How to Overcome The 6 Most Toxic Employee Behaviors

Identify, prevent, and get rid of the most toxic of workplace behaviors forever.

The old adage that "People are hired for their talents and fired for their behavior" is true. People often fail at work by exhibiting patterns of behavior that are toxic to the organization. The following six varieties of toxic organizational behavior (TOB) top my list of offenders:

1. Aggressiveness. It undermines safety and requires people to divert resources from productive work into defensive operations such as fight and flight.

2. Narcissism. An excessive of self-focus interferes with the development of a positive and flexible culture of balanced negotiation and give-and take compromises.

3. Lack of credibility. When people don’t do what they say they will do, they lack credibility and breed mistrust.

4. Passivity. The opposite of the initiative and ownership needed for optimal performance.

5. Disorganization. Operational requirements for focus, structure, and discipline will not be met when people exhibit a lack of personal organization.

6. Resistance to change. Since the world is always changing and requires continuous adaptation, rigidity and resistance to change guarantee eventual obsolescence and failure.

Why do organizations keep getting infected?

There are three main reasons why organizations aren't successful in spotting potential toxic behavior in the hiring process or fighting off an infection before major harm is done:

1. Interviews. The interview process has a weak detection sensitivity for these behaviors. Most candidates are savvy enough to conceal their toxic behaviors throughout the interview process. Even more troubling is the fact that many people are unaware of their own toxic behavior, making them the interview equivalent of the person who can pass a lie detector test because they believe their own lies.

2. References. References are often unreliable because they do not want to stir up conflict (and possible legal and behavioral blow-back) with their current or former employees. In addition, many references genuinely do not wish to harm a person’s employment prospects by providing accurate "negative" feedback. Letters of recommendation are especially poor detectors of TOB; unstructured phone follow-up is not much better.

3. Managers can't detect it. Many managers have difficulty detecting and dealing effectively with the dysfunctional behavior of their direct reports. They can remain unaware of TOB for extended periods of time because:

  • Employees who are aware of their own toxic behaviors are often able to conceal them from their boss (just as they did during the interview process).
  • The people who are aware of TOB (e.g. peers and direct reports) usually do not report it to the relevant authorities due to powerful group prohibitions against "snitching" (an offense punishable in most groups by shunning, expulsion or worse).
  • Employee "behavior" is often not included in the performance measurement/management system (if there is such a system at all), thus communicating that technical competence is what matters but "behavior" is not part of the "real" job.

Even if a leader becomes aware of toxic behavior in an employee, they may avoid dealing with it directly because:

  • They are too busy dealing with more urgent matters.
  • They are uncomfortable "confronting" the behavior directly.
  • They lack the talent management skills to deal with the behavior effectively.

The combination of leader unawareness and avoidance can result in the presence of toxic behavior for months and even years in an organization with harmful effects on morale, performance, and the bottom line.

How to prevent toxic behaviors

The best strategy for dealing with toxic behavior is prevention. Here are best practices based on the traditional three-level prevention model:

Primary Prevention: The most powerful prevention strategy is using practices that prevent people with these traits from being hired in the first place. Approaches like self-assessment instruments and "360 degree" observer ratings work better in detecting potential problems than interviews and reference checks.

Another effective primary prevention practice is to inform potential candidates about the core success competencies for a position (some of which should be the exact opposite of toxic behaviors), you can alert them that they will be assessed for these behaviors during the initial period of employment.

Secondary Prevention: While it's ideal to prevent hiring employees with this traits completely, it is also valuable to detect problems early and intervene to minimize its harmful impact. This means detecting the behaviors early in a person’s tenure and minimizing its impact. This can involve providing some education and coaching about toxic behaviors during the first weeks of employment as well as early detection through the use of behavioral assessments that use a "360 degree" format that includes both verbal and written feedback accompanied by a focused mitigation (coaching/training) plan.

Tertiary Prevention: If all attempts at primary (selection) and secondary (early detection/management) prevention are ineffective, the only thing left to do is let the employee go before even more damage is done. Having documented clear and ongoing communication about and efforts to improve the situation lays the groundwork for a relatively smooth process.

Baird Brightman, PhD, is trained as a behavioral scientist, and has worked as a researcher, health professional, leader and consultant. He has been a lecturer at the Harvard Medical School and an instructor/advisor at Harvard University’s office of executive education. To contact Brightman, visit his website.

[Image: Flickr user LassenNPS]

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37 Comments

  • michele_tsen

    For more on rising above a toxic workplace, see www.appreciationatwork.com

  • Charity Sapphire

    What I'm trying to understand is what is the difference between a person possessing these traits (which we all do in some respect) and them being a truly "toxic" presence? The article acknowledges issues in office culture. I think culture is what should be addressed before HR goes drilling all new hires on their personality traits. Let new hires see what environment you are creating, make employees feel comfortable to create "cliques" and to find safety in those closest to them, and eventually the baddies will be dealt with by the high-functioning office culture.

  • Ben Simonton

    The most likely cause of these behaviors is management by not taking into account the science of people. These behaviors are reactions to what management does and does not do. If management does the right things, almost all of these behaviors will disappear as almost all people become Superstars at what they do. Superstars love to come to work to collaborate with other employees in achieving excellence and throw absolutely everything they have at their work both on the job and off. They are up to 500% more productive than the people you describe.

  • Baird

    A number of people have commented that toxic leaders can cause their people to act badly, and who would argue with that obvious truth? I have noticed in many organizations that while people are blaming their bosses for their own behavior, their bosses are pointing the finger of blame right back at them. This pattern can produce a culture of blame and victimization where nobody takes any ownership or responsibility for their own behavior, and therefore nothing ever changes for the better. So it seems to be a good idea to set a positive standard of good professional behavior that applies to everyone who comes to work (because everyone is an employee), to assess everyone's behavior as part of the performance management process, and to help anyone who is acting in a "toxic" fashion to do better. This approach will serve the interests of every person and the organization as a whole.

  • Ben Simonton

    I certainly agree Baird. I was only trying to point out what I learned in my 30+ years of managing people - that in my first 12 years I created the exact problems I was trying to correct. But after I started doing the right things, these problems all disappeared and most of the supposedly bad people became Superstars. Peer pressure changed from "do what you need to do to get by" to "don't expect the rest of us to pick up for you" and that peer pressure squared away most problems.

  • 21stCenturyPacioliFanGirl

    Like your initial comment. Peer pressure vs peer support may cloud receptivity to this contribution in my view. "Peer pressure" can amount to toxic behavior where the process and inherent organizational issues are not acknowledged and addressed.

  • Baird

    It is inspiring to hear from a leader who cares to keep learning and growing until they reach a transforming level of understanding that creates a new and better reality in their organization.

  • Karl Hilton

    In my experience fish generally rot from the head.....many senior management and mandated leaders all exibit the very traits you talk about here. Especially traits 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. What do you recommend to fix this gem ???.

  • Baird

    It is definitely true that many leaders are prone to exhibiting toxic behaviors since they believe their power will protect them from negative consequences (and they are usually right). The only way to fix this is for EVERY person in the organization to be subject to the same management system. This only happens if the top leaders have courage and humility and really believe in establishing a fair system in their business. This is rare. I have seen it a few times (either the CEO or the board took the lead on this) and it is very inspiring.

  • M

    This is funny. I have a job with a major retailer. I enjoy my job, and I definitely appreciate it in this economy. I used to have a toxic personality (which stemmed from frustration from the job and was just a general negative attitude) but have had to deal with even worse personalities on the job. I've witnessed and had to endure a couple of people who are the epitamy of "workplace bully" and nothing was ever done about it. If you work in this type of environment, you know first hand the reason why these people manage to keep their jobs is because of "they lack the talent management skills to deal with the behavior effectively." They really would rather just sweep it under the rug to avoid conflict and keep their friends. Thankfully, one of the main culprits (who got promoted, mind you) finally left for a better job and the other one learned the err of her ways and has been 100% more pleasant to be around for everyone on the shift. Unfortunately, for a lot of companies or franchises, things don't always work out that way. I wish there was a way to help fix this but none of the managers want to deal with that B.S. because they don't have to live with it. It's sad. BTW, on me being the toxic one, after having the same attitudes mirrored to me by another, more intense associate, I realized how effing annoying it is and I did my best to fix it. I'm not perfect, but holy hell, some people are just plain toxic to the work environment.

  • Baird

    It is very impressive when someone has the self-awareness and insight to notice their own toxic behavior AND makes the effort to change it for the better. It is also pretty unusual, which is why organizations will benefit from using prevention strategies to minimize toxic behaviors.

  • M

    Thank you. I feel I am more self aware than the average retail individual. I still have a bit to go but I'm still working on it!

    And yes, I agree. Prevention is best. Let those toxic individuals be someone else's problem. I wish that wasn't the case, but it is what it is.

  • Baird

    TOB = Toxic Organizational Behavior.
    For the full unedited version of this article, click on the website link in the author bio section above, then click the Resources link and look for the title "Toxic Organizational Behavior".

  • Nina V

    Thanks Baird, for this article. Toxic behaviour as you call it, is a problem and affects directly productivity and the bottom line. I have used psychometric tests like aptitude tests, personality tests and leadership tests and each time the truth is unveiled. The interviewed person can be as charming as they want. With these tests you see right trough. It does not help that a person is "productive" and a high producer if at the same time he is preventing expansion and success for everone else. A company is a group and group rules apply to any organisation big or small. In the end you will find that the high producer is hiding some very destructive acts that have cost the company quite some reputation and success.

  • M

    I actually tend to distrust overly charming people. It seems really obvious to me that they are trying to manipulate me.

  • Baird

    These are very good points. Superficial charm sometimes has a dark side. While testing has major validity problems, it can be a useful element of an overall talent management program. I tend to favor observer ratings over self-assessment instruments.

  • Rob Peddle

    Baird, you mention "behavioural assessment", although this has not been mentioned yet in the discussion. The reality is that however good you have been at hiring people, they will be coming into an environment that already exists and where existing behaviours prevail - as has been so graphically illustrated in other posts. This being the case, behavioural assessment is key to identifying where risk is being created on an ongoing basis - that is risk to perfromance, governance rules and legal requirements, as much as to any defined culture the organisation professes. The reality is that behaviours are the 'lead indicators' for a whole swathe of risk, so there needs to be much more assessment of behaviours going on, and not just for HR reasons! It has been clearly shown in some posts how one person's behaviour affects others' behaviours over time, which happens through changing their beliefs about what is needed, expected or accepted in the business.

    Also, as has been mentioned, behaviour is often situationally dependant, so getting hold of it through any traditional auditing or interviews approaches is often difficult, if not impossible, hindered further by the 'team rules' that often apply in terms of 'telling on others', 'reporting the boss', etc.

    Specific behaviours and the local outcomes of these can be clearly linked to business performance, compliance to requirements, culture, values, etc. So, by gathering, analysing and understanding what behaviours and outcomes are being experienced by people across the business, we can build a risk picture that creates real visibility of these usually invisible risks. Do it in a way that removes the fear and mistrust, whilst making sure the risk indicators are made transparent to all, and you find people have nowhere to hide when improvements are identified.

    You still need to make these changes, but at least the issues are out in the open now and clearly on the management radar, even if they themselves end up needing to change to deliver the stated outcomes for the business! Tools are now there to do this, which are easily deployed, so why are they so infrequently used? .