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Toxic Personalities: Part 2

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For Toxic Personalites Part 1 Click Here

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 ineffective because 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 behaviour 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.

More detailed information regarding our research and the systems approach to dealing with toxic personalities may be found in our book: Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (Jossey-Bass, 2009):


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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