Dear Coach: My “Rockstar” Employee is Creating a Toxic Workplace Culture

May 16, 2023   |   Julie Diamond

Dear Coach,

I have somebody on my team who has deep expertise in her field and is the one I can always count on to get sh*t done. She’s a very senior leader, heading the business unit responsible for close to half of the company’s revenue. She’s hardworking, and the company really needs people with her knowledge, technical acumen, and work ethic. The top leadership team really loves her for the results she brings. 

The problem is she creates an incredibly toxic culture by gossiping about people and creating emotional storms. When she turns against someone, she never changes her mind, creating coalitions against people all along the way. People are afraid of her and dance around her because they don’t want to lose what she offers! 

She’s gotten feedback on this from several 360s over the past few years, including from me. I’ve delivered her very straight feedback on this issue — likely the straightest feedback she’s ever received — communicating expectations about behavioral shifts, time frame, what it needs to look like, etc., and while she agrees at the moment, fundamentally, nothing has changed.

I’m in a tough spot because of what she brings to the business and all the support she has from the top. However, I seriously am doubting whether it’s worth it to keep working on this with her. I feel if I don’t do something soon, I’m colluding in building a toxic workplace culture. How to proceed? This is a very challenging political situation. 


Between a Rock & a Hard Place


First, let’s unpack this. Your question tells us that:

  • While you may have given her direct feedback, you haven’t actually enforced it—holding her (and you) accountable to the time frame for behavior changes. This shows us that you are equivocating or pulling back from a leadership challenge. 
  • We assume you are equivocating because if you enforce the feedback, it could mean potentially taking a hit for the business and going against senior leadership.
  • You care deeply about the culture of the organization, even though it might have repercussions on the bottom line.

So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:

  • Your fear of consequences is stopping you from stepping into what you know is right.
  • You don’t feel enabled in your position to make decisive moves without feeling like you’re job may be at risk. 

What’s the Solution?

To move forward, it’s important that you be realistic about the risk you’re about to take, and make sure you have a Plan B in place. You’re not naive to fear where this could go, because the leadership team has tolerated—and thus implicitly condoned—her behavior, placing it above the interests of the company culture. 

Your concerns are valid, so it’s best to be prepared. We suggest taking some time to center yourself and focus on what’s true for you. Evaluate your risk soberly and decide what you need to feel comfortable taking that risk. 

When you’re ready to act, some good first steps include:

  • Become comfortable articulating your point of view about workplace culture aloud. Practice expressing it to yourself and your closest confidants. Once you’re comfortable and confident with it, it’s time to…. 
  • Speak to senior leaders about it and start to gather allies. Talk about the consequences of this employee’s behavior and the impact it’s having on the larger organization, focusing especially on the impact that non-action has been having, and the negative message that it sends.

As your name suggests, you are stuck somewhat between a rock and a hard place, but if you focus on what is right and true for you, you should feel proud of the outcome no matter which way things go. 


Each month we answer questions we often get from the leaders we work with and unpack how at the end of the day, every problem is a power problem. If you have an issue you just can’t solve, get in touch! We’d love to answer your questions in an upcoming Dear Coach post. Find us at [email protected], or on LinkedInFacebook, or Twitter.