Dealing with Toxic Colleagues (and Bosses) around You!

posted by Dilip on April 17, 2018

A good part of my career and life coaching practice is involved with helping my clients deal with their toxic colleagues—and bosses.

A recent Harvard Business School study of more than 60,000 employees found that “a superstar performer—one that models desired values and delivers consistent performance”—brings in more than $5,300 in cost savings to a company. This is in addition to the value they create as a result of their work—building new products, selling what you make, and promoting your company as a worthy place. Avoiding a toxic hire or working out one to get rid of them, on the other hand, delivers $12,500 in cost savings. In addition to this tangible measure the hidden cost of what a toxic employee creates in incalculable: The alienation they foster among teams and how those who try to avoid them end up hurting the overall company’s mission is a part of this calculus. So, the costs cited above are really only the tip of the iceberg.

In yet another study the following effects of toxic behaviors and toxic employees were recorded:

  1. Employees subjected to incivility in the workplace markedly loosened bonds with their work life. They got progressively less engaged in their work.
  2. Nearly half of employees “decreased work effort” and intentionally spent less time at work to minimize their interactions with these toxic colleagues.
  3. Nearly 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work to penalize their organization or their company for tolerating such employees.
  4. About 25% of employees who had been treated with incivility admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers or at home.
  5. About 12% left their jobs due to uncivil treatment. These were good employees, so the price of their departure is more than the just the cost of hiring their replacements.
  6. About 80% of employees lost work time worrying about the offending employee’s rudeness or protecting themselves against the predicted negative behavior of these toxic employees.
  7. Nearly 78% said their commitment to the organization declined in the face of toxic behavior.
  8. About 2/3rd said their performance declined, and they didn’t care to improve it when confronted.
  9. About 2/3rd also lost work time in avoiding the offender.
  10. Nearly half (48%) decreased their work effort.
  11. So, it is easy to see how toxic employees have a much deeper negative impact on those with whom they come in contact and how pervasive their negative influence is in any organization.

In addition to toxic employees there are the slackers and non-performers to boot. These are the employees that simply do not care about their work and are there merely to collect their paychecks and blame others for their lack of performance or failures. Many team members pick up the slack and do or re-do the work of these slackers and thus they slink away with burdening others by their inability to do their part. Although these employees cannot be classified as “toxic” in the context of this write-up their impact on the organization is similar: loss of productivity and spiraling employee morale.

Focusing back on toxic employees what are some of the measures other employees can take to mitigate the impact of their behavior and to keep their sanity to maintain a reasonable quality of work that they signed up for? Here are some suggestions to deal with them:

Toxic Employees

  1. The first step in dealing with toxic behavior of any employee is to observe and codify that behavior—and its pattern—so that you are able to formulate some strategies in your own mind on how to deal with them. Remember, if you can name it, you can tame it. Do not assume you are imagining what is happening and how it is affecting you. If you see it do something about it!
  2. The next step is to share what you observe with the others in the team and see if they noted the same behavior that you did. Often, our observations are biased by how we ourselves behave and how our preferences exacerbate our observations about others, especially if we do not like them—this is the cognitive-dissonance factor. When discussing this with others see how this behavior affects their work and them. If you see a pattern emerging from this discovery then you have a case on your side to do something about this person.
  3. Find some objective ways to make your case, so that when you confront the offending team member with your observations they are able to see the merit of your argument. For example, in the case of one client manager his peer manager never read the emails he sent and in meetings she challenged him about not informing her about the actions that were required on her part (and her team) to remedy the situation, thus delaying the release dates. So, he collected all the previous emails he had sent to her (and others) and showed them how she had failed to read them and to take the required actions to prevent release delays. With this fact-based argument, she could not defend her position in front of their boss.
  4. If the behavior continues after the first conversation of their errant ways and they continue to defend their actions then it needs to be escalated to the higher-ups. It is often better to apprise your boss (and their boss, if different from yours) that you are planning to have this conversation with the employee and that if they escalated that conversation they should not be surprised. By taking this step you have the “preemption advantage.”
  5. When the errant team members are suddenly confronted with their offending behavior they sometimes recoil with passive aggressive behaviors. For example, in the case of the above errant manager she started coming late to his regular meetings, or started interrupting him during the meetings, just to show that she mattered, in view of their previous discussion about her errant ways that he irrefutably pointed out. This is why having the support of the higher-ups before you start these conversations is critical to creating the right outcomes.
  6. If the toxic member now starts correcting their ways and you start seeing a positive change (this is not common) make a point of acknowledging this change in a discussion with them and then convey that to the higher-ups as a positive development. Often, this positive feedback loop can help accelerate their recovery and things start becoming “normal.”

Toxic Bosses

Toxic bosses abound. If you count the indifferent, incompetent, and the disengaged managers, studies have shown that about 80% of the managers fall in this category. Although it is much more difficult to deal with toxic bosses—a subset of the 80%—than it is dealing with peers, team members, and others at your own level, there are some ways that you can deal with them in a constructive way. Here are some tips:

  1. Observe the repeat behaviors of the toxic manager in question and codify that behavior so that you can label it as something that is easy to communicate it with detached objectivity to upper management.
  2. Check with the others, who also come in contact with the same manager and assess if they also experience the same behaviors. Ask others how they deal with it and what is the impact of that behavior on how they handle their work.
  3. If the manager’s errant behavior is directed only at you then you have a relationship problem with that manager. In such a case it is best to objectively codify this behavior and draft a script of the conversation you want to have with the manager to see if the relationship can be mended. One-way to do this is to show the errant manger how their relationship with you is affecting your work and your ability to serve them. In other words if you can present to the manager how positive changes in their behavior will help you perform better—in turn helping the manager look good—then you have a reason to present this argument to the manger. The trick here is to not make you the victim of this toxic behavior directed only towards you the issue, but to make your manager the victim of this toxic relationship. Once they see that benefit to them they may change their errant ways.
  4. If the manager is an equal-opportunity bad boss, then you need to assess how that behavior across his flock affects the company’s business. For example, in the case of one such client the head of engineering was cursed with an explosive and bad temper. When anyone approached him with a request to address a burning customer complaint or a product issue, his first reaction was to go into a fit of rage and explode, yelling at the messenger to tell the customer to go to hell. My client was very sensitive to any issue that customers brought to his own attention, but was helpless in getting this redressed because of this knee-jerk reaction from this toxic VP-E. So, instead of making this a complaint about how he treats my client—or others—we made this a customer-relationship problem and escalated the issue to the CEO. The CEO took swift action and terminated the VP.
  5. If this is generally how a company’s management behaves creating a toxic soup in which you need to swim, then it is time to get out and find yourself another job.

Toxic employee and manager behaviors are more common that most realize. Many, often become inured to such behaviors, normalize them, and ignore their plight as they decide to keep their jobs by devolving their behaviors with outcomes that are mentioned in the front bulleted part of this blog. Because such behaviors are so ubiquitous it is best to learn how to deal with them, rather than to run away from them to a “better” place or to rationalize them by changing your own norms. As long as you are working with fellow human beings such errant behaviors are to be expected. So, your best strategy is to learn how to deal with them constructively to remedy the behaviors than to learn how to passively live with them and compromise your own quality-of-work life.

Good luck!