information out. Be sure that you’re allowing team members to use the methods of communication they feel the most comfortable with and offer everyone the same level of access in communicating with you. Team dynamics where cliques and backchanneling information influence access to communication allow toxic employees ingratiate themselves and thrive.

Document everything
Working in technology is often a fast paced, high volume affair. Issues with a team member may not emerge as a pattern if they’re being brought to you informally and dealt with without record. Keeping a working document of complaints and concerns from team members, as well as notes on conflicts as they arise can let you make personnel choices based on data. Return to the file each time an issues arises, both to document the issue and to add content to it. Is this issue part of a larger pattern? Have former corrective actions had an impact? Return to the files periodically when there are no pressing issues to look for patterns with a calm and critical eye.

Look past the noise
Toxic and disruptive employees often survive in working environments by being forcefully assertive in communication, demanding that their accomplishments be noted and that their concerns be acted upon. As a manager, part of your responsibility includes looking past self promotion, bravado or sniping to see where the value in your team truly lies. Ask less brash team members about what they’re working on. Critically examine complaints as your record and act upon them. Work to create an environment where team members are encouraged to spotlight each others’ work over self promoting.

I’ve been speaking for some time on the Cost of the Cult of Expertise, looking in detail at the ways in which technology is failing to properly separate self promotion from actual value. In giving this this talk I ask the audience how many of them have left roles due to their contributions being overlooked or attributed to someone else. In every audience a vast majority of technologists admit that they’ve left a role for these reasons. If you’re letting toxic team members drain credit and energy, you’re going to lose those who are quietly providing your real value.

You can afford to lose toxic people
I don’t care what kind of skills your toxic team member brings with them, you can afford to remove them from your team. Weighing their contributions against the lost time, work, morale and talent that their toxicity causes can be difficult, especially if they’ve been with your company for an extended period of time. The things they’re building are concrete and countable while what they’re costing you is a more abstract and gradual loss.

When you overlook, minimize or explain away inappropriate behaviour from a team member, you are setting the standard for what behaviour you’re willing to accept on your team. Technologists are in high demand. Presented with the choice between staying on a team where a toxic team member’s behaviour is tolerated by management or leaving for greener pastures, your other team members are going to leave. These team members will carry with them the experiences under your leadership and in your company. If you’re losing talented people their future successes will create an ecosystem of powerful technologists with a poor view of your team, you as a manager and of your company. If and when toxic behaviour causes a publicly visible problem, these issues will be compounded as they are brought to the light.

Tolerating and protecting toxic team members will cost you talent as they leave. Is protecting them worth your team’s productivity? Is protecting them worth losing your other team members? Is protecting them worth your team’s reputation? Is it worth your won professional reputation? Is it worth your company’s professional reputation? Will it be worth the public fallout, if and when it arrives?

This post has developed from feedback from my recent conference talks and conversations with peers on how we manage talent in technology. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to these conversations. This piece is not a reflection upon the team I currently manage, as my team is made up of some of the more talented, empathetic and kind people I’ve ever met 💖

Originally published at

Technology's den mother. Made @opencodeclub, helped make @trans_code & sometimes @watchingbuffy ❤ asking questions.

Technology's den mother. Made @opencodeclub, helped make @trans_code & sometimes @watchingbuffy ❤ asking questions.