Gone Toxic

Posted by jlubans on March 14, 2016

Caption: Homer, like Bob below, goes toxic.

A good friend - yet in harness, or durance vile, as it might be termed in his place of employment - sent me an article about toxicity in the workplace.
Since I’ve written about the “Insecure boss”* - an elevated toxic worker - I was especially interested to see how closely my toxic boss definition would match that provided for the study’s toxic worker.
I locate the “Radioactive Boss” along two axes, competence and security. This boss has “high competence” but “high insecurity”, a toxic mix.
In contrast my Best Boss is highly competent and highly secure in herself; there’s nothing petty or small minded in this leader!
The referred to study, involving 50,000 workers, offers up a rather pragmatic definition: “a toxic worker is defined as a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.” That ranges from the chronic whiner to the saboteur.
While I have come up against a fairly wide array of toxic workers, I tend to focus on those less lethal to the organization. For example, I use several case studies for teaching the how-to’s of constructive feedback. The students create a skit that confronts a peer’s negative behavior, like toxic Bob:
“Bob is a friend of yours in a large organization. You have known each other for several years. Bob has recently become a complainer with nothing good to say about the boss. While you are not happy with the leadership, you value your objective and professional attitude. You do not want to be a contributor to a prevalent “culture of complaint”. You enjoy Bob’s company but do not want to engage in gossip about how stupid the boss is or the intrigues in the executive suite. What do you say to get the message across and avoid becoming toxic yourself?”
Unlike the simple example of Bob’s oozing discontent, the Harvard study puts a microscope to toxicity and offers us four points for consideration:
First, a toxic worker isn't necessarily a lazy worker.
In my experience, they can be productive, but their productivity is not always at doing what is most needed by an organization. If the ship is sinking, they’re on deck re-arranging the deck chairs.
Second, toxic workers are selfish. No surprise there, but the study puts a number to it; toxic workers have high "self-regard" and a lower degree of "other-regardingness."
Third, “the toxic employee also has an tendency to be overconfident of his or her own abilities — a trait believed to lead to unreasonable risk-taking.” That’s a curious finding; besides a stockbroker making losing bets in the stock market, I can see where overconfidence could lead to an unwavering commitment to a bad policy.
Finally, and counter intuitively, the toxic workers in this study followed the rules to an extreme. As I thought about this, it began to make sense. There are rules that one needs to be flexible about, some are meant to be broken; others to be kept.
My students engage in an activity on the first day of class, the Book Chain. It has several quality rules, which the group is to apply when transporting the “books” from one place to another.
Caption: Delivering the goods, rules be damned.

Predictably, as the students get caught up in reaching their service goal they break rules. When I point out the rule breaking, they invariably declare that making their service goal of delivering X number of books trumps keeping to the rules, “What’s the harm,” they ask.
Very likely, a toxic worker would halt the book chain – rules are being broken! – and deny the organization’s success. Too many bureaucrats excel at rule enforcement, and are indeed rewarded by the organization for a feigned “quality control”. I worried about people like that in my former jobs – their rule enforcement was more about resisting change than being ultra ethical - but I have few worries about students who have the good sense to break arbitrary rules to achieve goals.

*Chapter 12 in Leading from the MIddle: “’I’ll Ask the Questions’: The Insecure Boss”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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