If you work long enough in tech, the odds are good that sooner or later you’ll run into the so-called “toxic genius.”
The “toxic genius” is usually very smart. They have a long history of accomplishment, and they clearly know how to build and troubleshoot efficiently. Give them a huge problem and a tight deadline, and they’re unstoppable.
In exchange for that success, however, they have a tendency to make their colleagues’ lives hell, leading to higher turnover and costs. Maybe it’s their relentless complaints about management, or the collective intelligence level of the team. Maybe it’s how they refuse to delegate any responsibility, and insist on violating best practices for their own (often esoteric) methods. Whatever the behavior, the “toxic genius” makes it very easy for everyone else to regret working in their orbit.
When team morale plunges, so does its effectiveness; and that’s even before you consider issues such as loss of customers, fines, and even litigation. Before we get into the best tips for handling these toxic geniuses, let’s look at a relevant case study.
Birthing a Toxic Genius
In an October 2017 posting on Medium’s FreeCodeCamp, Jonathan Solórzano-Hamilton, a senior site reliability engineer at Procore Technologies, described a toxic-but-brilliant colleague at a former employer. This colleague, code-named “Rick” for the purposes of the article, was a stereotypical “toxic genius.”
“Rick” had a deep understanding of the company’s software architecture; he was adept at tackling hard problems, and the rest of the team relied on him frequently to troubleshoot seemingly intractable problems. But “Rick” was also a loner, a screamer, and a workaholic, and soon became a major bottleneck for the company’s deliverables.
“Only Rick would ever be able to maintain this product. Plus, every day that Rick worked on the project moved the delivery date back a week. Rick was destroying our product faster than he was creating it,” Solórzano-Hamilton wrote.
When Rick refused to adapt—either by shifting some responsibilities to other employees, or by utilizing open-source tools to replace the bespoke code he had expressly designed for his projects—the company fired him. In the wake of that dismissal, the rest of the team came together to fix Rick’s code, and ended up shipping a finished product within a year.
That posting was insanely popular, and it’s interesting to read some of the (many) comments below it, especially the ones that blame the creation of “Rick” on the company’s management. Those folks argue that managers should have stepped in long before things evolved into a complete mess, and perhaps required “Rick” to undergo coaching or training.
And those commenters have a point: When it comes to dealing with employees, the buck always stops with management. But it can take quite some time for a boss to step in, especially if the toxic genius is delivering spectacular results. With that in mind, how can rank-and-file employees, trapped with the “Ricks” of the world day after day, survive and even prosper with their sanity intact?
Tip 1: Proactively Speak to Your Manager
Depending on how your team is structured, your manager might not even be aware there’s a problem; some bosses may only see metrics on a dashboard, especially if a team is geographically dispersed. In such cases, it’s up to the employees to raise the issue of the toxic genius.
The key here is to document the toxic behavior—that means collecting any emails, memos, in-line comments on documents, and anything else relevant. It’s important to show an ongoing pattern that could potentially affect ongoing operations; just because someone has a bad day and sends a terse email doesn’t make them a “toxic genius” (or even “toxic,” if no brilliance is ever on display).
Enlisting colleagues to provide supporting evidence will also bolster your case; having multiple team members appeal to the manager is a difficult thing to dismiss.
Once this information is in the hands of your manager, it’s up to them to take the next step—whether that means additional coaching, training, or punitive measures. As with so many other workplace problems, transparency and communication go a long way toward achieving a beneficial resolution.
Tip 2: Get Some Distance (and Don’t Get Distracted)
Engaging in constant conflict with a toxic genius will only wear you down. It’s important to take a step back, stay professional, and make sure you don’t get tangled up in the current drama.
Stay positive at all times, even when the toxic genius is freaking out, and maintain your focus on your actionable goals. A bad culture (which a toxic genius contributes to) is a core cause of employee burnout, so make sure you practice self-care.
Tip 3: Rely on Your Team
A support network means everything. Make sure to bond with the rest of your team; they can provide you with valuable information about what’s going on, and you can collectively make decisions about how to best proceed with projects (and talking to your manager). Plus, if the toxic genius leaves the company, the team will likely have to move fast to deal with whatever they leave behind, so it’s good if everyone has a rapport beforehand.
Tip 4: Create Strong Feedback Loops
Sometimes a toxic genius doesn’t fully appreciate the impact they’re having on the team. If you have any control over scheduling and team meetings, it might be worth it to integrate time for team feedback—that could help highlight issues and bottlenecks.
That being said, it’s important that any feedback situation not result in the team attacking the toxic genius; that will only make the latter defensive. Make sure that feedback remains constructive and positive.