How to Address Toxic Employees

May 12, 2021 Lynne Levy

Frustrated employee5-minute read

Connection at work is the feeling of being part of a group of people engaged in something bigger than any one person. There's a sense of belonging to the organization and the people around you, including shared values, mission, and trust.

As organizations work towards building a more human workplace, one toxic leader can tear down the sense of connection within a department or division.

Defining a toxic leader

Let’s first define a toxic leader. According to best-selling author and psychotherapist Amy Morin, a toxic leader:

  • Proactively engages in harming others.
  • Uses fear and intimidation to maintain control.
  • Acts like a bully and often pick on their employees.
  • May try to gain compliance by embarrassing or threatening employees.
  • May exhibit narcissistic and psychopathic traits.
  • Typically imposes their will without considering the opinions of others.
  • Is intolerant of mistakes and very focused on tight control.
  • Is manipulative and tends toward “ruling with an iron fist.”

Toxic leaders and employees create a sense of disconnection in the organization.

Assessing the damage

As Meryn Dinnen recently wrote, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle first told us that humans are social animals. The energy and trust we build from social interactions have long been the bedrock of successful team building; connections help us collaborate, creating exceptional outcomes. In his book, "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect," Professor Matthew Lieberman writes that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water; we suffer when our social bonds are threatened or severed.

Toxic leaders are those who take part in destructive behaviors at work. They have a leadership style that harms people – and eventually the organization – through negative behaviors. And even further, toxic workplace relationships can spill into employees’ personal lives, adding additional stress. If left unmitigated, this toxic culture can spread throughout the organization, leading to employee dissatisfaction and lower employee engagement rates.

What can be done?

As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring a sense of connection up and down your organization will be paramount to success. How can organizations get ahead of potentially toxic behaviors to ensure the culture supports connection and trust versus disconnection? Try these seven tips.

Create a policy. Communication and transparency are critical when it comes to toxic behavior, so have a formal policy with definitions of acceptable behavior. Unsure where to start? SHRM created a policy template. Managing unacceptable behavior is much easier if there is a clear policy that outlines what is and is not acceptable.

Get your values off the wall. Most organizations have a mission. It hangs on the wall in the lobby, near HR, or in another well-trafficked area. It may even come with a set of values intended to help employees connect behaviors and work habits to the mission. But do they? It's easy to state your mission, vision, and values, but it's much more difficult to actually live the values – let alone get all your people to do the same.

Peer-to-peer employee recognition coupled with a tangible reward is the gold standard for making values livable. When someone demonstrates one of your values, make sure there is an opportunity for co-workers to appreciate them publicly. This confirms the behavior and encourages others to follow suit.

Define behavior. What makes a good leader? Should leaders trust or micromanage? Should leaders inspire others to make good decisions or make the decisions themselves? It is important that organizations provide clarity as to how values apply to leaders and employees’ behavior.

Survey frequently. Survey employees to flag potential engagement challenges and toxic behavior. The survey should not just be at the end of the year; it should be an ongoing process to determine potential issues so they can be addressed immediately.

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Gather feedback on leaders. Organizations can also survey employees on the behavior of their leaders to understand patterns and potential issues. Just like engagement challenges, these surveys should be multi-source and occur frequently.

Listen. Leaders at all levels should look for signs of potential challenges. For example, when you ask a manager how things are going in their department, and you hear a lot of "I" rather than "we," or there is a large amount of blame, that can be a flag.

Conduct frequent check-ins. Check-ins are a critical part of managing toxic behavior. When the toxic behavior is coming from an employee, the check-in is a tool to provide effective feedback and coaching to the employee.

When the employee is being impacted by the toxic behavior of someone else in the organization, check-ins should be used to root out the issue for the leader to then address.

Have a conversation. When there are potential issues, HR should have an open conversation with employees. Create a safe space where employees can discuss their concerns without fear of retribution. Be sure to listen to and seriously consider the information your employees share with you.

To truly create a human workplace with employees at the center, toxic behavior from any employee or leader must be addressed before it becomes a significant issue. The impact on organizational success, brand, engagement, and sustainability depends on creating a culture of connection, not disconnection.

RELATED POSTS 

Empathy and Belonging: The Gateways to a Human Workplace

8 Ways to Support Employees’ Mental Health

The Cost of Toxic Cultures

About the Author

Lynne Levy

Lynne Levy is a Workhuman evangelist who lives and breathes helping organizations build cultures that bring out the best in the employees. Her mantra is “do what you love, love what you do.”

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