Toxic Employee Behaviors and What to Do About Them

January 2, 2016 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Blogposts on Leading Staff, Choices, Featured · 1 Comment

Do you have a co-worker who brings down the morale of the team?

Does your office sometimes feel like a battleground of “us” vs. “them”?

Are you tired of trying to please people who fault everything you do?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you might have toxic behaviors eating away at the health of your organization.  Sadly, mission-driven organizations are as prone to negativity, divisiveness and bad blood as any other human system. In fact the mission – and who really cares about it – becomes just further fodder for the toxic stew.

 Do any of these toxic behaviors sound familiar?

Gossiping – talking about people behind their back in a way that you wouldn’t in front of them – the gateway drug of toxic behaviors;

Cynicism – negativity about the motives of others and pessimism about what is possible, both of which are corrosive to innovation and risk taking;

Passivity – disconnection, low energy, lack of initiative, waiting to be told, and taking advantage of opportunities to withdraw;

Bomb-throwing – attacking ideas or people without offering solutions

Toxic behaviors by individuals on a team will begin to infect the whole team, lowering morale and sucking up time and energy. Whole organizations have imploded from toxicity left unaddressed.

The Toxic Stew Came from a Regular SoupWitches-Brew

Usually the person or people who are behaving in toxic ways did not start out that way.   They are capable of much better and have even been much better, probably in the same job.  Toxic behaviors are responses – unhealthy and unhelpful responses – to perceived threats. They are usually outside the awareness and control of the person using them.

For example, a staff member gets feedback she considers unfair, and to protect herself, she starts spreading negative gossip about the person who gave her the feedback. Or a long term employee feels he never gets credit for his work and so he criticizes the ideas and accomplishments of others.

These behaviors make the person feel better in the short term, and that is the self-reinforcing mechanism that makes them habit forming.  Pretty soon, they repeat these behaviors – like gossiping, bad-mouthing and tearing people down – even when there isn’t a threat.   They become corrosive and may even feel bad, but they feel stuck, unable to change.

Us vs. Them

Unchecked, toxic behaviors from individuals spiral to the group level, where they find division and blow it up into “US vs. THEM”.   In most divisions – like management vs. staff, headquarters vs. field, clerical vs. professional – there is usually an “in” group that is perceived as abusing its power and an “out” group that is perceived as less committed. Both groups use toxic behaviors to build cohesion within their group.  Anyone who doesn’t obey the unwritten boundaries is seen as disloyal.

No matter how you try, you are not immune from the group dynamic.  You breathe, therefore  you are a member of either “US” or “THEM”.  Recognize that your position gives you certain lenses that color what you see.  To play a valuable role in reversing the negative spiral, you first need to see your place in it.

How to De-tox  your Team

The negative spiral of toxic behaviors can be reversed, but it takes patience and persistence. Start with a mantra: “they are doing the best they can.”  Your behavior can lead the change with these three steps:

  1. BE POSITIVE and APPRECIATIVE – Be the change you want to see. See the glass half full, reframe negativity to what is possible, find ways to recognize people and notice strengths.
  1. DISCOVER WHAT’S TRUE – Facts are your friends because toxicity  breeds negative assumptions and wild interpretations. Whether you are listening to an “us” or a “them”, separate out what is fact from what is opinion.
  1. BE COURAGEOUS – Talk directly with people who are engaging in toxic behaviors about what you see and its impact; use “I” statements and be authentic. Listen to their perspective.  Affirm the feelings and ask for them to make a change.

Positive behavior is as contagious as negative behavior.  You can find people who are ready to change and build a coalition of positivity.  It starts with you.


One Response to “Toxic Employee Behaviors and What to Do About Them”

  1. Sandra Van Fossen on January 12th, 2016 10:24 am

    How great to be reminded of this! Not only dos it happen in the workplace it happens in families and in many groups we belong to. The solutions named here really work. Thanks!

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