A few toxic employees can start a movement that, if left unchecked, can derail your organization. The toxic behavior of a few employees can poison the culture; their numbers can swell and shift the focus of conversation from performance to cohesion. Ultimately, it marginalizes the true performers, causing them to question themselves and their own judgment.
How do you know you have toxic employees?
Toxic employees are emotionally reactive and impulsive. They typically:
- Overreact to situations resulting in angry exchanges.
- Persevere in negative interactions.
- Lack playfulness because every joke or playful act is in danger of misinterpretation.
- Disengage, because even the most benign activities of the leader are often sabotaged.
Herding (“Fake Collaboration”)
Herding appears to be collaboration but it is not. Instead, keeping the “herd” together becomes more important than the organizational purpose. Leaders tend to adapt to the weakest and least psychologically differentiated members (those that are the least objective and performance-oriented, hereafter referred to as “immature.”), Such leaders often fear to make decisions without input from everyone affected. Ultimately, this leads to delays and often no decision at all.
This behavior results in unspoken rules such as:
- Dissent is discouraged in favor of alignment.
- Feelings are more important than ideas.
- Harmony is more important than progress.
- Comfort is more important than adventure and risk.
- Challenge is discouraged.
- Deeper truths are not discussed.
Herding also limits new ideas. When more mature members share disruptive or innovative ideas, the more toxic members are quick to sabotage them. Ironically, when the least mature members share disruptive ideas, their ideas are often accommodated regardless of their quality. The difference between how mature and immature members are treated is rooted in the desire to be inclusive at all costs. Mature members threaten this unity because their ideas challenge the norm of acceptability. Immature members are also more easily offended — and not accommodating their ideas upsets the group’s harmony.
Once herding is entrenched, mature leaders exit the organization; those who don’t are marginalized.
Why is herding not the same as collaboration?
An organization characterized by herding has two clear components that distinguish it from one that fosters true collaboration:
Polarization: Members’ positions become extreme and alliances around those extreme positions start to form. Maintaining these alliances becomes more important than finding the best solutions or ideas. When this happens, every meaningful leadership decision will be strongly opposed by a significant number of people.
Focus on Rights: Despite the overt statements about unity and collaboration, members exert more energy and time focused on their individual rights as an employee and less on what truly benefits the collaborative.
Failure to Accept Responsibility
Toxic employees typically explain failures by blaming other members or outside forces instead of their own actions. Often, calling out the performance of others is an attempt to mask personal shortcomings.
- When they blame other members, it is usually the most mature members, who they perceive as outsiders to the company culture and values.
- When they blame outside forces, they exaggerate how little control they have in their ability to react effectively. Even some of the simplest external obstacles lead to expressed helplessness and giving up.
Employees with poor emotional regulation are allowed to constantly invade the mental and physical space of other members. Some observations:
- Asking personal questions of new members with whom they have not developed a relationship.
- Sharing deeply personal –and sometimes disturbing information about themselves.
- Redirecting the subject of meetings to things that interest them personally.
- Entering offices or cubicles to start conversations without assessing whether or not the other is busy and then staying longer than is appropriate.
The most insidious space invaders have righteous reasons for their actions. For example, we sat in on a meeting where the issue of handicapped parking was raised. The company had more spaces than required by law and rarely were any of them used. When the suggestion that the unused spaces be used to reward employees for a positive contribution, one of the members interrupted the group to explain the origin of the term “handicap”.
She spoke for 15 minutes, telling the others that handicap meant that the person was a beggar with his “cap in his hand” to gather donations. Despite being completely untrue, the story derailed the discussion and no decision was made. Today, they still have 15 empty parking spots requiring employees to park across the street and walk through a busy intersection to get to their offices.
Members of a toxic organization often deny that the environment is toxic. Instead, they may seek help to solve the problem by consulting business and leadership books. But because they have not dealt with the toxicity, the new ideas gleaned from these books are sabotaged.
Even worse, the most toxic members of the most toxic organizations are simply not aware of the problem. If you were to ask them directly if the organization was toxic, they would likely say “no” or “no more than most.”
Short Term Fixes and Shortcuts
Because toxic employees struggle to manage anxiety, they become consumed by any crisis. As a result, organizations overrun by toxicity are in crisis much more often. Sometimes these crises are driven by external events, but more often they are generated internally.
Eliminating toxicity takes time and a skilled approach that comes with experience. A company that tries a quick fix may find temporary, but not sustainable, relief because symptoms have been addressed –not the root cause.
If you don’t see the elements of toxicity in your organization, congratulations. But, if these behaviors are visible in your organization, any major change initiative, including a restructuring, is certain to fail, if the toxicity is not eliminated.
If you want to learn how to create a healthy, performance-oriented environment, reach out to us.