Brian Fielkow

The Price of Toxic Talent: What We Can Learn From the Antonio Brown Saga

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Are you following the recent NFL drama starring ex-Oakland Raiders wide receiver and current New England Patriot Antonio Brown? It started with Brown’s refusal to comply with new helmet regulations, but it quickly devolved into a spectacle involving his recording of a private conversation with the Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, a threat against the general manager, his subsequent release from the Raiders and near-immediate pick-up by the Patriots. Then came allegations of sexual misconduct, theft and multiple domestic incidents, followed by attendant talk of a possible NFL suspension.

It may seem unlikely, but there is much to learn in Brown’s trials for business leaders who want to avoid the stress and cost of toxic team members.

Don’t get caught in the talent-seduction trap.
It’s no surprise that the Raiders signed Brown after he left the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this year. The guy is good. But when raw talent runs afoul of corporate culture, that talent loses its value. Team members must be talented and aligned with your culture. Coach talented team members whose behaviors are not in sync with those of the organization, and if the coaching doesn’t work, fire the employee without hesitation. Talent is replaceable.

Consider the true cost of toxicity.
Even weighed against achievement, a bratty, bullying or non-compliant employee will cost you. A Harvard Business Review study describes negative effects of toxic employees, including damage to people and property, customer loss, lower employee morale, higher turnover and loss of legitimacy among stakeholders. The dollar impact of managing a diva who plays by his or her own rules can be astronomical. And, as in the case of Brown, who had well-documented dustups with his former teams, it’s just a matter of time before things blow up.

Related: 8 Toxic Types of People You Should Keep Out of Your Life

Don’t reward bad behavior.
In professional sports, salaries are widely known, and regardless of your efforts, compensation in your company is rarely a secret either. Consider, then, the impact on morale when you hire an unproven diva at a salary that is grossly out of line with similarly situated team members. While employers sometimes must reach deep in order to attract the best talent, such decisions should be made only after careful consideration of compensation integrity.

Assume you’re not alone.
A “private” conversation between Antonio Brown and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden ended up on YouTube. The lesson? Whether it’s a job candidate, a current team member or a past employee, watch your back when it comes to communications. Assume that anything you say can and will be recorded and shared. Unapologetically protect yourself from people like Brown who appear to lack the character and judgment to respect a private exchange.

Look to the locker room.
Toward the end of his brief time with the Raiders, Brown lost the support of his team. The locker room had turned against him. I was recently privileged to host Houston Astros legendary first baseman and coach Jeff Bagwell, and he shared some insights with me. I asked how the team managed players with destructive attitudes. He memorably replied, “You can’t leave it up to the coaches.” The locker room took care of toxic behavior. In a healthy culture, peers will organically weed out misaligned team members.

Don’t expect a miracle.
You’re a business leader, not a magician. Draw a line in the sand and be prepared to act once that line is crossed. Divas not only take up the oxygen in a room (or an organization), they also suck up power and influence. Avoid ceding too much control to an individual who shows signs of negative, potentially destructive behavior. An example is a salesperson who believes he or she holds all the cards because of key client relationships. Remember, your loyalty is to your team and stakeholders, not to any individual. Give everyone the best shot at success, but don’t flatter yourself by believing you can change the unchangeable.

The Patriot Way, or the Highway?
Do I fault Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for bringing Antonio Brown into his organization at the outset of the saga? Not a bit. And here’s why. Like him or not, Belichick is a disciplined leader. The Patriots boast a well-defined culture and are known for successfully dealing with wayward players. In other words, their culture has proven that it can integrate players with problems in their past. If the more serious allegations against Brown are proven, then no amount of talent can justify hiring him. At some point, an individual’s character is so flawed that continuing the employment relationship becomes a reflection of your company’s values. It’s not worth it.

Brown can posture all he wants, including a bizarre post-Pats signing Instagram illustration that shows him lounging in a pile of cash with the caption, “Business Is Boomin.” Either he will conform to the “Patriot way” or he’ll be out. And if serious charges are pursued and proven, he might end up a long way from a football field.

The moral of the story is: Take strong action to protect your company’s culture before toxic behavior damages your team, your company and your reputation.