Thursday, September 24, 2009

Managing Toxic Personalities

From movies to Office Space to shows like The Office, we have learned to laugh at toxic behaviors at work. However, in Toxic Workplace: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power, authors Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway report on the devastating effects of toxicity on individuals and organizations and argue for a plan to restore respect .

The authors’ research contains leader surveys and interviews from about 400 leaders from profit and non-profit companies.The kind of behavior they target is more subtle than fighting, stealing, or absenteeism. They list all toxic behaviors under three headings: shaming, team sabotage, and passive hostility. Such behaviors in the workplace are on the rise. Due to budgets constraints, there are fewer managers to redirect toxic persons.

Why do workplaces tolerate toxicity in the first place? Some hiring practices still prefer expertise over like-ability. Once hired, toxic people can be successful, so that their co-workers or bosses tend to protect them. In fact bosses are the least likely to see the systemic effects of toxic people because 1) honest feedback is not given from others about the toxic person and 2) their productivity is seen and valued.

If they know that a problem exists at all, most leaders quickly turn to an individual solution like working with the toxic person one-on-one . This may include firing the toxic person, giving the impression that the "bad apple" is gone. For example, researchers have found that teams made up of two emotionally toxic persons performed just as badly as teams made of all unstable people.The authors doggedly recommend beginning with organizational/team values and measurable practices that reinforce respectful engagement.

Many may not have the freedom to think in terms of what their workplace is doing to them or others; after all, having a job that pays the bills in these times is a great blessing. But it’s not lack of gratitude for having an imperfect job that should concern us. What should worry us is how people can be treated in the setting where they spend the majority of their adult lives: the workplace. At the same time, reflective Christians would do well to ask if and how we may contribute to sick systems. For this, Kusy and Hollway argue effectively for a detailed plan for organizational, team, and individual health and healing.

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