COMPELLING REQUESTS, Part II: Neutralizing Toxic Rock Stars

You know of whom I speak.

And I bet every leader in your organization knows who we’re talking about.

Yes, the Toxic Rock Star.

A Toxic Rock Star is someone who produces significant material results while having a negative impact on others, in essence holding other people, teams and even organizations hostage.

Like Ogres hiding under the bridge...

I came up with the name Toxic Rock Star because, well, it fits. All my clients glom on to it immediately. And while many complain of non-toxic, non-rock stars, it is the Toxic Rock Star that presents unique challenges

So How Do You Wrangle A Toxic Rock Star?

 I’ve partnered with many leadership teams to drive major change initiatives in which a Toxic Rock Star fundamentally shaped the dynamic. Alas, I can testify that there are many ways to NOT bring a toxic leader into line.

What does works? In a phrase: Compelling Requests needs to become a team sport.

Here’s one story of how the CEO of a midsized company and her team together wrangled one particularly nasty Ogre into submission.

Meet Dave, Toxic Rock Star

Dave was a toxic rock star. 

Jane, his boss, was unwilling to fire Dave for a long list of reasons, including $80m in sales.

But getting Dave to play nice in the sandbox was elusive.

And it just so happens that there’s a limit to the number of times highly talented people will allow themselves to be run over. With Dave at the wheel, the organization began bleeding talent. Important projects began to derail.

Fortunately, the good news was, like most toxic rock stars, Dave was very smart. And he was dedicated to winning any game you put in front of him.

Getting Dave To Buy Into A New Game

Jane realized to shift Dave's behavior she would need to define a new game, with rules, and then compel Dave to play that new game to win.

Old game: working independently and not collaborating, making demands and being invulnerable.

New game: working interdependently, collaborating, mutual accountability - with explicit incentives tied to these new game behaviors.

Growth River worked with Jane to convene her team (including Dave) in a workshop. We called it "Organizing For Success."

To structure the agenda, we analyzed the situation and identified the primary constraint to change. Unsurprisingly, Dave’s toxicity was clearly the constraint.

(NOTE: the primary constraint to change represents, by definition, the most important problem to resolve. No other investment is likely to provide a higher return.)

We held the workshop, and many important milestones were hit. But the upshot was that the team agreed to the new game with clear rules.

The central contract was this: to drive higher performance, any team member could make a compelling request of another to help shape their leadership effect.

Everyone’s leadership effect was now under scrutiny. Straight talk. No exceptions.

To ice the deal, Jane also shifted compensation criteria to include 'leadership effect.'

Dave was now boxed in.

Outcome: Toxic Rock Star Tamed

Within three months, as the entire team supported Dave with compelling requests began to check bad behavior, he shifted his behavior to win by the new rules. He went from toxic rock star to ally.

The bleeding stopped. Team performance went way up. Projects got on track on track.

And the team made one more step on the journey to higher performance.

Do Toxic Rock Stars present you with a big challenge?