The Unmanageable Star Performer

Stefan is a partner in a company and is in the head of the South Asia and Middle East division, and Vijay is the head of the India division. These two are equal in rank, and Stefan just got a report from India that shows a high employee turnover rate despite the division getting three new high-profile accounts. Stefan flies over to India to have a meeting with Vijay.

Even though Vijay is a star performer and has a type A personality, though he displays narcissistic traits such as grandiose sense of self-importance and treating his employees as tools rather than people. When asked, consultants with the company have a sense that there is low interactional justice within the department; when prodded complaints included that Vijay is impossible to please, no one could work as hard as he did, his creative genius was intimidating, his hard work schedules made it so that consultants can’t see their families, he sends emails at 4am that need to be answered immediately, and that if he sees someone leave early he will give them even more work the next day. This emotional labor causes stress for employees. Emotional labor for long periods of time causes employee burnout, and prolonged exposure to stress raises cortisol levels. According to Kara Hannibal and Mark D. Bishop, “although a stress-induced increase in cortisol secretion is adaptive in the short-term, excessive or prolonged cortisol secretion may have crippling effects, both physically and psychologically” (2014), meaning that prolonged exposure to stress can cause real physical harm to employees because chronic high cortisol levels can interfere with their immune systems.

The employee turnover rate is high, and because the company attracts effective employees who then leave, the division has started to get a bad reputation. Vijay reacts personally to employee satisfaction surveys and, when confronted with employee dissatisfaction, changes the subject of conversation to how empirically well his division is growing. Vijay is an intense boss, and his need to work hard 24/7 has become an emotional contagion that has infected his employees. Vijay does not seem to have very much emotional intelligence, as he has trouble responding to criticism of his behavior, deflects his flaws onto others. In essence, Vijay has a negative attitude even if his values lead to great results.

The theory of self-fulfilling prophecies posits that people will behave in ways that they perceive are expected of them. In this case, Vijay’s employees think Vijay expects them to be available 24/7 to answer emails and note that he is never satisfied. As a result of Vijay never being satisfied, his employees are in turn never satisfied either. This could feasibly be a good thing in moderate amounts, but over time this becomes unduly stressful for employees. Social learning theory is the view that we can learn through both observation and direct experience. Vijay has openly said that he thinks “those who complain are just not up to the standards of the consulting industry,” which as a direct experience teaches employees that if they raise issues of job satisfaction with him, he may criticize them fire them outright. He does have creative genius, and “people tried to be like him” because they observed that he is a star performer, but also observed that his creative genius was intimidating and that he didn’t trust or respect anyone but the “consultants who worked around the clock.”

The two experts, Ishan Raina and Eric Olson, have somewhat similar insights as to what Stefan should do at the dinner meeting. Both say that Stefan should frame the conversation to pander to what Vijay wants. They agree that Vijay would rather leave than behave differently. Raina gives three possible outcomes for the dinner discussion, and Olson says that Stefan probably shouldn’t discuss different approaches with Vijay without sufficient backup from the CEO. Olson’s guidelines for talking to Vijay include applauding the division’s growth and then giving some advice for maintaining long-term growth – this would be a good place to talk about reducing employee turnover. Four other businesspeople give input. Allegra Jordan’s comments were interesting; she writes that Vijay is toxic to the company and that he would use the dinner as an opportunity to manipulate the way Stefan sees the situation in such a way that he doesn’t have to change. Arthur Dent takes an opposing opinion, saying that employees are weak if they can’t handle Vijay’s management style.

To some degree I agree with most of these opinions. The only one I don’t agree with is Arthur Dent, who said that Vijay is not the problem and that consultants need to adapt to his behavior. Dealing with a narcissist like Vijay would be adding too much emotional labor to the normal tasks these consultants already have to deal with, which would overload the consultants. Since there’s no indication that Vijay will change anytime soon, it is reasonable to suspect that employees will be undergoing emotional dissonance for a prolonged period of time. Doing so will cause prolonged emotional labor. Prolonged emotional labor causes employee burnout, which in turn negatively affects employee job involvement. Studies have shown that employees with higher job involvement take fewer sick days, partly because disengaged employees “to have a higher rate of absence.” (Zatz, 1994). As stated before, I agree with Allegra Jordan that Vijay is a narcissist. I agree with Raina and Olson that Stefan should make Vijay think that the changes he may make are his own ideas by framing them as benefitting Vijay. If Vijay suspects that Stefan is outwardly criticizing him, it is likely that Vijay will try to defend himself with an escalation of commitment to his management style.

While these are some good guidelines, things can go further. Despite his intellectual abilities and creativity, Vijay has very low emotional intelligence. Something Stefan could suggest to the CEO is that someone with high emotional intelligence be hired to work alongside Vijay to improve employee engagement and job satisfaction. A small but surprisingly impactful change could be to institute a company-wide rule that no emails be sent outside of normal working hours except when dealing with people in different time zones. This would stop the 4am emails and let employees relax a little. My mom is chair of the board of trustees for a company, and she refuses to answer emails outside of normal working hours, and does not expect her employees to behave differently from her – she has received personal gratitude from multiple employees for this decision. If Stefan were feeling dangerous, he could suggest a company-wide mindfulness training program; these have been shown to increase job satisfaction and improve employee relations (Jazaieri, 2014).




Works Cited

Hannibal, K. E., & Bishop, M. D. (2014). Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation. Physical Therapy94(12), 1816–1825.

Jazaieri, H. (2014, June 30). Can Mindful Managers Make Happier Employees? Retrieved October 01, 2017, from

Zatz, D. (1994). Job Involvement and Health. Journal of Psychology and the Behavioral Sciences, 8, 34-47.