What to do with Toxic Superstars at work?

ciel blog - toxic superstar

Bill Gates said, “The key for us, number one, has always been hiring very smart people. If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become some mediocre company.”

“When you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work”, said Steve Jobs.

Who are the Toxic Superstars?

Organizations do their best to attract Superstars and retain them. They deliver top-class productivity, set benchmarks in the organization and inspire others. Their number is small but they deliver high impact. They become the blue-eyed boys or girls for a manager, earn highest bonus and set on a fast-track career path.

The problem arises when one such A-grader is toxic corroding the fabric of the organization. Such a person is normally focused on one’s own interests, own goals to meet, earning bonuses and accolades for self rather than for the team. These individuals walk the extra mile to learn and adapt to the situation, but are sharply focused on their own requirements. They de-prioritise goals of the team and purpose of the organization over indirect outcome of one’s actions. They firmly believe, “I am right and the others are wrong”.

How do their Managers deal with them?

Managers find it very difficult to reprimand them for this behaviour. They are willing to overlook the attitude issue in the name of rough edges. This is all because of the track record and the results that a superstar delivers.

Goals and budgets for the quarter and the year are important. Because these superstars contribute significantly to those numbers, the manager does not want to upset the performer with a reprimanding conversation. Moreover, many managers are not sure how the conversation would take shape and do not want to upset the applecart. They do not want to risk damaging their working relationship with the performer and losing the person from the team.

What should be done?

Tough task for the leadership team to call a spade a spade! This calls for open communication across the rank and file. The norm in the organization should be clear to all. The values of the organization have to be lived by the leaders and the employees should be able to see them. In this kind of a situation, it is highly unlikely that a toxic superstars will be bold enough to act in a self-centred way on a consistent basis harming the ethos of the team.

Secondly, some organizations encourage their troops to be super-competitive and are quite fine with the skirmishes that a top performer brings to the table. In those situations, the toxicity may not be about the attitude of one-upmanship, rather it could be about lack of integrity and honesty. The leadership needs to recognize these behaviours and take a stance on this. Most importantly, their stance needs to be visible in the organization.

Last but not the least, leadership ability of managers across the organization plays a very important role. Most often, the front-line managers and their supervisors hold the key to the way behaviours of superstars are observed and promoted. While the top leaders set the tone, the behaviours of the managers on the ground on a day-to-day basis determines how a superstar is dealt with. They need to be able to build high levels of trust and open communication with their sub-ordinates. They must be able to leverage their relationship with the superstar to discuss violations from code of conduct and toxicity in their behaviour. This is the most important aspect and most difficult to operationalise.

Rome was not built in a day. As an organization matures, they do better!

Ref: http://www.cielhr.com/what-to-do-with-toxic-superstars-at-work/



There are enough opportunities!

ciel blog - layoffs-in-it-sector

Layoffs in IT industry are inevitable given the technological changes and socio-political changes we are witnessing. 89% of respondents to a survey carried out by CIEL last month corroborate with this. They see this as an irreversible change in the employment markets for the IT industry in India. This may sound depressing, but all is not lost. There are enough opportunities to be leveraged upon.

Why is it a big deal?

Typically, organizations asked the IT companies to automate their work processes by designing and developing an IT Application and then, making it available over a network. They had to maintain the infrastructure and the application so that business runs as usual. They saved dollars, increased speed and improved customer satisfaction. However, the landscape has changed in the last 5 years with the advent of smart phones, cloud computing and social networks. Customers transact business round the clock, communicate often and expect instantaneous results. Similarly, companies now have the access to a myriad of IT applications, do not need to own it and maintain an IT infrastructure by themselves. Our IT industry has geared up well to this new phenomenon of social, mobility, analytics and cloud. They have learnt these technologies and deployed them at work well.

Now, we are witnessing the next wave of change where artificial intelligence and big data are playing an important role in the computing process. New platforms have emerged which are helping the IT folks to create and deploy an IT application much faster and simpler than ever before. Automated tools such as bots and a range of automation platforms are reducing human efforts. Moreover, they are delighting customers by letting them be in charge of the transactions that they want to carry out with an organization. These disruptions are making many jobs redundant. Our estimates indicate loss of half a million jobs over 3 years. Most people didn’t see this coming.

Socio-political changes around the world are putting pressures on Governments in the West to review their policies of outsourcing work beyond their borders and allowing people outside their countries to carry out work there. Immigration policies are being relooked. Hence, companies in India have to find other ways of generating demand and continuously climbing the value chain. CIEL’s study shows the factors responsible for the potential job losses to be the Policies of Governments in the West, declining demands of outsourcing IT work and the advent of automation tools. Only 33% of the respondents anticipated this phenomenon.

The survey shows, most people (67%) believe, this event will get taken care to a significant extent by the normal attrition that happens in the industry. 44% believe that companies will shed the weak performers in this process. Similarly, 44% believe that the change has come faster than expected. However, a significant part of the working population in IT (56%) believe that the lay-offs are being discussed a lot and is causing panic.

New opportunities

New technologies such as augmented reality, robotics and big data are making waves in various industry sectors. They are no more restricted to sectors such as manufacturing, logistics, energy and financial services. We are seeing them applied in industry sectors like entertainment, hospitality and various other service sectors. The way we live our life is changing, right from the way we cook our food, keep in contact with the others, entertain ourselves, use appliances at home to educate our kids and take care of our health and wealth. Each of these have been transformed significantly in the last few years and have created millions of opportunities for our IT sector. Our IT folks need to reskill themselves quickly to seize upon these occasions and make hay while the sun shines.

Redeployment opportunities

Some of the IT folks can migrate to the other sectors of economy because each of them are deploying digital technologies in a significant way. Right from their processes to interact with customers to internal work processes, business planning and analysis we will see application of mobility and IT applications. Organizations will increase headcount in their IT and Technology functions to create the right applications, analyse the day-to-day transactions to derive insights and protect the information and wisdom from any threat. 44% of the respondents of the survey believe that upto a quarter of the laid off people can be absorbed in other industry sectors.

All is not lost. We have a way ahead to a bright future.

How to provide feedback to your team members?

ciel blog - how-to-offer feedback to employees

One of the most critical contributions that a leader must make to the team members is to provide feedback. The environment in the team exudes positivism when the feedback is received with openness and is worked upon by the team members.

Most organizations and their senior leaders like to take pride in the fact that their organization promotes a culture of performance and meritocracy. However, this intent does not get translated into action because they do not invest adequate energies in building an environment where employees feel safe to voice their opinions and speak up when they face discomfort or a challenge. Employees must feel adequately empowered to perform their duties and trust their leaders for their judgement on a day to day business. Further, they need to believe in the strategic vision of the organization for its long-term survival.

Set the goals right!

Given this background, goals or targets are the starting point of a performance-based culture. Leaders must define broad contours of the goal setting process and live it in a transparent manner. The organization needs to see that goals are being set fairly and there is a room for discussion on the goals. Leaders must take care to explain the rationale of the goals, induce confidence in their folks about achieving them and invite them to discover their strengths which can be leveraged to fulfil the goals.

Organizations build systems and processes that reward and recognize performance against the targets. Hence, goals become a critical variable in the equation and determine the bonus or the variable pay. While some leaders like to set audacious goals, their team members might feel scared of these and resign to their fates. In this unfortunate scenario, the leader fails in the critical duty of listening to the employees, addressing their concerns and giving them feedback about the possibilities. Goals need to be set in a collaborative manner; employees must discover their potential and feel empowered to achieve them rather than feeling the pressure of big targets.

Discuss performance every now and then!

Annual performance feedback is passé now. It has outlived its utility. Given the times that we live in and the nature of the workforce, the supervisor must not wait for the performance review event to appear on the calendar or the HR department to remind him about it. Rather, it needs to happen as often as required. One should sit down with the team members for a one-on-one discussion to review the efforts put in and the results achieved, as often as required.

Most often, leaders think that fun activities, birthday celebrations, family days and so on engage employees well and productivity improves as a result of these. Another common misconception would be that if an employee shows up each day and seems to work 9am to 5pm at her desk, she is focused and dedicated. However, the fact is that the fun activities are mere hygiene factors and do not guarantee a positive impact on the productivity.

An employee who doesn’t seem distracted at work is someone who cares for the pay-check and not necessarily, someone who is committed to the cause of the organization. She may not walk the extra mile without being pushed by the manager to keep customers happy. Leaders must be clear about this and act accordingly. The employee who walks the extra mile must be provided with clear feedback that she is valued the most. Leaders must invest their best efforts in developing this exceptional talent so that the organization grows stronger over a period of time.

Employees who generally meet their goals and care about the purpose of the organization are very valuable for the company. However, they might not have hitched their hearts and minds to the leadership and its vision; they may be at the stage of evaluating various aspects of the company’s environment and how well they fit into it. And similarly, the leader might be in the phase of observing and evaluating the commitment levels of the employee. This is a transition phase for both the employee and the organisation; the leaders should be smart enough to understand this phase of engagement and provide the necessary support to make the desired change. In either case, the employee must receive the feedback about his/her performance and feel cared for.

Similarly, there are employees who achieve results but do not demonstrate the behaviours that the organization desires. This is a tough situation for the manager to offer feedback and make early corrections. Most often, managers fail to demonstrate the leadership character in such cases and let the person get away with the excesses. Again here, the feedback has to be clear that the person has to shape up fast or leave at the earliest. Tough but one has to bite the bullet!

There are employees who miss their targets often. Leaders need to evaluate if their efforts and the behaviours are in alignment with what the organization expects. If the results as well as the behaviours do not meet these standards, it is easy to move on. It is tough when the person shows all the right behaviours and puts in the efforts, but the results continue to be elusive. The actions of the manager are observed by one and all. People might feel that a long rope is being provided unfairly and hence, the leader has to be transparent and open about it so that the most people understand the reason.

Don’t rub it in!

Some managers take the advice of offering immediate feedback too seriously. There are bad days; things do not go right. It is obvious when one makes silly mistakes and loses. The manager need not be obsessed with the urge of offering a feedback. This is like rubbing salt on the wound and accentuating the pain further. One must judge the right time and offer feedback in such a manner that it is received and acted upon.

Offering feedback is one of the most challenging tasks a manager could face. There is no silver bullet that can be panacea for any leadership challenge. One has to gather experience by handling multiple situations, introspecting and learning from mentors and seniors.

Annual Performance Appraisal is Passé

ciel blog - performance appraisal

Organizations all over the world believed that performance appraisal promotes competitiveness, objectivity, transparency and fairness. Over the years in the 90’s and the following decade, organizations invested huge amount of energy in this process right from designing the system, training people to implementing it. Each year, this internal process of the organization consumes a huge amount of energy of the HR team, leadership team and the supervisors. The time of senior folks is significantly higher than that of the juniors and hence, the appraisal process is a huge cost to the organization.

Our workforce has become a lot younger with the entry of millennials and accordingly, the leaders and supervisors have been learning to adapt to the new realities of the workplace. They are learning to offer quick feedback to their teams, positive as well as negative. Given the new developments at workplace and the costly nature of the appraisal process, leaders have started evaluating the returns on the investment on the process. A couple of years ago, large organizations in technology and consulting domains kicked off the revamp.

Let Performance Appraisal happen each day!

Today’s employee looks for fair assessment of the performance output and is open to suggestions for change in his style and behaviours. The supervisor must have the intellectual bandwidth to observe these and the necessary ability to articulate them. And most importantly, these need to be communicated at the appropriate time so that the feedback is received and acted upon. Annual appraisal process creates the setting for a discussion, but one cannot wait for the particular event to offer the feedback. Rather, it has to be a part of day to day work. Organizations must reset the expectations of their workforce to seek feedback and discuss possible changes in behaviour every now and then. Hence, the new normal on performance appraisal makes it an integral part of day to day conversation with the boss.

A typical performance appraisal discussion is a hurriedly-convened meeting by the boss. S/he normally comes ill-prepared for the discussion, offers a few generic inputs to the employee, ticks off a task on the to-do list, finds no time to record the discussions meaningfully and the employee has no means to know what gets recorded on his or her career records. I wonder if this helps the employee in his or her development; if it helps the organization in improving the performance levels at all.

Organizations do well in moving away from the half-yearly or yearly ritual of holding this process all over and spending a huge amount of energy. Rather, make it a day to day practice where the discussion is not limited to the tasks but the process, the behaviours and possible development opportunities. Employees and their supervisors have to learn this new way of engagement.

What about Measurements?

One of the most wasteful activities that happens in Performance Appraisal is to re-certify the goals of the review period and the actual achievements. And of course, many a times, the goals are not set in time and hence, there is a confusion. Sometimes, the goals are revised along the way due to several factors. Who keeps the records and digs into the past to determine the correct figures? With the advent of technology, digitization of work processes is on the rise. Hence, measuring the actuals and keeping a record of the goals is getting easier with each passing day. Organizations need to wake up to this possibility and free the performance discussions from the wastefulness. The discussions have to achieve what they are meant for – recognise the achievements, make the employee feel proud and agree on the opportunities to improve further.

Goal setting process is rigged?

The bosses set stiff targets to stretch their teams and drive higher levels of ambition. Organizations in their zest to be transparent and objective, prescribe performance scores, salary hikes and bonuses linked with achievement of targets. So, employees aggressively push for a low target to maximize their salary hike and bonus. How counter-productive it is for the organization when the negotiation of the target is not around the possibilities of achieving an ambitious goal rather on an individual’s earnings! Annual appraisal process cannot achieve this. The HR fraternity and the business leaders are trying to find a way by which the goal setting process is not rigged, rather is anchored on thinking of possibilities and ambitions.

What about salary hikes and bonuses?

Typically performance appraisal processes end with salary hikes, bonuses, promotions, new roles and goals for the next review period. Since many of these are centred on the appraisee’s personal gains, they hinder an objective discussion on performance. The employee’s mind is fixated on knowing the performance score, salary hike, bonus etc. The days from the start of the appraisal process till the final results are given to the employee are quite busy in water-cooler conversations. The organization loses momentum. Why should there be annual appraisals then?

Employees are quite alright to hear about their performance. However, the method of comparing theirs with the performance of the others in the team brings uncertainties and anxieties in their minds. Hence, organizations are moving away from the method of force-ranking performance levels and fitting the scores into a bell curve.

The new practice is to link Salary hikes, bonuses and promotions with the assessment of the individual’s performance against targets, benchmarks and potential. And appraisal discussion is not a customary annual conversation. It is a part of day to day work where the boss recognizes good deeds one to one as well as out in the open; opportunities for improvement are identified and worked upon as a matter of regular life at work. Let there not be a specific event called annual appraisal discussion.

Building rapport with a new boss


A new boss brings with him or her several anxieties in the minds of the sub-ordinates. The performers fear disruption; some of them doubt if the change will be good; some of them who are already on weak grounds of performance see it as an opportunity to build bridges with the new boss and restart. Often people forget that the boss is equally anxious to prove his or her worth and is keen to build a working relationship with the team.

Every individual has his or her own style and preference of working with the others in a team. Some of them are focused on building relationships while some want to get down to day to day tasks immediately. Some want to define changes quickly and drive them down hard while the others want to take it easy, co-create the agenda of change and go about the process collaboratively. The context in which the new boss takes charge has a huge bearing on the nature of transition process.

It is natural that a change brings disruption along with it. Hence, it is important for the organization, the boss and the members of the team to understand the contours of the new normal. Accordingly, the team has to work together to ensure that the transition is smooth. Most cases of transition are smooth while some become noisy and snappy.

Invest energy on Relationship building or Get down to the brass tags of business?

Group dynamics is at play when a new team takes shape. A theory draws up 4 stages of a team coming together: forming, storming, norming and performing. However, broadly speaking there are two things which happen in parallel when a new boss takes charge of a team.

On one hand, the leader and the members invest energies to know one another better, build their working relationships, review priorities and set expectations. And at the same time, the organization keeps running; customers are serviced, performance is measured, tasks are completed, deadlines are chased, various functions in the organisation run like business as usual. These two processes run simultaneously. However, the priorities and the depth to which these processes run depend upon the context such as the seniority level of the role, the business situation and personality trait of the new boss.

While conversing with the new boss

Prepare but don’t bias yourself: People try to find out some information about the boss from their social networks and business contacts before the transition starts. Sometimes, this information helps, but not always.

We see an individual change his or her style when faced with a new context. One can never be sure if the boss will continue to behave the same way as others have experienced in the previous job. Even if the boss has been a co-worker earlier or an ex-colleague, one can never be sure if the person in the new role will behave the same way one knew the person last.

Secondly, the information gathered about the boss might not be complete. Hence, one might land oneself in trouble if the conversation doesn’t go the desired way. The strategy of being an early-mover in building rapport with the boss based on limited information is not fool-proof. It helps to collect information but one cannot be sure of them.

Adapt: One is not sure of the expectations and operational style of the new boss. Hence, the best that one can do is to play it by the ears and adapt continuously.

One should have multiple conversations with the boss in different settings such as one-on-one discussions, group meetings, informal conversations, get-togethers, meetings in presence of business associates such as customers and partners. In this process, one learns a lot about the leadership style of the new person and adapts accordingly.

Make it easy and stay focused: In the initial days, the discussions with the boss are likely to be in the areas of knowing each other, an overview of the role, performance, external environment, internal as well as external challenges and opportunities for the organization or department. It helps to be business-like and solution-oriented rather than pouring your heart out and bringing all challenges to the boss.

Take the first step: It helps if the sub-ordinate initiates a conversation, provide updates proactively and offer help. It’s also important to not cross the line where one may come across as clingy and attention-seeking.

Set expectations: The boss might be a personal friend, co-worker, ex-colleague or from a different organization. In any case, it is advisable to be unassuming and set expectations clearly in an objective manner. One must try to set expectations in both ways so that there is no confusion later in evaluation of performance and the boss’s commitment towards the resources required to deliver results.

Wherever possible, have a joint meeting with the outgoing boss: Transition times in an organization create disruptions. Promises made to each other are forgotten at times. Hence, it is a good practice to do a joint meeting with the new boss as well as the old boss. The expectations, the support committed by the old boss, development plans agreed with the old boss and an open feedback from the old boss sets the baseline clear. There is negligible chance that one can pass the blame to the old boss for any shortfalls on either side.

It is easier to state all DO’s and DON’Ts. However, practicing them in real life calls for deliberate planning and meticulous execution.

How important is EQ for career growth?


Organizations get the senior managers to sit together for talent review sessions and decide who goes further. The HR team rolls out the results and managers often are anxious while dishing out the letters one by one. The grapevine keeps churning various theories to explain why someone got a bigger raise or a promotion. Some celebrate openly; some sulk yet put a brave front while the rest openly protest and revolt. Water cooler conversations keep churning out various theories to explain the results.

In any case, there is a certain amount of subjectivity while judging the potential and the future promise. One uses several instruments and methods to make the process objective. However, the common theories which do the rounds as well as the discussions in talent review sessions have many things in common!

They review the outcomes delivered and the behaviours demonstrated by the person. And hence, they decide how the person is likely to behave in future and what value the person brings to the table. Every organization outlines a set of behaviours which are important for them and assess the talent along those aspects. There are a set of capabilities such as applying financial acumen, thinking strategically, making rational decisions, selling, public speaking etc. can be developed with relative ease in comparison with capabilities which are softer in nature.

Softer skills hold the key!

Leaders need to be fearless, adaptable, collaborative; consider the big picture in their day-to-day work; build a culture of excellence. These are examples of softer capabilities which one needs to grow over a period of time. Often we learn these by observing our seniors. Each of these have multiple elements : establishing trust with people, being flexible about one’s ideas, listening to the others, applying intellectual bandwidth and acting with integrity.

This is way different from what we do in the initial part of our careers. We have well-defined tasks to complete, clear methods to carry out the tasks and transparent methods to measure outcomes. We have very limited grey zone. However, as one gathers experience and takes on tasks which are strategic in nature, the unclarity increases and several uncertainties come up. So, it is obvious that one should be able to sail in choppy waters keeping the troop focused on the goals, enthusing them along the journey, monitoring the state of affairs, making course-corrections on an ongoing basis and planning for the future! So, you need a strong emotional quotient.

Patience is a virtue!

Given the times that we live in, all of us get used to quick results. Fast food and quick service restaurant are the order of the day. Round-the-clock television, Internet, Emails, Chat services and Social channels have transformed our lives. We want action and immediate feedback.

Unfortunately, leading a team and learning these skills does not happen this way! Members of a team do not develop trust on their leader based on an email or a video call. Results of the team are observed hourly or daily, but the performance over a period of time determines if the team is doing well. Often many projects take a few weeks, months or at times, quarters to show results. Sparks of brilliance win us applause but they are transient. What matters is steady glow of the lamp! That calls for staying power which is nothing but emotional intelligence!

It is hard work!

Most often what we know about us is way different from what the others know about us. Secondly, there are many aspects of our own personality, knowledge and beliefs which are unknown. So, one has to first invest energies to discover and unravel oneself. We act in a certain manner because we hold certain ideas and philosophies in a certain way. Conflicts in a team take place because we fail to appreciate the perspective of the other.

This is easier said than done. One has to be at it and keep practising the skills of understanding the perspectives of the other, use them while influencing a group’s thinking and resolving conflicts.

All the way up, what matters is Emotional intelligence!

Automation is not a worry for the Job markets!

Image result for automation in it industry

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data have been making waves. Another important development is the speed of such new technologies is much higher than what it used to be five decades ago.

Industrial revolution made a huge shift in the way people lived their lives. Then came the age of computers that disrupted many things right from banking, education, academic research and so on. And then mobiles, cloud computing, smart phones and so on! The nature of work that people did to earn their livelihood and fulfil their needs of curiosity has changed substantially. The number of people who worked in the farms, factories, transportation sector and many more has changed; the way they worked has changed over the last fifty years. So, what is likely to happen as the world is increasingly global in nature and more automation is going to happen?

IT and Services Industry will transform significantly!

Image result for automation in it industry

Of late, there is a lot of discussion on the impact of automation on IT industry. I think, it’s hyped and unnecessarily creating anxiety. The advent of social media has created a whole new field called digital marketing and many jobs there. Similarly, cloud computing and smart phones  have helped millions of enterprises use IT applications. These trends have lent thousands of people jobless and at the same time, created many new jobs.

In the same way, there will be an immediate impact on entry-level jobs in IT industry and the so-called Analysts who largely deal with spreadsheets. Naturally, the employer organizations will seek avenues of maximizing their productivity!

How much ever ingenuous we may be, each one of us are blessed with a great instinct for survival. It is just a matter of time that we adapt to the new situations. And there are enough avenues to learn new skills and get ready.

Organizations who have a long-term vision see these coming and prepare well to face these. While some of them act ruthlessly to carry out a shock treatment and remove a few roles overnight, some carry out the surgery with significant amount of sensitivity. In either case, people get the opportunity to acquire new skills and deploy them at work.

As more and more machines carry out ‘the chores’, human effort will be required in creating the algorithms and maintaining the algorithms and machines.

Leaders have to lead the change from the front!

Any change is difficult and hard to put into practice. Unless the leaders consistently drive them, the changes are not understood; neither they are put into practice. Hence, a lot of communication is required right from the top so that it reaches the last person in the organization in its true form. As long as the employees understand the rationale and do not panick, the impact will be positive.

If we think of the computerization in public sector banks in India, we can relate well to the reality here. The banks which could computerize fast emerged stronger. They could do so by communication and investment of time and money. Many of the employees could adapt and those who couldn’t, had to retire early and do something else.

Governments have a role to play!

Policies in education are foundational here. If adaptability is a key building block for the education right from the Kindergarten till the University level, a country will have a labour pool who understands the nature of work-life, the challenges that one faces along the journey and the need to rise to the occasion.

Thus, the risks of job loss due to automation are not negligible but surely, over-stated. We have a great instinct of survival. We will rise to the occasion!