7 Signs You Work with a Toxic Achiever and How to Cope

September 19, 2022 9:00 am Published by

Toxic achievers pose a serious dilemma for business owners, managers, and supervisors. On the one hand, they get the job done — quickly, and more successfully than their peers. So, their work production or sales numbers look great. On the other hand, they create major headaches due to the way they relate to others, their condescending attitude, and their propensity to frequently want exceptions to company policies and procedures.

7 Signs of a Toxic Achiever

How do you know if one of your team members is a toxic achiever, or just a pretty good producer who can be irritating to work with? Let me describe some common characteristics.  Toxic achievers:

  1. Are brighter, faster, and more productive than anyone else in their area within the organization. From a production point-of-view, they are “top dog” (They know it. You know it. The management knows it. And they use this position to their advantage.)
  2. Relate to others in a condescending, brusque manner, flaunting their productivity as a reason to be treated as special. Toxic achievers are good at what they do and they are not shy about reminding others of their performance history. They freely share their advice with coworkers (even when it is not asked for), and are loath to receive input from colleagues.
  3. Can be angry, vindictive, and destructive with their words. These individuals can chew you up and spit you out in one motion, either in private (if you’re lucky) or in front of your peers and supervisor.
  4. Have no compunction about using others to help them accomplish their goals. In their mind, since they are so successful, it makes sense for others in the organization to serve them so that they can become even more successful.
  5. Believe they are above the rules. Rules, policies, and procedures are for “normal” employees, not high achievers like them. Standard procedures and paperwork just get in the way of them being able to achieve more, so they should be able to go around procedures or have someone else go through them for them. (This includes paperwork, expense reports, how vacation time is calculated, or going through the correct channels to request resources.)
  6. Create frequent turnover in staff around them. Whether it is their administrative assistant, clerical support for the team, their colleagues, their supervisor, or others in departments that have to collaborate with them — a revolving door of staff develops around the toxic achiever. Nobody wants to work with or for them for long.
  7. Produce conflict among their supervisor and managers about how best to deal with them. Eventually, heated discussions occur between the toxic achiever’s supervisor and other department heads or high-level managers. Often the high-level managers want to keep them because their production numbers are so high (and they don’t have to work with them on a day-to-day basis).

How to Deal with a Toxic Performer at Work

In general, you must get rid of the toxic achiever if you’re going to have a healthy organization. Until they are gone, chaos and conflict will continue (they will create it) and they aren’t going to change without a dramatic life changing experience (so don’t hold your breath for that).

Toxic achievers are like a large black walnut tree — it produces pounds and pounds of walnuts but nothing else can grow near the tree due to the toxicity of its leaves and root system. They produce but nothing else lives.

One of the main reasons toxic achievers have to go is because the work environment will not heal and become healthy until they are gone (kind of like having to get a splinter out of your finger). No other course of action works (though there are extremely rare exceptions). They are who they are and they bring the associated positive and negative results with them.

Rarely is the survival of the organization dependent on them (unless they have core knowledge or key relationships necessary for the existence of the company) — it’s wise not to let them get to that point of power.

It is important to note that expelling the toxic achiever from the system requires documenting their negative impact on “non-productive” areas, such as their unwillingness to follow rules and procedures, or their inability to work collaboratively with others. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a lawsuit once they are dismissed.


Once the toxic achiever is gone, you and those who worked with them will begin to realize how poisoned you felt and how much better life at work is with them gone.


This blog was adapted from Dr. White’s book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, which shares numerous stories of individuals who worked in harmful places and what they did to survive.  Additionally, check out the online tutorial Understanding & Dealing with Dysfunctional Colleagues.


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Published by
September 19, 2022 9:00 am


  • Ramirez says:

    What if a Supervisor/Manager is a TOXIC achiever and they come across as the exact same way, as long as they’re achieving their goals, they don’t care what they have to do to get there, and as employees we witness some of this behavior and its very scary/initimidating to be able to voice anything about it, when any other Executive in the company only see them acheiving results but have no idea how some of us are being treated to get there. Any tips?

    • Paul White says:

      Yes – if you do work with a truly toxic achiever, watch out and protect yourself. Toxic individuals tend to be primarily (if not soley) focused on what is best for them, and that includes “using” others to reach their goals. (You may want to watch the video I created on dealing with toxic leaders.)

  • The Comment “….(Toxic Achiever) ” they aren’t going to change without a dramatic life changing experience (so don’t hold your breath for that)” is fatalistic hyperbole. While difficult, strong counseling and intentional coaching by strong coaching leaders can convert toxic achievers or competent culture killers to functional team playing contributors at least a third of the time in my experience. I concur that those who are not coachable should be removed from the organization for the benefit of the team and themselves ultimately. However, others who are coachable and who are willing to become as competent in their self awareness and social awareness as they are in their technical competence deserve counseling and coaching just as much as the incompetent culture champion deserves coaching in competence. Emotional wounds can be healed that contribute to the toxic behavior. In addition, often toxic achievers have not been sufficiently confronted about the impact of their behavior on their career and their team. Half the battle is in recognizing the problem. If confronted directly and they recognize there is an issue and are willing to do something about it, then they are a coaching candidate. If not, then they need to go.

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