Toxic Employees

The radio program on Toxic Employees was excellent, and was very thought provoking. The key elements include the importance of having a very clear vision of what behavior must be in order to be up to standards, and that leaders must show courage in defending that standard.

The idea of having a standard for behavior — that there are minimum levels that everyone must be at or above, at all times — is a useful one, particularly when there is an employee with toxic behavior. A standard for behavior means — or implies — that everyone must behave as least as well as that standard. That includes bosses, owners, managers, leaders, subordinates, line workers, everybody.

If the standard is not clear, it becomes extremely hard to defend — in part because it can be hard to tell whether this behavior, or that behavior, violates the standard.

When the standard is clear, the ambiguity goes away. That alone does not help create the courage to speak up, but it does remove one of the excuses for being silent.

And once we have articulated a standard of behavior, it can actually be easier to confront toxic or substandard behavior. That confrontation actually shows solidarity with the rest of the workplace, it shows internal consistency by the leader, and it becomes an expression of shared values.

Rudeness, for example, is below standard. Deliberate rudeness by one employee to another is unacceptable. So, when I in my role as leader confront someone who’s deliberately rude, I can undertake that confrontation without myself being rude. Both I and the person I’m confronting, and anyone else who becomes aware of my action, can easily see that I am upholding shared values. I’m not abusing my leadership authority by arbitrarily criticizing. Instead, I am fulfilling the contract between leadership and subordinates to articulate values, and stand up for them.

My first guest, Mary van de Wiel of A New Brand Landscape & Co. , told the story of her young operations manager. He was a hard-working, detail oriented manager at a creative marketing agency, and his focus on details — his focus on execution — made him a terrific complement to the rest of the staff. After several successful years however, his behavior began to deteriorate. In the open, loft-like environment, in which everyone could see and hear everyone else, his boot-stomping, muttering, and general negativity were impossible to miss, ignore, or avoid.

To her great credit, Mary did not avoid confronting him. And, to her even greater credit, she sought out some professional advice first. She spoke with a psychologist friend of hers to figure out the most constructive way to hold up her end of this relationship.

So, she let him know that she needed to talk to him after work, and suggested they go get a beer together. She made it clear that this wasn’t optional, and was simultaneously friendly and firm.

At the bar, after some social time, she laid out for him that he was a great asset to the organization, that he had a great future ahead of him in the industry, and lots of other folks would love to hire him. Then, she described her experience of his negative behavior — stomping boots, muttering, and negative attitude — and told him that that could not continue. She described the behavior she could not tolerate, and she described the behavior she needed him to show.

And she gave him an ultimatum. He was to go home, and either come back the next day with a new attitude and new behavior, or go find another job.

He did come back the next day, with a much improved attitude, and never relapsed. Years later, she sold the business to him. He continues to run it successfully, and they remain friends to this day.

It is hard to catalog briefly all the things that Mary did right. One thing Mary did right was to confront the negative behavior. Another was that she spoke very honestly, from a place of really liking and caring about this fellow. Another was that she gave specifics about the unacceptable behavior, and even better, specifics about what behavior she did want to see.

Mary’s success was highlighted by our second pair of guests, authors Mitch Kusy & Elizabeth Holloway, who just released their new book Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power.

As Mitch and Elizabeth pointed out, toxic coworkers do not exist in a vacuum. And they often are profoundly unaware of their own toxicity. The same is not true of the two kinds of enablers who allow the toxic person to continue: one kind absorbs the toxicity in order to spare coworkers from the unpleasant interactions, and the other is a leader who tolerates the toxicity, usually with the excuse that the person is a high performer, provides unique knowledge, or has some other special status.

For leaders especially, the toxic coworker is a challenge. The leader must, must, must have the courage to confront substandard behavior.

I won’t ruin the book by telling you how to move forward – go buy the book. And go forth with courage and caring, and confront toxic behavior with honesty and love.

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