Handling Toxic Coworkers and Bosses

What are toxic behaviors really?  Is it more than just a personality conflict?  Yes – toxic behaviors obstruct performance.  My experts were Mitch Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, co-authors of “Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power”.

Toxic people:

  • Shame, humiliate or bully.
  • Engage in passive hostility or passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Sabotage their teams.

The toxic worker engages in a pattern of behaviors that harm team performance.  And, they get away with it.

Toxic workers don’t exist in a vacuum – most have at least one enabler — a “toxic enabler” or a “toxic buffer” or both.

An enabler is someone who is relatively well functioning, yet does thing that shield someone from the consequences of their own actions, and make it more likely that the toxic person will continue to misbehave.

The Toxic Enabler – usually the boss has a “special relationship” with the toxic person, usually because he is a high producer, or has special skills, or the like.  Often this is a boss who tries to intervene, yet is ineffective.  A boss may restructure the team to reduce the negative effect of the toxic person, or do other things that actually make it easier for the toxic worker to continue to misbehave.

The Toxic Buffer – these are often the most emotionally competent and caring people, who try to protect the team from the toxic person, often a toxic boss.  The Buffer will make excuses for, and be a communication conduit to and from, the toxic person.  This person eventually becomes burned out and leaves, and nothing has changed for the better.

Costs of Toxicity
Up to 12% of the victims of the toxic person will leave the firm.  That costs the firm an enormous amount of money – HR studies put it at 1.5 to 2.5 times the annual salary of the person who leaves.  Of the remaining staff, over 60% report that they:

  • reduce their efforts
  • reduce their work time
  • become less productive
  • waste time avoiding the toxic person
  • reduce their commitment to the firm

A good intervention has to be systematic.  Just as a troubled child needs the entire family to engage in therapy, a toxic worker needs to face a systematic intervention that involves altering the enabling behaviors of the enablers as well as the toxic behaviors of the toxic worker.

Do I Have a Toxic Employee?
Do I have a toxic employee?  Look for the symptoms, starting with low performance and morale problems, and high staff turnover.  Look for a long term pattern of behaviors that poisons others.  Look for one or more of shaming, passive hostility, and team sabotage.

Collect info from a variety of levels of the organization.

Example: Kiss-up, Kick-down
Mitch and Elizabeth worked with a CEO who came in to turn around a company.  He had one division leader with high turnover, who said he was on board with the changes, yet did not engage.  It took time to discover that this was all lip service, and the division leader was in fact toxic.  It took another year and a half to terminate that person — because he was able to pretend cooperation so well.

Good firms will integrate “values” with their performance metrics.  By “values” we mean things like “showing respect for others.”  Once these values are articulated and are integrated into the performance management system, you as a leader have a basis for holding people accountable for living those values.

A good way to build your values system, is to involve all levels of the firm in defining the specific details of what we mean by “integrity” or other values.  Integrity can mean “not gossiping.”  All vague words in the values must be translated into specific behaviors.

By involving key stakeholders at all levels in defining the behaviors, defining consequences, and defining enforcement processes, you get much higher buy-in.

Where to Start
Look at perf appraisal form – are values there, are they rated on them, and are the ratings tied to specific behaviors?  The form can’t be based on innuendo – all evaluations must be behaviorally specific.

Once you have your values identified, built collaboratively, and values are tied to specific behaviors, you can use this three point format for feedback:
1. impartial third party data, such as performance or 360-degree feedback
2. connect to their needs — i.e. I know you want to become a
3. challenge them — “I’m not sure you can do this.”  They are often ambitious and willing to tackle challenges.

Toxic people are often deep in denial and good at undermining others.  So step 1 — basing the feedback in objective data, and also couching the entire intervention in the context of an integrated performance management system, the toxic person will have less room to wiggle out of the consequences or undermine their boss, claiming “look how hard so-and-so is being on me”.

Some 94% of surveyed people said they had worked with a toxic person in the past three years.  And 92% of them rated their pain as a ‘7’ or higher.  And that can be made worse by the sense of helplessness that toxic victims often experience.

What can I do?
1. Corroborate – make sure it’s not just you.  Identify the concrete behaviors that are at issue.
2. Collaborate – create a unified voice. Go as a group to your leader.
3. If needed, perform “skip-level evaluation” where you tell your boss’ boss about your experiences.  If you’re a top manager, reach down to the subordinates of your direct reports for feedback on the performance of your subordinates.  (Make sure there is a process in place for this.)

Listen to the podcast here.

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