Keir Bowden


How Rogue High Performers Hurt Your Culture

High Performers are typically your employees that get stuff done. Often delivering high profile, last minute stuff that is perceived as hugely valuable, they end up as the go to person for the higher ups. The downside is that when High Performers go bad and turn into Rogue High Performers, the effects on your business and your staff (Lesser Mortals in the eyes of the Rogue High Performer) can be dramatic.

The “Nobody Else is Good Enough” Bottleneck

A far as Rogue High Performers are concerned, they are the rockstars and have never needed support from anyone. In their minds their entire career has been one success after another. Any problems encountered along the way have been down to the Lesser Mortals not understanding the vision and making mistakes. Eventually this translates to an attitude that nobody else is worthy to work with them, so everything must be done by them. Suddenly they are on the critical path for every high profile project, and all of those projects start to suffer.

There is One True Way

Rogue High Performers know the right way to do things. This may have been learned many years ago using tools and languages that have long been superseded, but none of that matters. Their way is the right way and anything else is wrong. They don’t need to look at the latest industry trends or keep up to date with new approaches, as they got it right first time and their way is future proofed by virtue of it’s shining rightness.

Lesser Mortals have a hard time when the One True Way has been adopted, as it is never communicated in advance. Instead, completed tasks are rejected because they don’t follow the righteous path. A Rogue High Performer will never take the time to figure out if the different approach is better, or even valid. It is wrong because it is not the right way and must be done again. Multiple times if necessary.

They Are Untouchable

A Rogue High Performer will often be immune from the consequences of their actions, leaving Lesser Mortals to take the blame. Sometimes this will be because of their stellar reputation, which leads higher ups to believe that any mistakes must be the fault of Lesser Mortals (compounded by the fact that Nobody Else is Good Enough). Sometimes it is because the higher ups only talk to the High Performers and therefore only ever hear that it’s down to the Lesser Mortals regardless of the facts.

Even when it is recognised that the High Performer may have had a hand in the problems, this will be rationalised and minimised:

  • “They are under a lot of pressure” (translation: because Nobody Else is Good Enough they have taken on too much and are now doing many, many tasks badly)
  • “None of this could be foreseen” (translation: none of this is predicted by the One True Way, so how could it have been anticipated?)
  • “They worked night and day to save the situation — they are a hero” (translation: as they overcame the problem through sheer weight of hours, we’ll ignore the fact that they created it in the first place!)

They can Break the Rules

Rogue High Performers have exacting standards that must be met — e.g. no code goes out without 100% unit test coverage and no design can be signed off until they have been through it with a fine-tooth comb. But these standards turn out to be surprisingly flexible when applied to the Rogue High Performer — they understand the impact of breaking the rules so can do so as they see fit.

Their code can have minimal unit test coverage because it’s been written by them and just works. Their designs can go out without review because they get things right first time, and who among the Lesser Mortals is qualified to review it anyway? If there are problems, they’ll apply the sheer weight of hours and save the company once again, justifying their rock star status.

They are Difficult to Work With

Rogue High Performers struggle to connect with Lesser Mortals, which makes working relationships difficult. As Nobody Else is Good Enough, they tend to talk down to Lesser Mortals, who resent being patronised. As there is One True Way, nobody else’s ideas are evaluated or even welcome, and lots of rework is required as Lesser Mortals don’t understand the One True Way.

Rogue High Performers will often take a dislike to a Lesser Mortal if they have the temerity to question anything, and when you are this good, you can behave how you like, because you get stuff done. No need to treat people courteously or even professionally.

Lesser Mortals cannot manage Rogue High Performers. The Rogue High Performer knows that what they are doing is right, so they don’t need to take direction or orders from someone who has no idea what they are doing. This will be seen as a management failing, the Lesser Mortal should somehow have asserted control over a Rogue High Performer, even though the higher ups refused to back any of their attempts to do so, for fear of upsetting the status quo.

As Nobody Else is Good Enough, Rogue High Performers are often late looking at the work done by Lesser Mortals, which causes go-live dates to be shifted at short notice to accommodate the rework. This isn’t great for customer, but reinforces the status of the Rogue High Performer — another scenario where if they don’t do it, it isn’t done right, and luckily they were able to save it at the last moment.

An easy way to spot a Rogue High Performer is to canvas opinion on those that have recently worked with them — if the prevailing attitude is to avoid working with them in the future, congratulations — you landed one!

They Cost you Money

Not just in terms of rework and delay, although this has a very real impact on your bottom line. Rogue High Performers cause churn — especially where there is intense competition for talent, such as in Salesforce world.

Lesser Mortals decide things will be better elsewhere and move on. This is typically rationalised away by the higher ups — the company is better off without them (which begs the question why did you hire them in the first place, and put them on key projects with Rogue High Performers?).

Churn costs — think about how long it took to identify, interview and employ that Lesser Mortal. How much time they spent getting themselves up to speed and how much time other Lesser Mortals spent supporting them (the Rogue High Performer typically can’t spare time to help here — they are too busy on critical tasks that are holding up multiple projects). When you sacrifice Lesser Mortals to preserve the ego of the Rogue High Performer you have to do it all again, every time.

They don’t Change

High Performers don’t go Rogue overnight. It tends to be a gradual process. They insert themselves into the critical paths of projects one at a time, and their behaviour slowly gets worse. If this isn’t nipped in the bud then by the time everyone realises what has been happening, it has been normalised. A Rogue High Performer won’t moderate their behaviour or change their approach going forward, as they are getting important stuff done. If a few Lesser Mortals are the cost of this, then so be it. Higher ups will often buy into this — there are a few bumps in the road, but look at how much stuff has got done. Not rocking the boat becomes the default option which allows the situation to escalate.

It Defines your Culture

Suddenly you have a toxic culture—Rogue High Performers are now running the show and morale is plummeting. The higher ups don’t know what to do — they’ve tried nothing and are out of ideas. Promises are made to regain control, but the genie is out of the bottle. The Rogue High Performer sees nothing wrong with how they work, so will always revert to that modus operandi.

Eventually Rogue High Performers stop even paying lip service to the higher ups, as they know there will be no action taken. They are getting so much stuff done that they company can’t possibly run without them. The higher ups will often believe this too, or at least prefer believing it to taking difficult decisions.

Stop it Before it Picks up Momentum

Constant vigilance is needed to deal with Rogue High Performers. Listen to Lesser Mortals when they report issues and don’t assume they are the problem because stuff is getting done. Spot the signs early and shut them down — in the long term you’ll be glad you did.

I’m better known in the Salesforce community as Bob Buzzard — Umpteen Certifications, including Technical Architect, 5 x MVP and CTO of BrightGen, a Platinum Cloud Alliance Partner in the United Kingdom who are hiring (Rogue High Performers need not apply!).

You can find my (usually) more technical thoughts at the Bob Buzzard Blog

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