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Managing Toxic Co-workers

Friday, August 16, 2013 - 08:00

By Leon Gettler

From time to time, we’ll all run into toxic co-workers. We’ve all met them, the usual collection of whingers, stress-heads, bullies, gossips, office politicians. How does a manager deal with that, and make things, well, less toxic.

Leadership consultant Robert Bitting says managers need to examine the causes of the toxicity and see if there are patterns. For example, is it worse on Mondays than Fridays? What’s the person’s health like? Is it just in certain situations and with certain people? What prejudices might you have that might influence this sort of behaviour?

He says managers should confront them, keeping in mind that they mightn’t be aware of it. It’s important, he says, to be specific, be prepared for a defensive reaction, and be ready to offer positive suggestions. He also recommends seeking the help of others by, for example, getting a productive employee to work alongside them. Some of it might rub off on them. He says managers should give these people specific tasks for which they can be held totally accountable. And finally, they should look for incremental improvements. Toxicity does not go away overnight. Managers have to accept there’ll be gradual changes in an employee’s behaviour.

A lot of it might come down to having frank and difficult conversations with the employee involved. These don’t come easy to many managers. In the Australian Institute of Management’s member magazine Management Today, I look at how managers should best handle these sorts of encounters. They have to be prepared and they have to have thought through all the questions that might come up. They need to think of the things that might be said and how to respond to them. It’s important for managers in these conversations to diffuse the emotion. It can be done.

I would also suggest that if you have a formal talk with the toxic employee about his or her performance, behaviour and impact on the work and the team, it’s a good idea have another official representative of the company in the room. That person is your back up and witness.

In the end, you will have to determine how many talks you need to have about performance. Most companies have a ‘disciplinary’ procedure to follow and your HR manager will be able to guide you through the process. If all else fails, move to finality with the toxic employee.

That approach is summed up by Bob Sutton, one of the most prominent management thinkers, has suggestions in his book Good Boss Bad Boss. In his view, negative cynical people are like cancer cells that infect different parts of the organisation. They need to be removed.

“The best bosses do more than charge up people, and recruit and breed energisers,’’ Sutton writes. “They eliminate the negative because even a few bad apples and destructive acts can undermine many good people and constructive acts … negative interactions (and the bad apples who promote them) pack such a wallop in close relationships because they are so distracting, emotionally draining and deflating. When a group does interdependent work, rotten apples drag down and infect everyone else. Unfortunately, grumpiness, nastiness, laziness and stupidity are remarkably contagious.”