How the houses of Game of Thrones can help you understand toxic employees

Toxic team members are real people with real motivations, strengths, and weaknesses that have a measurable impact on company culture.

Helen Sloan / HBO

We’ve all dealt with toxic employees, but to better understand them, consider organizing such individuals into Game of Thrones’ houses.

To begin, consider an employee that often gets greatness and madness mixed up, either using their skills to propel their team to the next level or burn all progress to the ground – ultimately making them House Targaryen.


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Next is House Stark. These employees keep a straight face despite the level of stress they’re under – failing to ask for help even if it means sabotaging their own efforts. And when their anger reaches high levels, their professional failures can end up in an “employment beheading.”

Arguably worst of all is House Lannister employees who encompass every terrible trait of the other noble houses – they’re manipulative and ruthless firecrackers that will do whatever it takes to be on top. So how can you redirect their energies?

We’ve posed some questions to Erica Denner, Head of People & Culture, Kazoo for her insight on this compelling connection. Kazoo is an employee experience platform focused on recognition, rewards and performance management.

Why did you decide to use the comparison of Game of Thrones to demonstrate employee profiles?

Game of Thrones showcases complex characters exactly as they are, there’s no sugar-coating for the sake of audience comfort. And the truth of the matter is that when you’re dealing with toxic employees, you have to take the same approach.

Toxic team members are real people with real motivations, strengths, and weaknesses that have a measurable impact on company culture. Being able to use familiar Game of Thrones characters that people know and love and comparing them to toxic archetypes felt like a fun, accessible way to think about a very difficult workplace reality through a fictional lens.

With regard to House Targaryen, please explain in further detail the employee that often gets greatness and madness mixed up, either using their skills to propel their team to the next level or burn all progress to the ground.

Targaryen employees have the intrinsic belief that they’re talented, correct, and will come out on top. When they’re right, they’re right, but when it comes to business, stakeholders need more than confidence to guide major company decisions. If you spot any of the following behaviors from members of your team, you may be in the presence of a Targaryen coworker:

  • “Following their gut” regardless of data or evidence that says they should take a particular course of action
  • Refusing to accept feedback or alternate views on decisions and/or projects
  • Demanding people’s confidence and trust in major projects despite no previous experience in similar situations
  • Taking extreme measures when a level headed conversation would be just as (if not more) effective.

To quote George R. R. Martin, “Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” This “toss up” means you need to harness their creativity and energy in the pursuit of common goals.

While the Targaryen employee may be right in the end, having a process and guardrails in place for collaboration will ensure diverse viewpoints are considered and that the outcome is truly the best option.

Publicly reward Targaryens when they follow the process and collaborate – it will help enforce the productive behaviors while also appealing to their need for ego-boosts. Continuous performance feedback and manager check-ins will also help tame Targaryen employees.

Regarding House Stark, please explain how trying to keep thoughts too close to your vest and trying to be overly righteous can hamper your work growth. Also, please explain the mention about anger and failure. You can allude to the series if you wish.

There’s a great business development book called, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” that Ned Stark would have benefitted from reading before making the choice that ultimately cost him his life.

In it, Ben Horowitz says, “If there is one skill that stands out [to being a successful CEO], it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.”

Employees who find themselves faced with difficult decision after a difficult decision should look to the Starks as a cautionary tale. When righteous tunnel vision, anger, or impatience are the leading factors in your decision making, you’re almost guaranteed to make the short-sighted choices that backfire, hurting you and your closest team members.

Stark employees should be encouraged in 1:1 meetings with their managers to share challenges and obstacles of their current workload. Managers can help Stark employees prioritize and navigate through professional hurdles by setting realistic goals, communicating often, and focusing on solutions.

Regarding House Lannister, if you come across wicked co-workers, how do you handle these ambitious yet harmful colleagues? Pull in references from the show to give it legs.

When faced with a Lannister coworker, the best thing to do is make them an ally. As Cersei tells Ned early on, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” These ambitious employees are headed to the top, so make an honorable attempt to join them – harness their strengths while simultaneously limiting the impact of their harmful behavior.

Aligning with a Lannister employee is not without risks, though, so be thoughtful in this alliance and be prepared to escalate to a leader if there is limited success in taming the Lannister employee’s toxic behavior.

On the other hand, if an alliance with a Lannister employee is out of the question, and you have escalated the situation appropriately, you may want to steer clear. With the unofficial motto “a Lannister always pays their debts,” you can be certain that any plot involving a Lannister coworker will be repaid three fold. Harmful or inappropriate behavior won’t go unnoticed and should be addressed by leadership through feedback and/or discipline.

In summary, it’s true that an office is a melting pot of personalities. How can an employee change negative attitudes and create a purposeful and fulfilling work situation even with deterrents?

Not all toxic employees are beyond saving, nor do all of them realize how detrimental their behavior can be to company culture. When you sense a team member heading to the dark side, it can be helpful to ask where their workplace unhappiness is stemming from, so you can attempt to address both the root of their behavior and the behavior itself.

Toxic employees are often reacting to office politics, poor leadership, or lack of structure, so rather than focusing on just the employee, consider working on the fundamental pain points for ALL employees, not just its biggest personalities.


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Erica Lamberg|is a business, health, and travel writer whose work appears in Gannett, US News & World Report, Bankrate, MSN, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Reader’s Digest and NBC News