Advice to deal with toxic employees seem more abundant than sand in a desert. The problem is that without cooperation from the employee you might as well be shoveling with a rake!

Doing whatever it takesSo let’s begin with the employee or manager who feels his success in life is commensurate with how many people he steps on, runs through, offends or hurts…and collects victims as trophies. If he is not interested in change, no incentive or punishment is likely to work. And if it does, the change won’t likely stick. The best advice for this kamikaze-like employee is cut ties as quickly as possible. For sure, terminating any employee, but especially key managers or top revenue producers, is hard. But whatever pain or insult he can cause at termination is a drop in the bucket to the damage he will cause as long as he remains on the payroll.

On the off chance that the employee is unaware how toxic his behavior really is, “fixing” the employee begins with a self-assessment. Contrary to what many people think about career assessments, they don’t reveal if a person is “crazy” or not, good or bad. They simply reveal what others likely already observe – how a person engages with other people and approaches work.  But without self-assessment, how you think you are seen is not always how others see you. Let’s be clear self-assessment is merely a starting point. It doesn’t preclude discovering that a mental or clinical condition might be contributing to bad behavior. But that type of “diagnosis” is well beyond the scope of this article and the capability of management. If you do suspect mental illness, immediately engage human resources, professional counselors, and/or legal counsel for advice. Fortunately, toxic workplace behavior is most often just normal people behaving badly.

Heightening self-awareness – understanding how one sees the world compared to others – can be the catalyst that flips the switch. At least that’s the intention. In many cases, it is the “aha” moment that transports the employee into a co-worker’s (or family member’s or boss’s) shoes. He now is staring back at himself from a fresh perspective, seeing what he or she looks and sounds like to the rest of the world. It’s not always a pretty or welcome picture but getting hit squarely with the proverbial 2 x 4 is sometimes just the right recipe for a change in attitude.

Unfortunately an attitudinal shift and increased sense of open-mindedness is not enough to stop the diarrhea-like flow of stupid and inappropriate toxic behaviors that many workers and managers exhibit. Many toxic behaviors are just bad habits that we develop to get what we want right now. They’ve worked before so like a trusty friend, we use them again and again. Whether the goal is getting a much needed pat on the back or throwing a temper tantrum to get your point across, we all learn techniques that we think will help us survive and thrive. The key word in this case is “think” – we think they work but reality tells a different story.

Many of these counter-productive behaviors generate a lot of collateral damage. Counter-productive behaviors typically have an innocent beginning but a toxic and destructive end. Our egos get in the way and we justify our bad behavior as just a means to an end. We become more toxic the more we use them to get our way. When they stop working, we just try harder. The damage we inflict becomes worth the price. We haul the excess baggage around like a badge of courage. When things don’t work out as expected, it’s not our fault – it’s the result of all the excess baggage that others force us to carry.

Truth be told, the root of many counter-productive behaviors lay dormant like the “chickenpox” virus. And like the childhood virus, the seemingly innocuous latent behavior may erupt later into a full blown painful case of toxic behavior.  Similar to shingles- the painful reminder that we had chickenpox decades earlier, there is no cure or perfect remedy for it. But with a preventive “vaccine,” the intensity and frequency can be managed successfully in more than 50 percent of employees.

Here’s a recipe for a vaccine to deal with toxic behavior. It takes 4-steps to “detox” bad or counter-productive behavior. We call the process “S.T.O.P.”  Through a combination of heightened self-awareness, a willingness to improve, and S.T.O.P., toxic behavior can be reduced and productive behavior unmasked.

  1. Signals. What is the “where, when, and with whom” experience that triggers the emotion that leads to the toxic behavior?
  2. Time. How much time elapses between the event and your emotion explosion? If it’s only a second or two (you see the number of your boss or ex-wife on caller ID), prepare-and-practice pat responses such as count 1 to 10.
  3. Obstacles. What prevents you from saying no or not giving into the urge? This may be the hardest step to change because hurdling or ignoring the obstacle might not be the easiest path to take. Overcoming obstacles requires the individual look at the long –term positive benefits and rewards (eg. less stress, better liked, keep job, optimism) instead of short-term gratification.
  4. Payoffs. You need to occasionally revisit the “rewards” you get for each counter-productive action. Each action has two payoffs – short-term and long-term. The short-term payoff provides immediate gratification (you feel better after you got something off your chest) but you might have aggravated your boss, lost your job, or your best friend. The long term payoff of throttling back on your counter-productive is less stress and more productive outcomes. Short term payoffs are rewarding but addictive and potentially destructive. As long as you live by short term results, bad things will continue happen.