Last week we began a series on managing “toxic employees.”
One reader inquired, “What, exactly, is a toxic employee?”
It is such a great (and obvious) question, that we’re addressing it now before going on to additional constructive communication tools to develop collaboration with these colleagues.
What is a “Toxic Employee”?
“Toxic employee” is one of those phrases that gets thrown around without clarification.
People are not toxic. Behaviors are.
People get labeled according to their behaviors.
“She’s a high potential.”
“He’s totally toxic.”
Read about labels that create a disconnect with listeners.
Our actions stem from our beliefs and attitudes. You and I operate according to our conscious and unconscious convictions.
Just because a person bravely stands up to a bully does not make her a brave person in all circumstances. She sure acted with courage in this instance. This strengthens her and others’ confidence that she could do so under even more challenging conditions too.
Similarly, someone who trips over his feet is not a klutz. He acts clumsy.
Who we are is more than how we act.
The purpose of this series on toxic behavior at work is to present solutions which foster lasting, constructive behavior.
We do so by addressing the beliefs behind the behaviors.
Fixed and Growth Mindsets
Dr. Carol Dweck, professor at Columbia University, identified two underlying attitudes towards growth. These attitudes either extend or constrain our view of ourselves and of others.
People with the Fixed Mindset believe that people have qualities and they reach a maximum capability level and cannot go further. Like our height. My brother, a longstanding adult, is 6’2”. He won’t grow taller.
Folk with a Growth Mindset consider that we can change throughout life. Like muscle. My brother joined a gym. His biceps are more pronounced than a few months ago!
Moving Between Mindsets
Through our interactions with people we can encourage either of these mindsets.
Labels move people towards the fixed mindset. This is true whether it’s a positive or negative label. Once identified as toxic, always problematic. Once considered high-potential, always more is expected of them.
I seek to orient people towards the growth mindset and do so through constructive communication tools that provide choices within clear limits. This approach to communication renders people responsible for their actions and invites collaboration and mutual respect.
These tools are founded on the psychological principles of Dr. Alfred Adler and have been confirmed by neuroscience. For example, Dweck describes that people with a fixed mindset focus on declarative statements. “This is the way it is. Period.” Growth mindset folk entertain questions. “What will it take to move from here to there?”
Dweck asserts that people can change mindsets. The realization that these two worldviews exist has helped many recognize their fixed mindset tendencies and to intentionally focus on developing more of a growth perspective.
Toxic behavior is often a symptom of a fixed mindset. The person believes his label is superior to another’s. They therefore deserve special treatment. (They can be a bigger victim too.)
The purpose of this series on toxic behavior at work is to present growth mindset solutions to
- Avoid falling into a fixed mindset trap
- Invite challenging employees to grow
… thanks to relationship tools that are simultaneously firm and kind
- Be in expectation that the colleague can and will progress
Toxic Behaviors at Work
When a person spreads rumors, it’s poisoning the atmosphere.
When a boss misuses power, he is killing trust.
I have noticed two categories of particularly venomous behaviors: undermining colleagues and expecting favored treatment. These share a worldview of needing to be “superior to others.”
Here is how they might be expressed at work:
- Stealing ideas and taking the credit for oneself
- Spreading rumors
“Too bad Stacey lacks confidence.”
- Focusing on faults and publicizing them
“Here comes Joe who makes spills coffee on his pants.”
- Initiating power struggles, as in passive-aggression
“Too bad you did not take into account this information before making the decision.” They then present data that would have been helpful earlier.
Expecting favored treatment
- Abusing power, no matter the level of responsibility
- Judging others for behaviors they consider acceptable for themselves
“Sam is so irresponsible for being late. I, however, have a legitimate excuse.”
- Requesting special favors
“I should get two presents at the holiday party because …” (it happened)
These behaviors leave a sour taste in the mouth. The value of people has been sullied.
Creating an Environment where People Grow
People can change. Colleagues with toxic behavior can become collaborative team members (and visa versa). I have personally seen it happen on numerous occasions. The name SoSooper stands for becoming super through bloopers. By learning from our professional and personal mistakes, we prosper in making a living and in life.
THE EFFECTIVE WAY OF CHANGING OTHER PEOPLE IS TO FIRST CHANGE YOURSELF.
Imagine a tennis ball bouncing against a wall. When you throw it repeatedly the same way, the ball will bounce back in a predictable fashion. How to get the ball to bounce differently?
- Change the ball
- Change the way you throw
- Change the wall
Changing other people is like trying to alter the shape of the ball. It means constraining it into another shape, like force-wrapping it in tape. It works AS LONG AS THE PRESSURE LASTS. It’s uncomfortable for the person being compacted (and they resist), and it’s a pain to continuously apply pressure.
Create growth opportunities
The relationship tools in this series (and throughout my blog and in my trainings) present ways to change the way we toss a ball. We act differently SO THAT the person with unacceptable behavior faces the responsibility and results of his acts. These tools create learning situations which invite a constructive response from the offending party.
In the previous post, we looked at addressing toxic behavior by acknowledging a rift in the relationship, admitting we could have a role in it, and having them recognize that they share a responsibility in it too. Those tools were not about telling them about their faults. “Something is wrong with our interactions (not with you). Tell me how you understand the situation.”
This approach demands, in a firm and kind manner, that the other person account for his behavior.
When we change our behavior, it impacts multiple relationships. When we stop complaining to other colleagues about someone else’s toxic behavior, we open up to creativity and become more productive with all our team members. The environment flourishes.
Consider this actual situation. One boss, in the guise of being helpful, would touch women inappropriately. When they were in private, he would say with concern, “You have a thingee on your sweater,” and reach over and pluck a crumb (real or imagined?) from her chest.
He’s the boss. It’s her bosom. That’s an abuse of power. It’s also difficult to react to.
How to respond to unacceptable behavior in a way that respects yourself (setting clear limits) and respects the other person (not stooping to shame and blame behavior)?
Fixed Mindset Responses
She wanted to exclaim, “You jerk!”
That labels him and more firmly instills him in a fixed mindset.
She could respond with a clear command, “Please keep your hands off my chest.”
He is surely prepared for such a reaction and, with assumed hurt, would assure that he only wanted to help. HE is the victim for having been misunderstood.
Toxin diffusers worm their way out of responsibility.
Take Responsibility & Render Responsible
Consider this way of addressing the delicate dilemma with an “I” Message, one of the constructive communication tools that effectively establishes limits and invites the offender to a more respectful behavior. (“I” Messages are the topic of the next post.) Here is how it could play out:
A few days later, when the woman has had time to gather her thoughts, she is ready to set limits and point to positive collaboration. “When you plucked that crumb off my sweater, I felt uncomfortable and perplexed because I consider my chest to be a private space and yet our relationship is professional.”
“I feel more comfortable when there is a clear distinction between the two.”
The disruptive behavior has been contained without judging the person as toxic.
She cannot control his response, and we will address this further next week. In the meantime, please leave questions or comments below.