Toxic Workplace!
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Toxic Workplace!

Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power

Mitchell Kusy, Elizabeth Holloway

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eBook - ePub

Toxic Workplace!

Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power

Mitchell Kusy, Elizabeth Holloway

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About This Book

"The day this person left our company is considered an annual holiday!"

THIS QUOTE, taken from Kusy and Holloway's research on toxic personalities, echoes the frustration and confusion that come from working with or managing an extremely difficult person. Just one toxic person has the capacity to debilitate individuals, teams, and even organizations.

Toxic Workplace! is the first book to tackle the underlying systems issues that enable a toxic person to create a path of destruction in an organization, pervading others' thoughts and energies, even undermining their very sense of well-being. Based on all-new research with over 400 leaders, many from the Fortune 500 list, this book illustrates how to manage existing toxic behaviors, create norms that prevent the growth or regrowth of toxic environments, and ultimately design organizational communities of respectful engagement.

Kusy and Holloway's research reveals the warning signs that indicate a serious behavioral problem and identifies how this toxicity spreads in systems with long-term effects on organizational climate, even after the person has left. Their two-year, cutting-edge research study provides very specific actions that leaders need to take to reduce both the intensity and frequency of toxic personalities at work. No other book provides this menu of options from a systems perspective with practical relevance in real work situations.

You'll learn how to identify the toxic personality and describe the leader reactions and approaches that typically don't work. Toxic Workplace! provides hands-on approaches that work with research-based strategies at the individual, team, and organizational level. Toxic Workplace! will provide new insights on how leaders lead, how organizational cultures sustain themselves, and how teams deal with toxic personalities.

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Part One
Understanding Toxic People and Toxic Environments
Before you can solve a problem, you have to fully understand it. Therefore, the chapters in Part One examine in depth toxic people—those who do damage to their coworkers, staffs, bosses, and customers. Chapter One describes the significant organizational losses, human and financial, that these people cause. Because recognizing toxicity is not easy, Chapter Two describes the types of toxic behavior, from humiliating others to sabotaging team efforts. Chapter Three identifies strategies that don’t work in dealing with toxic people so you won’t waste your time on these! And Chapter Four shows how toxicity spreads like an infection in organizations.
Toxic Behaviors Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Working with this toxic individual was one of the worst experiences in my
life. It took a long time to recover from her abuse. It was difficult because
others witnessed what was happening but were scared they might receive the
same abuse so they did not want to get involved.

—Quote from study respondent

You have probably picked up this book because you are either suffering or have suffered the ravages of a toxic personality at work. Most people have. Does the opening quotation from our national study on toxic personalities, in which we interviewed and surveyed more than four hundred leaders, hit close to home? Maybe it resurrects memories of your own gut-wrenching experiences with toxic personalities at work
Most of us have experienced the frustration and confusion of having an extremely difficult person to deal with in the workplace. Call them what you will: control freaks, narcissists, manipulators, bullies, poisonous individuals, or humiliators, to name just a few of the descriptors that we heard during our interviews. And we have heard other terms in our consulting practices and our research that describe what these people do: poison, corrupt, pollute, and contaminate. This is not your common, everyday variety of difficult person who gets on your nerves occasionally but without lasting effects. Instead, based on our research, we define the toxic personality as anyone who demonstrates a pattern of counterproductive work behaviors that debilitate individuals, teams, and even organizations over the long term.
Based on our research, we define the toxic personality as anyone who demonstrates a pattern of counterproductive work behaviors that debilitate individuals, teams, and even organizations over the long term.
These difficult individuals have the capacity to pervade our thoughts and sap our energies so much so that they have the potential to undermine our sense of well-being. In a variety of ways, they get under our skin, infiltrate our professional and personal space, demoralize us, demotivate teams, and ultimately can even make us doubt our own competence and productivity. They are toxic in every sense of the term.
In the most egregious situations, we may have an exaggerated emotional reaction to their toxicity and carry these feelings home to our families, friends, and significant others. These reactions may include lashing out at others, being uncommunicative about what is eating away at us, and even being in a significant depression requiring medication. Unfortunately, unless you can pick up and move to a new job, it seems impossible to escape the deleterious effects of these toxic individuals. And sometimes these effects continue even after the toxic person is no longer around. We found many situations where the toxicity lingers in the system after the toxic person leaves voluntarily or is fired.
In the most egregious situations, we may have an exaggerated emotional reaction to their toxicity and carry these feelings home to our families, friends, and significant others.

The Ubiquity of Toxic People

How pervasive is this problem? In our survey results, 64 percent of the respondents were currently working with a toxic personality, and a whopping 94 percent have worked with someone toxic in their career. Another research study discovered that 27 percent of employees in a representative sample of seven hundred Michigan residents experienced mistreatment by someone at work.1 And in certain occupations, the abuse is astronomical. For example, in a study of nurses, an overwhelming 91 percent had experienced verbal abuse, defined as mistreatment in which they felt attacked, devalued, or humiliated; in addition, more than 50 percent did not believe themselves competent to respond to the verbal abuse.2 In general, one study after another confirms that verbal abuse increases job dissatisfaction, builds a hostile work setting, and lowers morale.
Here’s another example. In an ingenious and clever study, employees in a manufacturing plant carried handheld computers for up to three weeks.3 At four random intervals daily, they had to report any interactions with either a coworker or boss from the perspective of whether the interaction was positive or negative and what their current mood was at the time. The researchers found that the negative interactions affected the moods of these employees five times more strongly than the positive ones, even though they reported positive interactions three to five times more often than the negative ones.
To get a further sense of the intensity of these interactions, author Robert Sutton described the effects of “jerks” in the workplace.4 He identified a situation in which a CEO of a health care information technology system company, sent an e-mail he had intended for the organization’s highest-level folks. In this message, he bemoaned the fact that not all employees were working full forty-hour weeks and said he wanted the employee parking lot full from 7:30 A.M. to 6:30 P.M. on weekdays and half full on Saturdays. If management couldn’t do this within the next two weeks, he said he’d take harsh measures.
As you may have guessed, word leaked out about this message on the Internet. After investors saw this, the company’s stock fell 22 percent in three days! With an apology the CEO sent to his employees, the share price returned to normal. We relate this story because it demonstrates the effects that just one uncivil demand can have on others and the organization. We don’t believe Sutton was necessarily saying that the CEO was toxic. But if a single isolated behavior of the CEO has this effect on an organization, imagine the ripple effects that can occur with ongoing toxic behaviors over the long term.

Why We Wrote This Book

In our consulting work in the areas of organization development, leadership development, team development, and coaching, we have had many clients voice their problems with toxic people. At a loss for what to do, they recounted the devastation this has caused—both the financial and human costs of the toxic person’s effects on others.
To get to the root of this evasive and pervasive problem, we conducted a two-year research study on the prevalence and effects of toxicity in organizations. This book contains the results of that research and has helped our clients create more effective communities in their organizations defined by respectful engagement. This book offers you ways to manage existing toxic behaviors and create norms that prevent the growth (or regrowth) of toxic environments.
We have talked with our clients about the subtle and not-so-subtle difficulties that toxic personalities create in their organizations. These are just a few of the many questions our clients have posed to us in our work with toxic personalities:
• Who are these toxic individuals?
• What makes them tick?
• How do they survive in organizations?
• Why are their poisonous behaviors allowed to continue for so long?
• Why are the effects they have on others so consuming?
• Where do they get their support?
• How should leaders best handle them for maximum benefit to the organization?
• What if the leader is toxic?
• How do we stop them in their tracks? Can we?
• What needs to occur so that the organizational community operates through respectful engagement?
The answers are not simple, but they do translate into courses of action that can make a difference between success and failure in dealing with a toxic person and their environment.

How We Researched the Problem of Toxic Personalities at Work

Our first step in understanding the problem of toxic personalities in organizations and seeking solutions was to design a research study that would ask successful leaders who had encountered these individuals to tell us their stories. We wanted to know the details of what happened in their organizations, teams, and relationships when they worked with a toxic person. We did not want to focus merely on the identified problem—that is, the toxic individual. Rather, we wanted to understand everything that was happening around this person. Essentially, we studied both the toxic person and the associated system. It was our premise as seasoned therapists and consultants that understanding the whole system would give us a better view of how leaders can build strategies for dealing with these extremely difficult people.
We used both interviews and surveys to gain information from more than four hundred successful leaders—CEOs, executives, managers, team leaders, supervisors, project managers, and directors—at both for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations. Interviews are important because they reveal the intricacies and subtle nuances of a problem by providing unencumbered expressions of actual experiences. Surveys are equally significant because they provide a rich source of quantitative data from which to make extrapolations of meaningful correlations between key factors.
Our research study had three phases (see Appendix A for details on the survey):
Phase 1: Informal, unstructured interviews with fifty “thought leaders”—individuals from our consulting network who were reflective and direct about the many issues facing their organizations
Phase 2: Formal interviews with fifteen leaders from the profit and nonprofit sectors
Phase 3: An eighty-two-item survey of 962 leaders, with responses from approximately 400
Our interviews identified five areas of importance that we used to construct the survey:
• The toxic person’s characteristics and behaviors
• Leaders’ reactions to toxic behaviors
• Leaders’ strategies for dealing with the toxic person
• Effects of toxicity on the system
• The role of organizational culture on toxicity
We wanted to understand the degree of toxicity leaders experienced. To do this, we asked them to consider one individual whom they regarded as toxic. Then we requested that they rate the intensity of this individual’s toxicity on a scale from 1 to 10, with the greatest toxicity they could imagine being 10. Figure 1.1 illustrates that 74 percent rated the problem person’s toxicity from 8 to 10 and 92 percent from 7 to 10. We interpreted this finding to mean that the intensity of toxic behavior that almost all of our respondents experienced was very high. In addition, approximately 90 percent of these leaders reported that the person they identified exhibited toxic behaviors anywhere from two to five times per week.
Figure 1.1 Level of Toxicity Reported by Leaders in Our Study
We note that our respondents named males and females alike in this group; there were no significant differences in gender of toxic individuals. And to answer the next question that may be on your mind, 65 percent of our respondents were female and 35 percent were male.
These descriptive statistics on the degree of toxicity distinguish between difficult behavior that occurs for almost everyone on a bad day and habitual behaviors that are part of a person’s style of engaging with others. In psychological language, it is these individuals’ interpersonal style that is problematic. They have been using problematic behaviors for years to get what they need from others. Notice our use of “get what they need” rather than what others in the organization need or what the organization itself ne...

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