In my experience as a consultant who has transformed 16 companies, and as an entrepreneur who has built or bought almost as many of my own enterprises, I’ve learned that managers and leaders often miss one crucial point about emotional intelligence (“EQ”): EQ requires intolerance for the intolerable just as much as it requires empathy.
Daniel Goleman writes in Working with Emotional Intelligence, “. . . [E]motional intelligence does not mean merely ‘being nice.’ At strategic moments, it may demand not ‘being nice,’ but rather, for example, bluntly confronting someone with an uncomfortable but consequential truth they’ve been avoiding.” This is difficult and uncomfortable work that contradicts a key learning absorbed by most of us as children: that being kind and agreeable is socially rewarding. The narcissist might get to the top of the food chain by being bullish and conflict-prone, but no one actually likes that person.
As recent political trends have heightened our sensitivity to the destructive power of narcissistic leaders in government and business, empathy has become something of an antidote to the times. It can bring about mutual understanding, greater self-awareness, more inclusive leadership, and a more just organization. The problem is that empathy and agreeableness are often conflated, which diminishes EQ by weighing it down with toxic positivity. This only emboldens the toxic actor who preys on kindness (something I’ve witnessed countless times over the past three decades).
Toxicity cannot be killed with kindness. If that were possible, our best wishes and fervent prayers would cure cancer. Instead, we must undergo invasive surgeries, painful radiation, and nauseating chemo to excise cancerous cells. Despite this truth, many leaders still willingly endure toxic individuals, clinging to the delusional hope that with just the right amount of carefully executed kindness, the hostage taker will see the light, come to the learning, and become a good team player. This is pure fantasy.
Great leaders combat toxicity
If a misguided commitment to agreeableness causes you and your colleagues to tolerate someone who does intolerable things, it’s time to wake up and smell the fallacy. Great leaders and organizations combat toxicity. Those who tolerate it are left wondering why employee engagement and productivity are so low as bullies and obstructionists run the whole team ragged. This inaction demoralizes the rest of the team who knows what needs to happen. And besides, what’s empathetic or agreeable about consciously subjecting positive contributors to a toxic individual?!
The question we need to ask ourselves is, where should our empathy end? What should we do when someone toxic is poisoning an otherwise healthy organization? Far too often, the maddening answer is that we need to try harder to reach common ground. The failure is ours; we haven’t put in adequate work to rehabilitate the offender. They are good, we simply haven’t set them up for success. They just can’t help themselves.
Does the fact that someone can’t stop themselves from doing harm absolve them of responsibility? Does tolerating their intolerable behavior somehow make you a better leader? Does it serve the organization?
A timely and relevant parallel to the idea of tolerance for the intolerable is Ibram X. Kendi’s overarching argument in How to Be An Antiracist. Namely, that being neutral as opposed to proactively antiracist is tantamount to loosely veiled racism. Racist policies have existed to subjugate people of color since the beginning of time; therefore, being “neutral” or having tolerance for such policies only serves to underwrite racism, not resist it.
As Mimi Fox Melton, CEO of Code2040, explained recently, being silent or taking a “non-political stance” on racism is, first and foremost highly political, and secondly, a choice to privilege whiteness and the systems of power that protect it. Likewise, choosing to tolerate workplace toxicity privileges toxic individuals, empowering them to spew venom and bring down would-be-healthy organizations.
If you passively allow for the continuation of racist policies, you’re not an antiracist. In the same vein, if you knowingly allow for toxic individuals to harm your organization while you inexplicably mine the depths of empathy and kindness, you’re not a leader—you’re an enabler.
The paralysis of politeness
In our effort to be empathetic and polite (especially in difficult scenarios), we often fail to find our conviction and, by extension, our true voice. In this sense, we are paralyzed by politeness. Effective communication arises from your core truth. Polite communication seeks to incentivize better behavior with niceties to which toxic individuals are immune.
Find your conviction and speak from it honestly in a manner that commands respect and conveys consequences. If the toxic individual remains indignant, fire the person summarily and with prejudice. When you finally protect the whole by sacrificing the unworthy, you’ll hear “Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is Dead!” echoing throughout the company Zoom chambers.
Sometimes, compassion requires doing difficult things. We give our children vaccines, which hurt and often cause uncomfortable side effects before they provide prophylactic effects. In the same vein, to help someone, we often have to jolt them and put them back on their heels. You can’t do that while remaining agreeable. You often have to growl. What they choose to do with the discomfort they experience will either help them rise to the challenge of becoming a better team member or expose their unshakeable toxic nature.
Recently, I had the opportunity to jolt an executive who was widely considered a bully. I asked him, “If your daughter told you she was being treated the way you treat people, how would you feel?” He was shook. No one had ever put it quite like that. Determined to change, he asked, “What do I do now?” “Imagine that your daughter is the canary in a coal mine,” I said. “Whenever you act like a bully, she’ll begin to lose oxygen. Get it?” Today, this executive has completely transformed into a collaborative, upbeat manager who is unanimously well-liked.
Properly deployed, EQ should serve as a tool for discernment and, when appropriate, provocation (as in the anecdote shared above). It should help you identify who is worthy of effort and kindness, and who is an incurably toxic individual. Passionately invest in the former, and summarily isolate and fire the latter. The greater good is worthy of and protected by ruthless intolerance for the intolerable.
David M. M. Taffet is a cofounder and a venture builder at JukeStrat, a purpose-driven consulting group focused on business transformation, positioning, and social impact. He serves as a fractional C-level advisor and executive coach for several of its clients, drawing on his 30-plus years of experience building companies, orchestrating turnarounds, leading successful teams, raising capital, and developing cross-sector partnerships for commercial and public gain.