The Masked Agitator

Don’t let toxic employees manipulate you into poor leadership

Back Article Feb 15, 2016 By Tania Fowler

I recently coached an organization that employed a toxic employee. Nationally, she was highly regarded as an expert in her profession — but co-workers saw beyond flashy credentials. They saw her as controlling, erratic, manipulative, paranoid and brilliant — even creating little hand signals to talk about her unnoticed. Leadership had been dazzled by her public performance, but chose to ignore the red flags and repeated complaints from her employees. Once her supervisors understood the problem, they had already kicked the can down the road for so long due to their paralyzing fear of conflict, they were at a loss as to what to do next (as she had previously threatened litigious actions).This is what toxic employees count on: keeping their negative behaviors from decision-makers and, in some cases, threatening legal action at any attempts toward accountability. Since lower-level employees are exposed to toxic behaviors routinely, leadership needs to connect with these employees to get feedback on their work experiences.

Let me be clear: People with the proper motivation can improve. (See my piece on, “Difficult People with Good Intentions.”) But toxic people don’t lack insight into their behavior — they lack motivation to change it. Instead, they spend their time gaming bosses, employees and jobs to their own advantage and the detriment of others. Leaders need to deal with them as soon as a problem arises with clear communication and accountability measures. If the bad behavior persists, they need to go.

Robert Bitting has a doctorate in higher education administration and leadership, and serves as the director of Alfred University’s Public Administration Program. Here’s how he identifies toxic employees:

  • They are negative, always blame others for their problems, and do not hold themselves accountable.
  • They are capable of doing good work, but often spend much of their energy pretending to work, doing only what is minimally necessary to stay out of trouble.
  • They enjoy workplace games, such as one-upmanship and drawing others into bickering. They also may draw weaker coworkers into negative-bonding alliances.
  • They treat as important only those seen to be of equal or superior organizational status, or those who can do them a favor. They ignore or treat poorly those who are perceived as lower or unimportant.
  • They sabotage others’ work by backstabbing, bad-mouthing, spreading rumors and withholding information.

Toxic employees are terrible for overall staff morale. At another organization I coached, the toxic worker made a habit of tearing down the company’s leadership and staff to anyone who would listen — including new hires. Imagine coming into an organization and soon hearing about all of your coworkers’ faults. How will it help you to work through normal issues with people you have been erroneously forewarned about? And how confident are you that after three months, you won’t be the subject of all that is wrong?

When I conduct 360-degree feedback evaluations (interview-based feedback from employees) on leaders, the results for toxic employees paint a picture of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde figure. People who have limited interaction with the employee see the person as they portray themselves: charming, smart, knowledgeable, productive. But, the feedback from the inner circle portrays an entirely different persona — with few, if any, positive attributes.

So how do such people get hired in the first place? Toxic employees are skilled at besting the interview process because they know what interviewers want to hear. They understand how to play up their strengths and play down their toxicity. You can avoid hiring toxic people by ditching old-school interview approaches that ask predictable questions and don’t investigate communication styles. This is why behavioral interviews are important. I have a friend who, while interviewing for a new job, was given a scenario to work through in real time. The interviewers gave him feedback on what he did and didn’t do well and then took him right into another scenario. They wanted to see if he used feedback from the first scenario in the second, appraising his coachability. They were less interested in his solutions than in seeing if he was willing to listen, take constructive criticism and then try something different. Brilliant!

Because toxic employees are skilled at hiding their toxic tendencies from leaders and management, it is important for leadership to understand the inner workings of their teams. It’s vital for those in charge to set expectations for, clarify roles of and create communication loops with all employees. If you’re a boss, get out of your office, walk around and talk with employees. If you repeatedly hear that a certain employee is not well-regarded by many, and yet you don’t see what others are complaining about, address such complaints immediately and never dismiss them. The toxic person has designed it so that you, the leader or manager, don’t experience their surreptitious behavior.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Nicole Torres writes: “The idea that a negative has a stronger impact than a positive has been established in fields like finance (losses have more of an impact than gains), psychology (people remember bad experiences more than good ones), and linguistics (we pay more attention to negative words than positive or neutral ones). If toxic workers have a stronger (corrosive) effect on a firm than even the highest performing non-toxic ones, then it seems fair to say that managers should give the former more thought.”

The price a company pays for not dealing with toxic employees can be substantial. Motivated and positive people will leave — they just won’t stay where they can’t thrive. Turnover is high and productivity falls. Companies put themselves at risk of mental health costs or employee lawsuits due to unhealthy work environments. The ability to deal with these problems effectively is what separates courageous leaders from those avoiding conflict. In addressing toxic performers, leaders create hope among their employees by sending the strong message that they care and are invested in maintaining healthy organizations. Employee engagement and productivity will increase and, in return, confidence in the company’s leadership will grow.