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.
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.
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.