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HR Edge Magazine Interviews Dr Mitchell Kusy and Dr Elizabeth Holloway

toxic

HR EDGE: In your extremely insightful book, you expose the dynamics of the toxic workplace and provide practitioners with clear guidance on how to deal with this serious problem. The book’s rich observations stem from the exhaustive research you conducted with over 400 business leaders, many from the Fortune 500 List.

I am curious as to how you managed to get so many business leaders to “open up” to you about the “dark side” of their workplaces?

Dr. Holloway: Interestingly, these leaders were more than willing and prepared to share their stories. Many had never talked about it before. For most, I think the interviews we conducted were cathartic. Leaders also are genuinely interested in understanding how to better deal with these kinds of individuals. We know that toxic individuals can cost the company substantially in both human and financial terms. Leaders understandably want solutions.

Dr. Kusy: It came as a complete surprise to us that 94% of the respondents in our research reported they had worked with or were currently working with a toxic person. So far, most solutions have been short-sighted— simply firing the person without attention to the effect the toxicity has had on the team, the culture, and the leaders. The fact is, a toxic personality can infect a whole team and potentially bring down a company.

HR EDGE: In your experience, how well does the “average” person cope with a toxic colleague or a toxic boss at work?

Dr. Kusy: Although much has been written about the more serious types of personal impairment, such as alcoholism, mental illness, physical aggression, and sexual harassment, the toxic effects of incivility in the workplace are only now being unveiled. People can’t sleep, they get sick, their relationships suffer, and they lose the enjoyment of going to work.

Dr. Holloway: The additional danger is that a toxic personality spreads like a virus. Once you have one person who is toxic, other people start to behave badly because they are in survival mode. And once you have a culture of nastiness, then it isn’t automatically going to revert back to everyone feeling good. Incivility—backstabbing, gossip, angry outbursts, condescension, and sabotage can quickly become the norm of operations and with that come costly losses in reputation and productivity.

HR EDGE: It’s a potentially devastating issue—both to the organization and to the individual—and yet we all know that toxic workplaces persist. For organizations seeking to take action, how difficult is it to identify toxic behavior?

It seems like a very broad concept. Does it include things like harassment and bullying?

Dr. Holloway: In general, toxic individuals are those who exhibit counterproductive work behaviors that can debilitate individuals, teams, and even entire organizations. Our research indicates that toxic behaviour can fall below the threshold of bullying or harassing. Toxic behaviors are actually harder for an employer to address formally through a disciplinary process. In fact, one of the key challenges of dealing with toxic behavior is that, ironically, it can slip under the “radar” even though it often exacts a huge toll on employees and corporate profits.

Dr. Kusy: In our research, we discovered three primary categories of toxic behaviors that often fall outside of any written corporate policy. The first is what we refer to as “shaming”. This includes the use of humiliation, sarcasm, potshots, or mistake-pointing with the intent of reducing another’s self-worth. The second kind of toxic behavior is “passive hostility” which involves the use of passive-aggressive behavior with the intent of directing one’s anger inappropriately. The third kind is “team sabotage” or meddling with the intent of either establishing a negative power base or making the team less productive.

Dr. Holloway: Surprisingly, while these three behaviors can make work life intolerable, only about 1 percent to 6 percent of victims ever report these behaviors. Toxic employees can gnaw away at their colleagues on an ongoing basis. Yet the target(s) can rarely point a finger to exactly what happened in any particular instance. And when bad behavior stems from the boss, finger pointing may be even less likely. The reality is that toxic people have a predilection toward behaving badly, and when you have people in authority, who work in a team, and they are allowed to be condescending—and they get away with it—their colleagues often feel silenced.

HR EDGE: Your research points out that most organizations have gone about battling toxic behaviour in the “wrong way”? How so?

Dr. Kusy: In our research, we were interested in how leaders and their teams reacted to the presence of toxic behaviors. Often leaders try to minimize team interactions with the toxic individual, restructure the environment, or remove responsibilities from the toxic individual. In the cases we examined, none of these strategies proved very effective; each was time-consuming, reactive, and left a fragmented team in its wake.

Dr. Holloway: Yes, the typical organizational responses were short-sighted and ineffective. In most situations, we found that everything was directed toward avoiding the influence of the toxic individual. Much of the team’s energies may be drained in efforts to manage this person.  You can see the damaging effects such reactions have on a fully functioning and efficient team. Not only are good team members leaving but the functional communication or decision-making path also breaks down.

HR EDGE: Your book was among the first to identify the underlying systems issues that enable toxic individuals to persist. You identify important supporters of the toxic individual—can you tell us about them?

Dr. Kusy: Toxic systems are particularly resistant to change and are often tolerated for years. In our research, we discovered two roles that create such a toxic system: the “toxic protector” and the “toxic buffer.” The toxic protector is the person who unwittingly permits the toxic behaviour to continue. Toxic protectors feel compelled to protect the toxic person from negative reviews or termination because they have a special interest in keeping them as a part of their team, often because the toxic person is highly productive or has a special expertise. Toxic protectors typically don’t realize that they are putting the team in jeopardy.

Dr. Holloway: Unlike toxic protectors, the “toxic buffer” seems to have a different motivation. Buffers actually recognize that the toxic employee’s behavior is detrimental to team functioning. However, they feel that the solution is  to serve as a shield or buffer between the toxic person and  team members. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, the buffer is actually enabling the toxic employee to get away with bad behavior. While trying to absorb the toxicity, the buffer will often become emotionally damaged in the process and unwittingly assists in a downward team spiral—a dysfunctional pattern of communication and authority in the team. In this way, both toxic protectors and toxic buffers actually facilitate the enactment of a culture of incivility.

HR EDGE: You identify three levels of strategy to combat toxic behaviour. Can you briefly tell us about the aim of this approach and how it succeeds where traditional approaches have failed?

Dr. Kusy: Our view is that to effectively address this problem, actions need to occur on three levels: the organization, the team, and the individual. We refer to this as the Toxic Organization Change System (TOCS). For example, a  the organizational level we need to understand what values exist and are being practiced. Most organizations have stated values. But how pronounced are they in your organization? Is one of these values about respect? If not, you have some work to do. First, you’ll need to make sure the value of respect (or however you term this value) gets incorporated into a code of professional conduct. Ultimately, this code gets rolled into an organizational policy. It becomes your mantra in creating a culture of respectful engagement. It’s not just a nice-to-do; it turns out to have  important impacts on the human and financial bottom line.

Dr. Holloway: Part of the large-scale design of the professional conduct code is the establishment of a zero tolerance policy. This policy is important because it provides the context not only for how we live by these values but also for what happens when they are breached. Certainly, due process procedures must be followed when the situation is serious enough to warrant dismissal. However, there are many intermediary actions that can be taken by leaders to turn a culture of disrespect around.

HR EDGE: In your experience, how common is it for organizations to integrate a values-based approach with management processes?

Dr. Kusy: What we have found is that most organizations do not have values integrated into their management process. So that is another reason why toxic cultures won’t get better quickly. For example, we favour a situation where there is a 60-40 split when it comes to performance reviews. This means 60 per cent of the reward is based on task work, and 40 per cent on the values work. But in most organizations, it is 90 to 100 per cent based on task work. If the values really mean so much within an organization then they need to put their money where their mouths are.

Dr. Holloway: If you change the culture by changing the criteria for the performance appraisal to include things such as interpersonal behaviour, then you can start to change some of those unwanted behaviours. Performance management processes are not simply a mandate to monitor and reprimand but a real opportunity to reward interpersonally effective behaviors that uphold your values.


Dr Mitchell Kusy, a Fulbright Scholar in International Organisation Development and Professor at Antioch University, Doctoral Program in Leadership & Change, was head of leadership development for American Express and director of organisation development at HealthPartners. Author of several business books, including “Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power”, he consults in strategic planning, organisation development, and the design of organisational communities of respectful engagement.

Ron Cacioppe

Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development and holds a BSc, an MBA and a PhD. He has taught in the Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

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