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7 ways to fight workplace toxicity

3 min read


Today’s guest post is by Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, authors of “Toxic Workplace!
Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power.”

“The day this person left our company is considered an annual holiday!” This quote from our two-year research on toxic personalities echoes the impact these individuals have in organizations. They are profit saboteurs who undermine workplace well being and productivity. And during economic downturns, the “perfect storm” emerges in which their “shadow” side is exacerbated, infecting those around them with their toxicity.

Our national study of 400-plus leaders included in-depth interviews and an 82-item online survey.  Profit/non-profit representation, as well as the gender of the toxic person, was approximately 50/50; a whopping 94% worked with a toxic person!  They reported behaviors not necessarily meeting the threshold of bullying or harassment, but more subtle behaviors that eventually took their toll on others and the bottom line.

We discovered three types of toxic behaviors: shaming, passive hostility and team sabotage. Our leaders’ comments showed that these behaviors both decreased productivity and retention of team members. With costs of recruiting a replacement ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 times the person’s salary, it is clear that organizations can no longer afford to ignore toxic behaviors.

And it wasn’t just the financial bottom line that toxicity affected. More importantly, the health and well being of individuals and teams deteriorate in a toxic environment as this quote from our study indicates: “Working under my toxic leader … I never realized the toll this had taken on my health and well being until I found myself in a hospital bed at 40 having just had a heart attack.”

Our research led to the design of our Toxic Organizational Change System (TOCS) model, integrating three systems for action: the organization, team, and individual. Among the actions we found that can halt toxicity in its tracks are:

  • Give feedback to “toxic buffers” who shield the team from the toxic person, and feedback to “toxic protectors” who enable the toxic person’s behavior.
  • Stop giving feedback only to the toxic person; instead focus on understanding and intervening at the team and organizational system levels.
  • Weave behaviorally specific values of respectful engagement into daily performance expectations, hold all accountable, and give targeted feedback when these values are demonstrated and violated. Consider giving equal weight to achievement of both performance goals and organizational values.
  • Mentor organizational members on these behaviorally specific values.
  • Use 360-degree team assessment systems, not just 360-degree leader feedback so teams understand their role in creating organizational communities of respectful engagement and the impact this has on workplace well-being and productivity.
  • Use skip-level evaluations to assure robust adherence to the values by all in the organization; create realistic guidelines so the process is not abused.
  • Make sure no one is exempt from organizational civility: No pit bulls. No prima donnas. No chameleons who kiss-up and kick-down. Not even organizational stars!

Image credit, NicolasMcComber, via iStock