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Workplace Conflict

Finding the Antidote: How to neutralize the toxic member of your team

The number one reason you should deal with that toxic person at work? Counterintuitively, says Joseph Grenny, business social scientist at VitalSmarts, you should do it because you deserve it. While some think confronting a toxic person is about sacrificing for the team or the greater cause, Grenny says it’s really about being responsible for your wellbeing and emotional health.

“Being around people who are dysfunctional is a huge drain on our quality of life,” says Grenny.

Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, has seen it all when it comes to toxic co-workers: the conniving team member, the boss who bullies employees, the co-worker who always plays the victim.

If you have never worked with a toxic person, Grenny says to consider yourself lucky. While there’s not a clinical definition for a toxic person, it could be someone who bullies, spreads gossip or is consistently negative. When someone’s behavior creates misery for others at work, chances are that person is toxic.

Group dysfunction

The problem usually isn’t the toxic person, though. The problem often stems from the dozen people around the toxic person who enable the behavior to continue. Basically, toxic behavior continues in the workplace when there’s active cooperation from people who think they’re victims—but who are actually enablers.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re responsible for your own boundaries, Grenny says. “You have to decide what the effect is on you.”

Sometimes toxicity is a passive-aggressive boss, for example. Grenny says he once sat down with a CEO for a coaching session. The CEO started going through his employee list. When he got to certain names, he told Grenny he wished he could fire them based on poor performance.

“It struck me as odd—because he can do that,” Grenny says.

And yet, the CEO hadn’t taken action. He spent years only wishing he could fire these employees, and instead punished them in other ways: He wouldn’t make eye contact with them in meetings. He often cut them off when they spoke. Or he rolled his eyes while the employees had the floor.

This passive-aggressive approach “sent a message in the team that created enormous conflict,” says Grenny. “It’s surprising how many CEOs I’ve worked with who run incredibly functional teams, but who don’t deal with accountability.”

We’re all broken

Some people act out their drama on other people but aren’t self-aware enough to notice. The first thing you can do is increase their realization by providing a high-accountability environment in the office. The second thing? Admit we all need help sometimes.

“All of us are broken. All of us are toxic at different times in different relationships. The best we can do where others will address their own brokenness is to hold boundaries with them, and also work on our own brokenness.”

Grenny says the ideal workplace is an environment of vulnerable self-improvement. Being around emotionally healthy people offers rewards because everyone is constantly practicing personal reflection.

“It’s intoxicating,” he says. “It inspires everyone around them.”

One of the most influential things Grenny learned in the last 30 years is this: The vast majority of human behavior problems don’t stem from ability or motivation problems. That’s a huge insight, he says, because we tend to tell ourselves that someone knows what they’re doing when they misbehave. But it’s usually because the person doesn’t possess the skill set to improve.

“Most of us don’t realize we need additional skills and can’t fathom what they would be. High-accountability environments help people learn boundaries.”

Speaking up

Grenny’s watched this boundary situation play out dozens of times, and he says when someone in a subordinate position holds their toxic boss accountable, they aren’t fired as often as you think.

“It works far more often that it fails and it is remarkable to watch.”

He once saw a doctor say something abusive to a nurse. Later, the nurse approached the doctor and asked if he had time to talk. She quoted his words and said she felt disrespected. She then asked for the doctor’s commitment that he wouldn’t do it again. The nurse wasn’t angry or hostile, just firm and clear.

“And he looked like a whooped schoolboy. Rather than puffing up and invoking his position, he muttered an apology, and I never saw him behave impatiently toward [the nurse] again. Interestingly, he continued to behave inappropriately with other nurses who didn’t hold boundaries around him,” says Grenny.

Overall, if a toxic work situation doesn’t improve, it’s time to reassess.

“You have to make a decision. What’s more important: a steady paycheck or the quality of your life?”

I’m interviewing for a new job. How can I tell if a toxic culture exists at a company?
“Ask inappropriate questions to find out if it’s a good trust environment. I might say: ‘What is one of the biggest growth areas for your boss? What do you have to do around here to get fired? When someone gets let down with someone else, what happens here?’ Ask about personally uncomfortable things. Poke the culture a little bit and see their reaction. Do they smile and answer easily? Or do they shift their eyes right and left before they answer?” – Joseph Grenny, VitalSmarts