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Insights for Shaping Tomorrow’s Leaders
Managing Toxicity in the Workplace
March 21, 2022

This week we are pivoting to a topic that has come to us as a special request from one of our followers. We were asked to share insights and best practices on managing toxicity in the workplace (both virtual and in-person).  

As a leader, you need to work effectively with different personalities, styles, and preferences that individuals possess. We have written a lot in the past about valuing each other’s differences by leveraging the diversity of thought and behavior.  

The brutal reality is that at some point in your career, you may come across individuals who are exhibiting what we would call “toxic” behaviors which are not acceptable, nor should they be valued in any work environment. 

You cannot ignore toxicity in the workplace as it can be poisonous and spread like wildfire if you do not have courage to get in front of it. It can eat away at all the positive attributes of your team and company culture and can destroy teamwork, collaboration, innovation, and trust. No one wants to be around it, nor work or interact with someone who exhibits toxic behaviors, but it happens, and it is your responsibility as a leader to address it in the most constructive manner possible.

Defining Toxicity

Here is my honest opinion, and, perhaps, I am too much of an optimist. I honestly do not believe that people wake up every day with the intention to act out in a way that is perceived as being difficult or what we refer to as toxic. Perhaps some people have learned and absorbed highly toxic behaviors from previous leaders, and then, in turn, exhibit the same behaviors towards others. They are not bad people, and they are not necessarily driven by any evil or nefarious intent. They are simply acting out in ways that they have experienced themselves.  

The bottom line is this – these are learned behaviors that either come from their personal life and upbringing, previous leaders, or perhaps they simply lack the emotional intelligence and self-awareness to act in more productive ways. As leaders, role models and influencers, you cannot tolerate, ignore or excuse this type of toxic behavior in the workplace.

When you deal with toxicity in the workplace, it’s important to understand that the issue you need to address is not the person, but rather the person’s toxic behavior. You cannot be expected to fix a person, but as a leader, you can take steps to correct behavior and encourage actions that promote healthier workplace relationships and higher levels of engagement.

Some of the more common toxic behaviors in the workplace include:

  • Constant complaining and/or expressions of negativity
  • Disrespecting people and deadlines
  • Gossiping and spreading rumors
  • Nitpicking and negatively criticizing the efforts of others
  • Being intentionally confrontational, even over trivial matters
  • Disrespecting personal and professional boundaries
  • Manipulating coworkers into doing their work; deflecting responsibility
  • Taking credit for the work performed by others
  • “Brown-nosing” the boss 
  • Belittling peers and colleagues 
  • And the list goes on….

Breaking the Chain of Toxic Behavior

I recommend dealing with toxic behavior head-on. Start by simply delivering feedback on how someone is engaging in the workplace in order to open their eyes to the challenges they are creating as a result of their behavior.  

As leaders, we are not always trained to psychoanalyze the people we lead and to help reveal the source of their issues and toxicity. However, we do encourage you to deal with the toxic behaviors with clear, open communication, emotional intelligence, and good faith, so you can encourage growth and transformation. Your role as a leader is to focus on motivating and rewarding behaviors that are conducive to individual, team, and organizational success.  

The Impact of Toxicity in the Workplace

Before I get to tips for dealing with toxic behaviors in the workplace, I think it’s important to understand how these behaviors impact the health of your organization. Some toxic people are also top performers on paper, which might lead you to believe that you can maintain the status quo without confronting their bad behaviors. But consider what research shows us:

  • 94% of leaders have worked with someone they define as toxic, which suggests that toxicity in the workplace is highly prevalent
  • People who are targeted by toxic behaviors are more likely to quit their jobs
  • Losing people because of toxicity in the office means hiring and training new employees
  • The financial burden associated with bringing new people on board (to replace those lost because of toxic behaviors) represents more than three percent of total payroll costs

In the end, toxicity in the workplace has a negative impact on the bottom line. 

It can cause your best people to quit, and it puts stress on teams and the entire organization. Furthermore, people who exhibit toxic behaviors seem to have a way of spreading their toxicity like negative sunshine. When you have a person in your organization who behaves this way, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

Simple Tips for Managing Toxicity

You must take action and deal with those who are behaving in ways that create negativity, distrust, and lack of engagement. You must also be mindful not allow their behaviors to infect you and poison your ability to lead and inspire others.

Here are some simple tips you can leverage to help manage the situation or avoid it all together:

#1 — Pre-Screen and Probe for Toxicity

Obviously, if you are reading this, you may be past the point where this advice would be useful, but I think it’s crucial to screen for toxicity during the recruiting process.

We suggest you consider how you can incorporate interviewing for civility into your recruiting process, which means asking questions that get to the heart of how a person interacts with others and how they behave in the workplace, both virtually and in-person. It’s also recommended that you observe behaviors and responses through the lens of civility during the interview process.

Here is an example of what you could ask a potential candidate. Describe a scenario where the interviewee would be on the receiving end of incivility or inappropriate behavior from a colleague. Ask how they would respond and handle the situation. A desirable candidate is one who would address things constructively, directly, professionally and respectfully.

#2 — Dig Deeper to Uncover What’s Behind Toxic Behavior

Although you should not be expected to take on the role of therapist or counselor, you can use emotionally intelligent communication to determine if the toxicity is work related. What is going on in their life that may be at the root of these unproductive behaviors? Are they dealing with issues at home? Is the employee frustrated with career development? Are they stressed out from working long hours? 

If the toxic behaviors have arisen from dissatisfaction or stress with work, you can provide relief in the form of time off and or the re-evaluation of the individual’s responsibilities. You need to get to the heart of what is happening, especially if the behavior is out of character for the individual.  We owe it to them to find out what is happening before we write people off as toxic employees who lack the attitude, values and behaviors that foster teamwork and deliver collective results.

#3 — Communicate the Disruptive Impact of Toxic Behavior

Toxic behaviors are extremely disruptive, but many of the people who engage in such behaviors do not even realize that they are causing such strife and discomfort for others. You cannot assume that the person is aware that they are causing trouble in the office, and it’s your job to give them direct feedback on their behavior or coach them through it so they self-identify how their behavior is negatively impacting others.

Explain the behavior and how it is impacting the organization. Use specific examples you have observed. Then describe the behaviors you would like to see and collaborate on a plan of action. Finally, outline the consequences for continued toxic behaviors, and always make sure that your interactions with the employee are agreed to, and are well documented.

#4 — Move to Create a Non-Toxic Workplace Culture

One of the most important big-picture aspects of leadership is fostering an appropriate workplace culture. At the end of the day, you are responsible for what happens in your workplace and you are the architect who defines the culture. If you promote values like self-awareness, positivity, honesty, collaboration and vulnerability, your team members will follow suit. But if you create, or allow, a culture of negativity, stress, blame and victimization, you should not be surprised if employees start behaving in a toxic manner.

What Do You Think About Toxic Behavior?

Dealing with toxic people and behavior is a tremendous challenge, but it can be overcome. The tips I’ve outlined above can have a positive impact, but I’m interested in hearing what you think and what you have done to combat toxic behavior in the workplace. How have you handled such behaviors within your organization? Have you experienced negative impacts on the bottom line associated with this type of behavior? Do you think it’s possible to change toxic behaviors?

Let me know what you think by sending me an email at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca or calling me at 1-855-871-3374. I would love to hear your perspective on this subject.

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