Toxic Employees Do Not Exist

Yes, that’s right, I’ll say it again “Toxic employees do not exist”, what we actually have are stressed employees that Managers (I can’t really call them leaders) have left to their own devices.

Hear me out and let me explain my thoughts around this contentious subject.

I read time and again on LinkedIn and Facebook, articles that advise the reader on how to deal with toxic employees, all of them end up saying that you must get rid of them because they damage the culture of the organisation.  Every time I read these articles it makes my blood boil, why?   None of these self proclaimed experts talked about the real problem, why does an employee turn toxic?

In my book Safe Leadership (being published in September 2019) I do a deep dive into this subject, leveraging from my own observations over the last 30 years and research from psychologist from around the world and this is what I have discovered.

No one wakes up in the morning having just turned the alarm off and thinks to themselves “Right, I’m going to be toxic today!  I think I am going to really make everyone in my team have an awful day, I’m going to make their life hell!!”.   Ok there might be one or two out there that think that way, but the vast majority of us get up and go to work intending on doing a great job and even if we don’t like our work, we still want to do a good enough job so we can stay out of trouble.

So what goes wrong with our day that leads others to think we are toxic?  We get stressed!

You see, we are still hunter gatherers in our brain, yes civilisation has moved on and so has technology but our brains have not, we are wired to survive.  Our primitive brain thinks simply, is this environment going to reward me or be a threat to me, are these people around me friends or foes?   If the brain has decided that there are threats and foes around us it puts us into a flight or fight state, we go primal, we go defensive, we move into our negative self and in this state we are definitely not at our most pleasant.  In this state our heart rate and blood pressure increases, cortisol is released into our system and provides more glucose in our blood stream for more energy, whilst doing that cortisol actively inhibits other bodily functions (the brain figures that if it is not going to survive the immediate threat it wont have much use for these functions) like the immune system, our digestive system, our ability to store and retrieve long term memories and even our spatial awareness are impacted.   So you see when we are in a continual stressed state, we just cannot perform well, our brain want let us.

In a prolonged stress state a negative form of parochial altruism kicks in where we become defensibly aggressive to those around us that we don’t class as our immediate support, this phenomenon drives division between individuals and teams causing office politics and silos to thrive, you can read more about this here.  It is when we get to this state that we can be viewed as being toxic to the work place.

What Should Leaders Do?

The key question for any leader is not “How do I get rid of this toxic employee?” it should be “What is stressing this person and how can I support them to remove or cope with the stressor?”.

Now you have a whole new narrative that needs to play out, but one that is much healthier for the individual and the team around them.   By identifying the stressor(s) you then have a course of action that you can take to bring that toxic person from their negative self back to their positive and happier self.   If a leader does not take the time to figure out what is making a person “toxic” and they just get rid of them, guess what happens?  They will be replaced by another “toxic” person in the future who becomes impacted by the same stressors.

There is no easy solution here, the unravelling of the real stressors can be a long journey and one fraught with confrontation, why?  Often, the stressor to the “toxic” employee (if it is not an external influence, eg. family) is a colleague or their immediate manager.  Now a similar conversation needs to be had with those people to figure out what is stressing them to the point that they are causing stress to others, and the conversation goes on until you find the root cause.

To me, it is obvious why we have so many “toxic” employees in the workplace, its easier to brand someone as being a problem and move them on than it is to take the time to get to the root cause of all the problems causing the stress.   When we do take the effort to really get to the bottom of things, “toxic” employees can be saved and returned to their normal positive and high performing selves.

Here are 5 steps that leaders can take address an employee that is “toxic”

  1. Figure out your own emotions.  You have a team member that has upset you, maybe not for the first time, before you have a conversation with them, identify within yourself what emotion you are feeling (frustration, anger, annoyed, embarrassed, etc) and then connect it with a behaviour you have seen them do, once you can label it, you can tame it.  You have to have the ability to acknowledge how you feel and park it before instigating a conversation with them.  If you go into any conversation showing those emotions, they will go defensive on you and say nothing!
  2. Call out the “toxic” behaviour as quickly as possible.  That is often easier said than done.  Approach it from an empathetic perspective, maybe open the conversation with “Hey Dave, I’ve noticed you are not your usual happy energetic self recently, lets go and grab a coffee and lets have a chat about what is happening, lets see if I can help you somehow?”  Keep the conversation casual and be genuine in your inquiry of where they are at.  Keep asking questions of them to see if you can get to the root stressor but do not hold judgement, whatever you do, do not get defensive (the stressor could be you!) just acknowledge what they a have said.  At the end of the conversation commit to the person that you will think more on what they have said and come back to them, make a calendar appointment to see them again at the end of the conversation, show your commitment to them!!
  3.  Investigate what you have been told and when you do this you are investigating the stressor not the person and their behaviour, this is crucial.  Your number one priority is to figure out where the stressor is not what the impact of their behaviour has been.  You are trying to get to the root of the problem, not prepare a lynching party!  This process may take some time especially if the cause of one persons stress is another persons stress, you may need to have numerous conversations to get to the bottom of the problem.  Don’t lose faith, you will get there, have all the conversation you need to get to the bottom of the stressor.  If you need to push out your calendar appointment with your team member then do so, keep them informed, let them know they are still your priority.
  4.  Discuss your findings and create a plan for the team member and everyone else you may have identified as being impacted by the stressor.  Bring all those involved around the table and create a workable plan and include time lines for when you all expect the plan to be implemented.  If you want to meet regularly throughout the implementation of the plan then put them all in the calendar at this meeting, this will further cement your commitment to deal with the root cause and help everyone impacted.
  5.  Review the success of the plan and discuss how we avoid the same thing happening again in the future.  Reach out to everyone involved to see how they are now feeling, was the plan a success?  Could we have done things better?  Get their feedback on the process and where they are now and give them feedback on changes (hopefully for the better) in their performance.

The key with toxicity in the workplace is to focus on the problem causing it, not the person that is impacted by it.