With many businesses requiring employees to spend more time in the office these days, we’re celebrating reconnecting with our favorite team members. Some employees may be meeting each other in person for the first time. These connections should be a way to define and strengthen a positive work culture. Unfortunately, not every team member will react appropriately in the work environment. Their behavior creates a big challenge for managers: How to deal with toxic employees.
How to Deal with Toxic Employees
Before managers get to the issue of how to deal with toxic employees, they must first recognize that a problem exists in their organization. Around 25% of employees worldwide have reported the issue of toxicity in their workplace. Unacceptable behavior can originate from a boss or a coworker. Cutting remarks about a person’s appearance or heritage fall into this category. Unwanted attention, especially of the romantic kind, is another form of toxic behavior that too many employees regularly endure. When employees are vying for a promotion, actions can quickly become toxic when a team member lies or otherwise sabotages a co-worker’s productivity.
Do Victims Engage in Flight or Fight?
When humans feel threatened, they usually engage in the flight or fight response. How do the victims respond in a toxic situation? Jacqueline Brassey, in her McKinsey report, explains, “Some suffer through it in silence. Some lash out. Some just leave.” These outcomes demand immediate managerial attention. You’ve worked hard to hire and train your employees. To keep them engaged and loyal to your company, you need to deal with your toxic employees.
"Your team dynamic is defined by the behavior you accept as a manager, and by the behavior you won't accept," says workplace behavior analyst C. Lee Smith. "Often times, when a manager learns of toxicity, damage has already been done. Failing to address it swiftly is a sign of weakness and sends entirely the wrong message to the best members of your team."
Some managers believe that getting involved in petty squabbles between employees is a waste of time. They may also feel that team members will gain experience and maturity when they can work out disagreements on their own. But Tessa West, a psychology professor at New York University and the author of a book on toxic behavior at work, says that’s not a successful strategy. West’s research reveals the pattern of responses when these conditions exist. Specifically, the victims don’t want to engage with the aggressor, often because “There’s fear of retribution, they don’t know how to have the conversation, or they feel burned out and overworked themselves.”
The Role of the Emotionally Intelligent Manager
Managers who don’t check in regularly and appropriately with their employees will miss some of what is going on in their organization. Very often, they aren’t aware of a bullying situation. And employees may be hesitant to rat out a coworker, especially if that person is also their manager’s golf partner.
The power imbalance makes it mandatory for managers ask specific questions, such as why an employee is hesitating to join a team headed up by a specific team member.
Today’s powerful psychometric hiring assessments can alert you to potentially toxic workplace tendencies that may surface if you give the open position to your top candidate. You may be able to manage that employee in a way that prevents toxic behavior from appearing. Some managers will pride themselves on being emotionally intelligent if they experience great outcomes from team members who are difficult to handle.
But great managers can’t always turn around a bad situation. You should know where you will draw the line. David Taffet explains that modern managers embrace the kindness model and work to bring forth positive outcomes. This strategy may prove successful in some cases. The bully will apologize and improve their workplace behavior, although this kind of turnaround usually requires the manager to monitor and reinforce the positive progress.
In other cases, the bully will resist. “Toxicity cannot be killed with kindness,” Taffet points out. Eventually, the emotionally intelligent manager cannot ignore the conflict in their workplace and the bully who refuses to change their behavior. To minimize damage to the organization and to stop the outflow of talent, sometimes the best way to deal with toxic employees is to fire them.
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