How to deal with toxic team member

It’s sad to see individuals who have been “captured” by disruptors, who have put a case together against them but hold back from launching it provided they remain loyal.

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Much has been written about toxic work cultures, but I often thought the term “toxic” was unduly harsh given what was being described. However, I have also come across examples where the word truly describes what’s going on.

In many cases, the root cause of the toxicity is just one person – completely, unambiguously. So I thought it would be helpful to put together a picture of such characters, before diving into the consequences of their behaviour and how organisations can deal with them.

Toxicity-inducing characters have much in common concerning their skills and attitudes, how they behave, and what drives them. Their prime energy is devoted to a divide-and-conquer strategy that supports their advancement.

While many today seek to put “purpose before profit”, their guiding principle is “politics before everything”, with their sole purpose being their self-advancement at the expense of others.

They accumulate so much experience at it that they become experts, knowing exactly how to disrupt by dividing people between allies and adversaries.

Key allies are at the highest level, as they bombard their seniors with cases against adversaries who refuse to succumb to their wishes. And they target the meek, those who lack self-confidence, who are more likely to succumb to their moves and support them.

They are organised, thorough and articulate, knowing how to put a great case together, however exaggerated, distorted or even totally invented. They are brilliant salespersons for their own brands, and they assemble strong cases on whom among their colleagues to steer clear of and condemn.

They have no inhibitions about whom to make their case to, as the constraints of channels and boundaries do not exist for them. And they are at ease in eloquently quoting everything from the Bible to the by-laws to support their case.

It’s sad to see individuals who have been “captured” by disruptors, who have put a case together against them but hold back from launching it provided they remain loyal. It takes boldness and courage to stand up to these strong, confident folk, who are used to and comfortable with confrontation and conflict, accusations and drama, as part of their daily lives.

When I was the general manager of a computer multinational here in the late 70s, one of the managers in the UK head office was determined to replace me at the earliest opportunity.

So he poisoned the relevant decision-makers there with negative stories about me and prevented my contract from being extended. He was a classic example of a corporate politician manoeuvring his way up the organisational ladder. And it worked for him. He climbed high.

Those who have studied such selfish disrupters, people who lack both self-awareness and empathy, have linked their behaviour to their early life experiences, where it’s likely they were neglected, perhaps abused, and lacked emotional support. My favourite example of this is Donald Trump.

How to deal with these one-person destroyers of culture and of performance, whose actions lead to so much wasted energy and loss of productivity, to staff becoming disengaged and some leaving? Can they be tamed, or reformed? Can the performance management system record their destructive, hypocritical behaviour and set them on a more constructive path? Are they coachable?

The first question to ask is whether their superiors are aware of their toxic influence, or whether they’ve been taken in by their gift of the gab. Then, the masters of toxicity generation are not easily distanced from their core competence of creating disruption. The most likely solution is to have them leave.

Meanwhile, the challenge of healing everyone else must be confronted, with or without the toxicity inducer still being on the scene.
The team must be focused on the purpose, the vision, and of course the values of the organisation.

Those at the top must be role models for all of these elements and act as coordinators and integrators at other levels. They must keep calm and patient, as healing takes time. They must remain strong and determined, for we have seen many organisations emerge from toxicity.

I hope what I have written about here is far from what’s happening in your place. I urge you, however, to look closely to ensure it’s not that you are just unaware of such commotions. If toxicity is festering where you are, I feel for you and wish you well.

Mike Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and member of KEPSA Advisory Council. [email protected].

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