Can We Just Play Nice? The Challenge of Toxic Employees and Importance of Followership

The imperfection of humans is at the root of why we don’t always get along with one another. But that imperfection doesn’t excuse us for not “playing together nicely in the sandbox.” In the workplace, whether that sandbox is as large as an organization or as small as a work team, personal relationships among people obviously are instrumental. So what’s the deal when someone asserts persistent anger, resentment, bad attitudes, and any other way of kicking sand in the faces of others and what they are doing?

Employee relationships are the microcosm of internal communication challenges. For all the work that organizational leaders and employee-communication professionals may do, individuals are likely the single greatest variable in what can go right or wrong in an organizational environment. Employees span the continuum from exemplary to toxic, and both influence organizational performance at varying levels, depending on the spread of their elixir or venom, respectively, through their communication behaviors. To the degree that those behaviors are supportive or not affects the reception, buy-in, and action on organizational messages. Very much of the time employee populations are largely skewed with more positive workers than negative, yet the negative can be so problematic.

The problems begin when you can’t know them when you see them—when you first interview them. Divisive personality traits, like deception, anger issues, grudge-holding, self-centeredness, vindictiveness, antagonism, negativity, and so on are not apparent so early on. Many organizations want and need to know about the characters of their prospective (and current) employees, and so “tests” for personal integrity and ethics may be used to identify toxic workers sooner than later.  Even so, with the population of employees in an organization, knowing how positive or detrimental someone may be won’t become apparent until they begin working with others and establishing a personal performance reputation.

Being aware of the phenomenon of toxic employees is a big step toward not hiring them (ideally) or (more likely) trying to help them reform, if possible. Particularly helpful are some resources that give good background on the subject. My favorite is The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton, who is a highly accomplished management scholar. He also has a guide for overcoming assholes. An alternative term would be bully. Whatever you call them, Sutton identifies salient matters about these underminers of one’s and an organization’s self-efficacy, and he addresses ways to turn around the problem for the person and the organization.

Another good resource is Toxic Workers by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor, which is a working paper published by the Harvard Business School. This paper presents valuable research for the affects and effects of toxic asshole bullies. Important to both of these publications is that positive results can be obtained by either (a) converting the problem child to become at least an average performer or (b) avoiding or dismissing the person altogether even after conversion efforts are applied but fail. The starting point is constructive interpersonal communication between a manager and the person that, in turn, both helps him/her improve personally and begins that person’s alignment with organizational messages and expectations.

Where conflict can and should be a positive thing that drives creativity because of the clash of perspectives and a unified desire among people to achieve success together, conflict can be negative when one or more people seize opportunities to assert control along the lines of a personal agenda. Especially insightful is Amy Gallo’s counsel about managing toxic workers. Gallo demonstrates how much toxic employees’ venom infects the workplace and what behaviors may be behind the person’s need to spread his/her venom. Discipline, listening, compassion, realism, and next steps about all dimensions of the toxicity are key. And as more than one study shows, forgiveness can and should be instrumental in a process of restoring harmony and rebuilding trust in the workplace. (Also see this source.) There is one caveat, however: Sometimes people do not want to change. In such instances, the manager/supervisor must be sure that there is a sound, documented case for the person’s dismissal or other reasonable consequences.

Fundamentally, toxic employees can be at any organizational level, and in this regard all are followers as much as they are members of the same organization, whether they hold formal leadership/management positions or not. Toxic employees among organizational leaders tend to poison the culture from the top down, which at least undercuts corporate messaging and esprit de corps as a leader’s words and actions are questionable. Toxic employees among “rank and file” personnel tend to create localized infections that subvert organizational and team messages, performance, and team spirit that could spread if sympathizers become allies.

Leaders have the special challenge to determine effective ways to involve followers (toxic and not) and enable critical-analytical thinking to achieve success. Barbara Kellerman, in her book, Followership, surveys perspectives on followers and defines five follower types plainly in terms of their respective levels of engagement (i.e., from feeling/doing nothing to feeling/doing more than what’s expected). Here are the five types of followers:

  • Isolaters are completely detached, including from knowledge about and responsiveness to leaders and what is going on to fulfill a mission. If invited, these followers can provide healthy skepticism.
  • Bystanders are observant of what is going on but do not participate very much if at all, effectively adopting a neutral stance on everything and, thereby, giving tacit support for leaders and what is done. These followers can be engaged by giving specific invitations to do so in ways that play to their strengths or areas of expertise.
  • Participants are engaged in some way, including favorable attitudes toward leaders and making contributions to the cause. Because of their involvement in things, these followers can contribute well, for example, when asked to assess pros and cons, risks and benefits.
  • Activists have strong feelings about their leaders and the mission in which they are engaged, contributing great amounts of time and effort to the cause, even if that means changing processes, policies, plans, leadership, etc. These followers are solid self-starters and willing to identify challenges on their own and take on new challenges as they are required.
  • Diehards have the greatest degree of passion, dedication, and loyalty to the group, its leaders, and the mission in which all are engaged, including being willing to give their lives to the cause that consumes them to ensure success. These followers possess a very deep passion for the cause and the organization, making them especially predisposed for doing whatever it takes for success.

When we were much younger and playing with our siblings and peers, we learned how to play nicely together, and squabbles with others helped us learn how to deal with conflict. As we grew up, our interactions with others grew in complexity along with our understanding of who we are in relation to ourselves, others, and the world. Toxic people have been there with us all along.

Effective organizational leaders look after their followers and other leaders, and effective followers look after each other and their leaders. In short, we’re all in this together. So the trick is recognizing toxic people early and fairly, and then the next step is to help them for their own good and the organization’s good, even if that means dismissal with cause. With all the workshops, seminars, and conferences focused on leadership, maybe it’s time for similar programming on followership.

Pete Smudde PR ResearchDr. Pete Smudde, APR, is professor of public relations and associate executive director of the School of Communication at Illinois State University.

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