How One Company Kills Toxic Genius with Performance Reviews

After a trial run, Atlassian is implementing a new performance review system that it hopes will completely remove any toxic genius from its ranks.

Bek Chee, Atlassian’s global head of talent, defines toxic geniuses as “brilliant jerks” to Business Insider, and claims performance reviews feed an unconscious bias that helps them survive within the ranks, despite the damage they cause. “Some of these performance systems don’t necessarily account for unconscious bias, they don’t necessarily reward the behavior that we’re seeking to reward,” she said, adding: “We really want to enforce the way that values get it lived, the way that people impact the team and the way that they also contribute within their role.”

Atlassian’s five values are pretty direct, and simple:

  • “Open company, no bullshit.”
  • “Don’t #@!% the customer.”
  • “Play as a team.”
  • “Be the change you seek.”
  • “Build with heart and balance.”

Its new performance review system still relies on performance as a metric, but leans more heavily into the ‘why’ of it all. From Chee:

“What we know — and we tested this with lots and lots of literature Australian based software giant — is if I said to this manager, ‘go ahead and rate your employee and just give them one of those three ratings, and try to in your head, think about how they live the values and how they delivered in the role and how they how they contribute to their team’. We know for a fact that those are going to be less reliable results if they just defined the person [as having an] exceptional year. And that’s just because of unconscious bias, and heuristics: ‘I like this person, I think they did good last year.”

An example: 2017 may have been a great year for your team, as far as productivity is concerned. You all earned praise, and raises. But 2018 may have been a downturn, numbers-wise. A normal review system would see a growth slump, and a manager may even assume your 2017 was an aberration.

But 2018 may have simply been your team supporting other teams, or working on updates for a product. Atlassian’s scheme would see reviewers asking “why” rather than nailing you for failing to squeeze out more productivity. Though things like growth and productivity still matter, Chee added: “We want employees to feel like when they come in are then evaluated and [they] get feedback on the behaviors as well as the delivery of the work. The second thing that we want [is] a fair workforce, we want people to get rewarded for what they delivered.”

What you or your team deliver isn’t always directly measurable against a spreadsheet. Atlassian understands this, and we’d like to see their performance review scheme implemented elsewhere. In our article on dealing with a toxic genius, we note: “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.”

This, along with Atlassian’s performance review system, underscores a core truth about the toxic genius: they hide behind results as an excuse to act the way they do. Taking away their shield opens the toxic genius up to the slings and arrows of the company’s culture, and forces their evaluation against other metrics that matter.

21 Responses to “How One Company Kills Toxic Genius with Performance Reviews”

    • JDJddd

      yes but her way we can all share in the misery because the business then fails- hey wait…yeah thats not a good idea. So when a performer is turning out results maybe people should try and be more like them…productive. What a concept.

  1. wageSlave

    A genius is someone who learns faster than others do. Being nice gets you more work until you reach the point where the load is so bad you cannot do anything well. A toxic genius is a genius that has learned how to maintain a reasonable load and stay competent. Why would management want to interfere with success?

      • wageSlave

        Genius is about the speed at which you learn the tools necessary to apply what is learned. Every genius I have ever worked with learned the tools faster and they were applying what they learned while most were stuck on the basics. From what I can tell there is a direct correlation between crazy and genius. You know what the difference is? Timing. A genius figures out the value they provide and capitalizes while everyone is playing catch up. High demand low supply. When the supply catches up they have learned something new and moved on. A genius that sticks around for the good of the company only does so once because they learn fast. The true benefit of genius is that they spend less time learning something so the opportunity costs are lower. Time is money.

        Of course we live in a world full of people who’s only true talent is the ability to exploit others (sociopaths). So intelligence has less practical application then one would think.

  2. In my experience, for every toxic genius, there is someone somewhere almost as good who isn’t toxic, who helps rather than humiliates. In any case, a worse, and more common, phenomenon is the smiling obstructionist who blocks anything that doesn’t protect their little slice of heaven. They kill real innovation, and are more likely to “go along, get along” with goofy management ideas because they don’t threaten the status quo.

    • Jeff Franks

      Amen. I call them survivalists. They are jealous, lazy, uniformed, uneducated and don’t take chances because they are normally cowards. They are always gossiping and spreading derision. I am not sure I agree with the term ‘Toxic Genius.’ Sounds like somebody got her feelings hurt.

  3. The Curmudgeon

    “Open company, no bullshit.” – All companies are open
    “Don’t #@!% the customer.”
    “Play as a team.” – Does playing volleyball make us better intellectually
    “Be the change you seek.” – Obtuse or BS, Violates rule #1
    “Build with heart and balance.” – Obtuse, BS, Violates rule #1

    These values contradict each other. If you want to be a mediocre touchy feely company go with it, but you will never be great.

  4. Anonymous Nerd

    Once again, we see that it doesn’t matter who you know, it matters who you blow. No one cares what your skills are, how hard you work, or what you accomplish every day for the company. It’s all a popularity contest. It’s high school all over again.

    “Yes, he singlehandedly rewrote our database system and saved the company, but HR says that people say he speaks in a creepy monotone voice and he doesn’t participate in the office football pool. I hear he’s one of those “ass burgers” weirdos. Can’t you get rid of him and hire my little brother instead? No, he doesn’t know anything about that computer crap, but c’mon, he’s a people person! He’s the life of the party!”

    And then, for no reason at all, the company went bankrupt.

    No wonder China, India, Korea, and Japan are eating us alive.

  5. Certified Nontoxic

    Looks like this comment section found all the toxic jerks.

    I wonder if they’d change their opinion if they read the study that shows overall performance is better if you weed out high-performing pricks because everyone feels more confident contributing? We all know the answer to that…

  6. wageSlave

    Apparently, the study doen’t take into account Pareto’s rule of 20/80. Twenty percent of your work force does eighty percent of the work. That means that eighty percent of your work force is only doing twenty percent of the work. As someone who has been in the 20 percent my whole life, I recognize the importance of making the eighty percent feel more confident about contributing less for about the same pay. A company that ignores the rule of 20/80 usually regrets it and some do not survive without their 20 percent competitive advantage. A better strategy is to pay top performers better and attract more obnoxious jerks to the point of 30/70. Now that is creating a competitive advantage you can take to the bank. lol

    • that last 20% of work needs the other 80% of the folks to debug, finesse, test, rewrite, train, sell, move mountains, jump through other companies red tape, document and explain your flow chart because it looks like you could touch the paper with a 9v battery and it would make a buzzing sound…

      and figure out if it is the right thing to do in the first place. but hey, when your feet don’t touch the ground who cares.

  7. It’s good to note that most of the commenters have missed the point of the article, but probably view themselves as the geniuses referenced. The point of her metric is that sometimes people who put the company before themselves get left behind by simple metrics. Literature around this often points to the fact that most companies fail not because they can’t do things well, but because stovepipes mean they don’t work together well, or delays in one team are often created by waiting for the output of another that has prioritised that work lower because there’s no KPI or incentive. Delivering is good, delivering for the company is ideal.

  8. Well if that just don’t beat all. Ya got reasonable and unreasonable replies (some even kinda toxic). Bek Chee seems to have (his, or her, or its—the gender escapes me) head screwed on straight except for one minor miscalculation: humans ain’t rational; they just like to think they are or pretend to be so. Jerks are all over the place and come in a wide variety of skill levels and meticulously crafted guises. Some even do performance reviews.