Working with a toxic senior was one of the worst experiences of my professional life.
This person used to be quite charismatic and amusing in public. It was too easy for me to look over her obvious flaws and give her the benefit of doubt time and time again. Even when she belittled my fellow co-workers in public, she apologized and continued with the same behavior.
Unfortunately for me, it took me years to realize that she’s a manipulative and power-hungry person. Her dishonesty when it came to talking about people behind their backs made her the most unethical team member in the workforce.
As a junior, I couldn’t trust my senior who was only interested in her own self-interests. It’s almost as if she thrived off creating anxiety for me and my fellow workers.
It has taken a long time for me to recover from her abuse – not only because of the impact she had on me, but also due to the fact that several others in my workplace, including senior managers, witnessed what was happening but didn’t get involved.
You’re probably reading this article because you’ve suffered from similar toxic situations at your workplace.
These ‘snakes in suits’ exist in all types of workplaces and industries. Their manipulation leaves indelible marks on their victims and their workplaces. Their cunning and self-centered nature makes workplaces hell for many workers like us who aren’t sure how to deal with such situations.
How pervasive is this problem?
The stats don’t lie –
- A 2017 Gallup poll revealed that 51% of employees in the USA are non-engaged with their workforces. 16% of the respondents claimed to be actively disengaged.
- Monster.com recently surveyed employees on their websites. 90% of them reported facing some form of bullying at their workplaces. 51% of the ninety, disclosed facing bullying from their superiors. 71% of manager reactions to these claims of targeted bullying were claimed to be ‘unhelpful’ by the respondents.
I have spoken with many HR professionals, clients, and management experts about the not-so-subtle problems that toxic behaviors foster in workplaces. Whenever the topic of toxic personalities is brought up, the responses include a barrage of desultory solutions.
Here’s why most of these generic “solutions” don’t work –
- “Why don’t you speak with them?” – Toxic people usually don’t view themselves as toxic!
- “Discuss the issue in front of peers!” – Toxic people will go out of their way to manipulate others into believing their versions of incidents.
- “Speak with your HR department.” – I don’t intend to malign all HR departments, but in most cases involving toxic behavior at the workplace, HR professionals have their hands tied, especially if the toxic person is someone in a position of power. Most HR departments are at odds with themselves – is their primary responsibility maximizing the company’s profitability or helping employees develop and feel safe?
- “Just wait; things will improve!” – Most victims of toxicity at workplaces take hours, days, weeks, months, or even years to realize they’ve been manipulated and sabotaged by their seniors or co-workers. Do you think waiting more will do the trick?
The answers were never going to be simple. But what I’ve learnt in my years of working in offices is that the best solutions are already being implemented in various organizations.
We don’t need to come up with new solutions – we, simply need to observe non-toxic workplaces and learn. What are these ‘non-toxic’ managers doing and how can their subtle measures be translated into courses of action for us?
Here are some of my first-hand experiences with toxic workplaces and how these situations were amended efficiently.
Problem #1 – When the Toxic Personality is Related to Company Owners
I had worked as an operations manager in a large tech company’s marketing department for over five years. Four out of these five years, I had to endure being vilified by Marina (name changed), the company’s director of sales and marketing.
Even though she was a source of distress for everyone in the marketing department, she targeted me specifically for various reasons.
Despite being an incompetent leader and multiple complaints of her toxicity at the workplace, she held on to her position for a good ten years primarily because she was the daughter of one of the company’s founding members.
Nepotism made her feel no one can lay a finger on her, even though she was under-qualified for the post. Marina fired anyone who caused problems to her authoritarian ways. Even the interns who accidentally made her look bad weren’t spared.
Gradually, I realized why I was a prey too– I wasn’t cowering to her demands like I did at my first year at the job. Thankfully, I had earned the respect of my team and the company’s vice president of sales. Even the VP couldn’t exercise his right to dismiss Marina because of her familial connections.
Thankfully, when the senior VP of sales, a very astute manager stepped in, there was a standoff. Slowly, the senior VP resolved this nagging issue.
The Solution –
The senior VP (Mr. McKinsey) did what other managers refused to do while dealing with Marina – he stopped acting as a toxic buffer.
By the time Marina had started talking behind the senior VP’s back in disparaging ways, undermining his authority, and placing oblique threats, Mr. McKinsey had taken these steps –
- Alerted Everyone About the Presence of a Toxic Personality –
Mr. McKinsey made everyone in the marketing department aware of the person who was invariably interfering with our team’s overall efficiency.
I suggested him to conduct periodic team assessments. and surveys to determine how other team members viewed Marina. He did and as expected, most of my co-workers called her the weak link in their reports.
- Sensibly Examined the Information Provided to Him by the Team Members –
Even though Mr. McKinsey had first-hand experiences of how toxic Marina could be, he took the time to leave his own bias aside and make notes on what our department actually said to him. He identified themes and made it clear to us that his goal wasn’t to ‘get Marina’ but to make our team more productive.
While other members of the teams earned tags like ‘frequently supportive’ and ‘problem solver’ in these team assessments, over a period of month, Marina kept being referred to as ‘problematic’ and ‘hard to work with’ by her peers.
- Giving Our Team Feedback –
After a couple of months, Mr. McKinsey sat us down (including Marina) and discussed the themes he had discovered while conducting these team assessments. He didn’t go into too many details and kept the nasty comments about Marina confidential. However, he let her know what the team thought of her.
- Talking with the Root of the Problem –
Unlike us Mr. McKinsey had access to Marina’s father. After our team session, he spoke with her and her father separately. Soon enough, Marina was relieved of her duties.
Mr. McKinsey sympathized with Marina’s victims and gave us the protection that she was indirectly receiving from her father. Once Marina had no ‘toxic buffers,’ i.e., people acting oblivious to her misgivings, she wasn’t able to openly abuse us like she had done in the past.
Problem #2 – When Team Leaders are Toxic
This issue was faced by one of my close friends Alex who had been brought in as the CEO of a mid-range retail company aiming to expand. When she took the post, she immediately noticed that the company’s departmental managers exercised a lot of power.
From setting low expectations to creating schedules that benefited them – they were essentially keeping the business stagnant for their own purposes.
Dealing with these naysayers was difficult. Relatively quickly, Alex started noticing that her team leaders weren’t informing her much when they were called upon for vital discussions.
Not only were the team leaders disinterested, but the employees working under them also seemed to be terrified of telling her anything of substance.
After six months of non-compliance, Alex was compelled to let go of many of these workers. She couldn’t confront the team leaders who had befriended her and acted supportive whenever she made decisions.
Soon enough, she realized that there was a system of subliminal fear, secrecy, and prevention of open discussion in the organization. The team leaders controlled their interests via obscure threats. Their loyal followers were being rewarded for unmotivated behavior.
Alex finally broke this loyalty by firing many of these workers. But to address this toxicity at the workplace, she took a few extra steps.
The Solution –
Alex trusted her intuition. She saw and heard fear when she met with her team members. But hunches don’t guarantee results, facts do.
Here are the steps that Alex took to cure her workplace’s toxic nature –
- She investigated her company’s policies in relation to difficult behaviors at the workplace. She amended these policies and set certain behavioral norms in her first six months.
- She tried to explore why the junior-level workers weren’t open to change. Many of the team members who had reacted positively to her organizational changes left the company out of their own will.
- To understand the reasons behind their self-terminations, she conducted detailed exit interviews with them. Instead of delegating the task to the company’s HR department, she used these exit interviews to discuss whether leadership or management had anything to do with their decision to leave the company.
- She combined the data she collected in the exit interviews and conducted a 360-degree team assessment process, six months into her job. Some of the team leaders who promoted maladaptive practices at the workplaces were terminated after lengthy processes.
The rest of the team leaders who weren’t as bad as the rest had to go through remedial and preventive processes that helped them ditch their counterproductive interpersonal relations and become more engaging and positive.
These workers (most of them were relatively new employees) were essentially victims of the toxic personalities that haunted the organization in the past. Alex was able to reconfigure their agendas.
She made it clear that instant reporting of such toxic people at the workplace would be the norm from here on.
In a world where 65% of employees lose their jobs for reporting toxicity or harassment at the workplace, the need for such CEOs is urgent. Leaders are paid to manage people, no matter how ‘messy’ or ‘awkward’ the problem may be. John was quick to mend his ways.
The management of the company quickly started rewarding ethical behavior which made his process of getting re-acclimatized into the workforce much easier.
As shown in these examples, the key to fixing toxic workplace cultures is acknowledging the problem and directly holding toxic individuals responsible, notwithstanding their seniority or influence.