02 August 2010

Toxic Personalities: Discovering their systems of power & shaping workplaces of respectful engagement

Counterproductive work behaviours can debilitate an organisation's productivity and seriously harm individual incentive, a new study reveals.

"The day this person left our company is considered an annual holiday!" This quote from our national research study on toxic personalities echoes the sentiment these individuals have on an organization's culture and bottom line.

We conducted a research study in the United States that included in-depth interviews and an 82-item online survey of over 400 leaders. These leaders representing males and females, as well as profit and non-profit organizations, indicated that a whopping 94% have worked or currently work with a toxic person! Efforts to work with these individuals have generated a long list of anecdotal suggestions, but few practical and effective solutions. Yet, statistics below reflect the degree in which counterproductive work behaviors can debilitate an organization's productivity and seriously harm individual incentive, as indicated by these statistics:

  • 25% of "victims" of incivility ceased voluntary efforts.
  • 50% contemplated leaving their jobs; 12% did!
  • 20% reduced their rate of work.
  • 10% deliberately cut back the amount of time they spent at work.

With the costs of recruiting ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 times the person's annual salary, the financial erosion from the effects of toxic behaviors is significant. When you factor in the human toll, the costs become exponential, as this quote from our study illustrates: "This toxic person is in the most Sr. HR leadership role in the organization. He has experienced 80% turnover of his direct reporting team and staff." The toxic individual is a profit saboteur from two contexts-financial and human.

Here are some of the commonly held myths regarding toxic persons in the workplace that our findings refuted. That is, these common assumptions are false:

  1. Don't mess with their success.
  2. Give them feedback.
  3. Most people won't put up with toxic behaviors.
  4. HR and other consultants can solve the problem.
  5. Fire them to resolve the issue.
  6. Toxic persons know exactly what they're doing.
  7. Toxic behavior is a solo act.
  8. When hiring, seek a little extra competence over a little more likeability.
  9. Leaders see the systemic effects.

So what did we find out about toxic behaviors in organizations? Toxicity included behaviors that did not necessarily meet the threshold of bullying or harassment, but rather were more subtle and habitual. Based on our research, we discovered three types of toxic behaviors:

  • Shaming
  • Passive hostility
  • Team sabotage

These types of behaviors included, for example, pot shots, sarcasm, passive aggression, team surveillance, and territoriality. Sound familiar?

We also asked leaders if their reactions and strategies in coping with these people were effective. Surprisingly, they reported that the typical reactions of reconfiguring the team, simply avoiding the person, or giving performance feedback, just did not work. In fact, the often touted strategy of one-on-one feedback is largely ineffectivebecause toxic individuals are unaware of the negative effect they have on others or simply feel justified in treating others badly. As many of our respondents claimed, "the toxic person is mostly clueless they are toxic".

Another revealing finding was that many toxic persons have a protector in the organization or on the team. In some cases the protector was a person who deliberately covered for the toxic person because they received something in return (such as high sales numbers or special consideration for advancement).

However, some protectors were actually trying to protect their teams from the debilitating effects of the person's behavior and were inadvertently enabling the toxicity to continue unabated. In our workshops, there are many participants who report the "aha" of discovering that they have become part of the problem by protecting! We found three types of protectors:

  • The relationship protector
  • The power protector
  • The productivity protector

The most critical discovery in our study was the systemic effect of toxicity in the organization. A toxic person could relatively quickly infect leader and staff confidence, team cohesion, organizational culture, and individual well-being.

Our findings led to the development of effective strategies to prevent the spread of toxicity through a systems approach. In our Toxic Organizational Change System (TOCS) © a number of interventions that can be effectively used in concert with one another are discussed.

The interventions are delivered at organizational, team, and individual levels of the organizations and a few of these are listed below.

1. Organizational strategies:

  • Large-scale design of concrete values of respectful engagement
  • Critical integration of values into existing performance systems
  • Design of formal "skip-level" evaluations

2. Team strategies:

  • Proactive interventions
    • Behavioral team selection via the "BIG-FIVE" personality factors
    • Translation of organizational values to team norms
  • Reactive interventions
    • 360-degree team assessment systems from within and outside the team
    • Innovative use of exit interviews
    • Identification of "toxic protectors" who enable toxicity
      • Special relationship protectors
      • Power protectors
      • Productivity protectors

3. Individual strategies:

  • Targeted feedback
  • Systems coaching
  • Use of formal authority
  • Fair-process terminations

As a result of our research, we have been working to help leaders understand the systems components that should be engaged proactively to reduce the probability of a toxic person entering the organization and to create cultures of respectful engagement.

We are very interested in your experiences with toxic persons and intervention strategies that have worked-both in terms of working directly with toxic personalities as well as creating cultures of respectful engagement. Please share your insights by leaving a comment on this blog.


Also see information here

Back to the Future .. from 2001

Coping with 'toxic co-workers'

A new book offers survival tips

OK, so who among us hasn't secretly suspected the boss is a psycho?

Or thought the man/woman in the cubicle to the right is a borderline personality ready to love you/hate you/boil your pet bunny — all before the drama queen/king pushing the doughnut cart rolls around? Or are you worried that your co-workers gather around the water cooler every day to secretly plot against you? Paranoid, eh?

A happy and supportive workplace can make the hours from 9 to 5 seem positively golden.

But toss a personality-challenged co-worker into the mix, and those work hours can turn into torture. And that's not taking into account the potential for collateral damage, ranging from ulcers to job loss, litigation and outright violence.

• Want to find out if you have a personality disorder (or make an educated guess about a co-worker)? Check outwww.med.nyu.edu/Psych/screens/pds.htmlfor diagnostic screenings on the 10 types of personality disorders.
Cast of toxic characters
There are a lot of sick people out there, say New Jersey psychologists Neil J. Lavender and Alan A. Cavaiola.

Many of them have jobs.

Maybe they work with you.

“We believe, as do a lot of other people, that they're kind of like a hidden cancer in businesses,” says Dr. Lavender, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J.

He and Dr. Cavaiola have written a new book, Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job(New Harbinger Publications; $13.95), that provides a mini Psych 101 course for coping with the not-so-well-adjusted folk who inhabit the workplace right along with the rest of us. In telephone interviews, they elaborated on their published primer.

Unhealthy behaviors

Every workplace has its share of odd ducks and office cranks. But Drs. Cavaiola and Lavender say people with psychological issues like narcissism and borderline personality disorder can make the workplace downright venomous.

“Toxic” personalities are a fact of life in the workplace, says Dr. Lavender, and they turn up at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, from the new intern who hacks into corporate e-mail accounts to the CEO who just walked away with a golden parachute and all the cash in the employee pension fund.

“Over the years, we've seen them at work and read about them in the newspaper just bringing corporations down, due to their own personality flaws,” he says.

Personality disorders refer to a broad set of unhealthy and destructive behaviors — lying, avoiding social contact, sabotaging others — people use to cope with everyday stress. Because personality disorders are based in behavior, they're very hard to treat: First the person has to admit there's a problem, then he has to change.

Most personality-disordered individuals “view their symptoms as their strengths,” says Dr. Cavaiola, so change doesn't come easily. He is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Monmouth University in Long Branch, N.J.

But if you're working with the middle manager who makes everyone miss deadlines so she can double-check everything from the arithmetic in the annual report to the way the document is collated, you know there's a fine line between taking pride in your work and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

People with personality disorders have problems dealing with everyday life — sometimes they can't hold jobs or maintain relationships — and their problems make problems for the rest of us, Dr. Lavender says. In the workplace, personality disorders can make the most well-oiled corporate machinery grind to a halt when employers realize they literally can't work with a personality-disordered co-worker or supervisor.

Dr. Cavaiola talks about a woman with paranoid personality disorder who sued her employer because her co-workers weren't telling her dirty jokes. She argued they were deliberately leaving her out of the grapevine.

And Dr. Lavender talks about a work site where he was called in to counsel employees. “It was a car dealership, and all the salesmen were anti-social personalities,” he says. “They had a lot of their older customers convinced that a rebate was something they had to pay extra to get the car.”

Spotting a disorder

So how do you spot a personality disorder?

It's easy, Dr. Lavender says. Just listen for the shouting, and watch your own responses.

“If you see two staff members fighting consistently, that's a clue,” he says. “Usually there's a guy or a gal who seems to be in the middle of every brouhaha. They're always involved. They're the ones firing off the memos. They're the ones who are demanding time to meet with supervisors. And they all have hidden agendas that are relevant to their personality disorders.”

Your response to a problem co-worker can also be a sign of trouble, Dr. Lavender says.

“The first key is that you kind of become obsessed with this person. You start thinking about them night and day. They're in your dreams,” he says.

“I think the second thing is — and this is the almost magical quality these people have — they bring out feelings in you that you've never had before and that are very uncharacteristic of you.

“There are certain people that bring out the desire in people around them to beat these people up. So here you are, a peaceful kind of person and you are very charitable and loving and giving and you're talking to this person and getting nowhere and all of a sudden you want to hit them. You begin to feel horrible about yourself. How can I have these thoughts?”

Keys to coping

Personality-disordered people aren't going to change, Dr. Cavaiola says, so the key to to coping is to change the way you respond to them.

If you're dealing with a borderline or histrionic personality, don't respond to their dramatic stories or pleas for help, he says. If you're dealing with a psychopath, stay out of their way or risk becoming a target.

And, looking on the bright side, personality disorders are well-suited to certain jobs, provided there's little stress involved.

People with schizoidal tendencies — a disinterest in interacting with others and the inability to negotiate daily “give and take” activities — work very well with machinery and technology.

Perfectionism, provided it's not carried to extremes, can be a good trait in accountants or engineers.

And some psychopaths, with their “win at all costs” attitude and abundant charm, might make great salespeople, as long as they're not prone to violence, say both Drs. Lavender and Cavaiola.

But jokes about used-car salesmen aside, there's a potential for tragedy where “toxic” co-workers dwell. Drs. Cavaiola and Lavender point to workplace shootings and other incidents of violence, as well as the scandals that arise when executives are caught stealing from the company.

Human resources directors know there are problem employees out among the cubicle-dwellers and in the corner offices, but too few employers either screen for or try to remedy the headaches that personality-disordered workers can cause, Dr. Lavender and Cavaiola say.

Background checks can provide good clues, they say, although smaller employers might not be able to afford them. Employers should also ask potential employees lots of “how” questions about interactions with co-workers and customers: How would you handle this situation?

And letting the candidate's peers meet with him or her during interviews also can provide some idea of how he'll fit in with the group, they say.



Cast of toxic characters

Everyone who works has had an unpleasant experience with a co-worker, but is that co-worker having a bad day or really disturbed? A new book — Toxic Coworkers/How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job — says these are the people you should worry about when you see them around the office water cooler:

Mr. Schizoid: Potentially lethal, he is the co-worker most likely to poison the office water cooler, especially if someone's made him mad. If he were to poison the water cooler, he wouldn't stop there because he really, really doesn't like people.

Mr. Anti-Social: Also potentially lethal, he could poison the office water cooler — but he would blame whoever doesn't die for the incident. He will sabotage your computer, files, car — whatever. Otherwise, he's a very charming guy, a great salesman.

Mrs. Histrionic: The drama queen isn't a threat, but if the water cooler is poisoned, she will rattle off a dramatic account of the time at her last job where she almost died after a jealous co-worker tried to kill her by sprinkling the Monday morning doughnuts box with rat poison. She might try to fake a poison-induced seizure.

Mr. Narcissist: Unbelievably self-centered, you don't have to worry that he might poison the water cooler. But he won't care if anyone dies drinking the stuff unless the incident makes him miss his lunch hour. Then he'd really complain.

Mrs. Obsessive Compulsive: She won't drink from the water cooler — too much time wasted. If someone poisons it, she will complain that the casualties are going to contribute to missed deadlines.

Miss Dependent: She won't poison the water cooler, unless you want her to. She will carry the sick and injured to the paramedics.

Mr. Borderline: Love him or hate him — maybe at the same time, he's the guy who will blow up at the office manager for not ordering the right kind of water in the office cooler. He wouldn't poison the water, but he'll throw enough tantrums to make some co-workers wish they were already dead. Or schizoid.

Mrs. Passive Aggressive: She won't poison the water cooler — that's too overt. If someone did poison it, however, she might re-arrange the furniture so the paramedics can't get through, especially if she's mad at the boss.

Mr. Avoidant: He wouldn't poison the water cooler, because it's wrong. Very, very shy, he won't even stop at the water cooler, because he might have to talk to someone, and he might say the wrong thing or maybe he'd spill something, and then he'd be embarrassed.

Ms. Paranoid: She's not likely to poison the water cooler, but she's she's pretty sure she's the target.


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