“In meetings she would intentionally belittle me and launch personal attacks on my character. All of my achievements and hard work were disregarded and I often wondered whether she experienced them as a threat. I started to dread going into work every day and began to suffer sleepless nights.”
How many of us have heard employees talking like this about workplace relationships? All of us will at one point have experienced toxic behaviours in the workplace, and for this employee’s relationship with her manager it eventually led to her leaving her role.
What are ‘toxic behaviours’?
Broadly speaking ‘toxic behaviours’ can be defined as individuals’ behaviours that adversely impact the mental health and wellbeing of others. Some people are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, whilst others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Toxic behaviour can come in a wide range of presentations. It might look like the workplace narcissist that is intent on their own success at the expense of others. It might look like the passive aggressive gossip who undermines people’s reputations and breaks peoples’ trust. It might look like the high anxiety individual who projects their stress and worry on to other people in their team causing panic.
What causes ‘toxic behaviours’?
Toxic behaviours may feel personal and intentional but there are often underlying issues that can lead to people displaying challenging behaviours.
a. Response to stress. Toxic behaviour can often be linked episodically to people’s inability to manage stress and pressure. Higher levels of aggression, emotionality, impulsivity and a lack of self-awareness can arise under pressure when people’s “fight or flight” responses are activated.
b. Personality Difficulties. More severe and entrenched toxic behaviours might also be linked to the presence of ‘personality difficulties’ – persistent, pervasive and pathological patterns of behaviour that may reflect a psychiatric diagnosis of personality disorder. These problems often emerge during early formative experiences of abusive, unstable or chaotic family dynamics that then lead to dysfunctional patterns of relating to others in adulthood.
What are companies doing to address ‘toxic behaviours’?
Many companies are effectively creating wellbeing strategies that address behaviours that might emerge from identifiable sources of stress such as employees working excessively long hours, not using work breaks, or their overuse of technology. In this regard, wellbeing programmes that involve aspects of mindfulness and psycho-education, or policies that seek to change unhealthy work habits are useful for changing behaviours.
But companies often struggle to effectively address toxic behaviours in their organisations that drive down wellbeing and these often remain unexplored.
For many companies the toxicity that underlies many wellbeing problems can be a more complex problem to tackle.
How can companies strategically begin to address ‘toxic behaviours’?
Here are seven strategies that companies could use to start to address ‘toxic behaviours’.
1. Create framework for expected behaviours. Companies need to create explicit guidelines about expected behaviour in roles as this provides a behavioural baseline for what is and is not acceptable. It also means that a manager can address the behaviours objectively within a performance conversation. It is not presented as their personal opinion and attempts to address a person’s toxicity are less likely to become emotionally charged and feel like an attack.
2. Identify ‘toxic behaviours’ not ‘toxic people’. Companies need to avoid labelling certain people as ‘toxic’. This is a pessimistic position that undermines a person’s potential to change and can feel accusatory and lead to emotional defensiveness in the person who is labelled in such a way. There should be a focus on addressing a person’s observable behaviours rather than making categorical statements or assumptions about a person’s personality or motives.
3. Empower people to address toxicity in others. Companies need to empower people to have honest conversations with each other about negative behaviour that has adverse effects. Without this openness, people’s emotions are left to simmer beneath the surface and this can manifest in complex, destructive dynamics between people. Managers should also be empowered to provide direct feedback to employees about their behaviours within line management meetings.
4. Invest in developing key leaders. Companies need to focus on developing key leaders whose toxic behaviours, left unaddressed, can cascade down through an organisation and effect wellbeing. Recent high-profile examples, such as Uber’s Ex CEO Travis Kalanick, demonstrate how people in positions of influence can have a disproportionate impact on company culture. Leaders need help to develop their leadership styles and the resilience to cope with high pressure situations where they may adopt destructive coping strategies. They should be provided with trusted forums where they are able to address their shortcomings and vulnerabilities.
5. Offer support to people with toxic behaviours. Companies need to offer individuals displaying toxic behaviours opportunities for self-reflection and development. It is important to understand how an individual’s toxicity might be linked to their own lack of self-awareness or mental health difficulties. Timely coaching interventions or ongoing emotional intelligence programmes can act as powerful catalysts for behavioural change.
6. Be prepared to let go of people with toxic behaviours. Companies need to be prepared to carefully consider the option of letting go of employees whose toxic behaviour continues after extensive managerial and development interventions. This is particularly important as research indicates that toxic behaviour has significant effects on wellbeing as well as a company’s bottom line. A Harvard Business School study (Housman & Minor, 2015) 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. Meanwhile avoiding a toxic hire, or letting one go quickly, delivers $12,500 in cost savings. Companies should only consider letting go of employees as a last resort where behaviour is particularly entrenched.
As we continue the ongoing dialogue about mental health and wellbeing, companies should begin to confront the pervasive problem of toxic behaviour that can drive down wellbeing. Through setting a behavioural baseline, embracing difficult conversations and developing the emotional intelligence of influential people in our organisations, we can create relational dynamics that lead to happy and engaged employees.
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