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Should Your Team Trade Its Best Player? Passing Off Your Toxic Top Performer

By May 20, 2019 No Comments

Growing up in the Boston area, I worshipped the Boston Celtics.  At the time (I’m instantly dating myself with this story), the Celtics were led by the ‘Big Three’–Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale.  They were great players as teammates, but Bird was the best of them.  Parish and McHale?  They were very good by themselves, but it’s a real question if they would have ever made the Hall of Fame if not for Larry Bird elevating their performance to make them great. Bird’s unselfishness, leadership, and his ability to find opportunities for his teammates to excel made him invaluable beyond his own point production.

Fast forward about 30 years and the Celtics have a completely different dynamic.  Meet Kyrie Irving.  Kyrie puts up great statistics, but the team is regressing. The Celtics made the NBA Finals last year and despite being healthier, they never reached the levels they did in 2018.

Other players keep hinting at something being wrong.

Kyrie makes a scene in the media regularly.

He has a shoot-first attitude which reduces the opportunities for his teammates to succeed.

He’s shown that he can’t work well with other stars.

He appears to be the antithesis of a team player.

And now after a season-ending playoff series in which Kyrie displayed all of these negative traits in excruciating detail, the Celtics have a choice: to keep him or let him go.

It’s not that hard.  You let him go–and there’s research to back it up.


  1. The behavior can go from bad to worse.  In a 2015 study by Dylan Minor of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that if someone is put around toxic people, there is a 47 higher chance than usual that they would become toxic too.  Dimmock and Gerken in the March 2018 Harvard Business Review found similar results with financial services workers. If you dumped a previously sanctioned employee in with employees with track records of ethical behavior, there was a 37% uptick in the chances of good employees committing some form of misconduct.
  2. Productivity drops. In their research paper, ‘How, When and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel’, Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups’, researchers Will Felps, Terence Mitchell, and Eliza Byington found that productivity can drop as much as 30 to 40 percent with a single negative employee.


    What will the Celtics do with Irving?  Who knows, but if they want to maintain a good team in all aspects, they should drop the high performer that brings them down and find a way to put together the pieces of a team that can win in the long-term.

What’s your company doing with the great player who makes your team underperform or stay average? If your best player is making your team worse, you have a decision to make. I think it will be a slam dunk.

What’s your take?

Pete Havel is the CEO of The Cloture Group, a culture change management firm, and author of The Arsonist in the Office, which can be purchased on Amazon or to get your signed copy, click HERE.  He can be reached at








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