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

April 5, 2021 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 colleagues (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

Ultimately, 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. 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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April 5, 2021 9:00 am


  • Shauna says:

    What words of advice do you have for those who fall into this category themselves? Or may be seen in this light? They are individuals too!

    • Paul White says:

      Shauna, my experience has been that toxic achievers (and other seriously dysfunctional colleagues) only examine themselves and desire to change when they have repeatedly “hit the wall” of reality – that their behavior patterns continually create negative consequences in their lives. Until then, rarely are they willing to listen to input from others.

  • Mette says:

    And have you got any advice for people not in a position to relieve the organisation of a toxic achiever, i.e. the staff who is affected at a lower level by their actions?

    • Paul White says:

      Mette, We are working on a blog for the beginning of May on how to survive a toxic workplace which will answer your question in more detail. However, some of the things you can do include; protect yourself, continue to do your job, document what the toxic achiever has done, document conversations and meetings, have someone else present when possible.

  • Adrienne says:

    I definitely have a toxic achiever who can be positive and supportive of certain peers some days and then be short and show attitude if she feels “left out” on other days. She can take things very personal and has her own insecurities which result in defensive and childish behaviors at times but then comes to me asking suggestions on how to communicate appropriately when dealing with a challenging customer. Any coaching suggestions on presenting how to turn the behavior around so it is more positive and consistent across the board to all of her peers and not just the ones she likes?

    • Paul White says:

      Adrienne, this sounds like a complex situation / person, so there is no easy, one-step solution. First, really be aware of when she is behaving in the ways you desire and call attention to it (“I really like it when ..” “I really appreciate it when you ..”). Second, when she is in the more negative mood, seek to understand her perspective: “It sounds like you are frustrated. What’s going on?”

      I hope that helps as a starting point.

      P.S. You may want to check out my online tutorial “Dealing with Dysfunctional Colleagues” as an additional resource.

  • Absolutely! If you’ve approached management or HR several times regarding a lack of recognition and growth opportunities (such as promotions, raises, and challenging assignments), and have seen no changes, it may be time to leave.

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