How One Toxic Person Can Destroy Company Culture

toxic photo - poison

I saw someone once write on a social media post: as an employer, it’s hard to find someone who actually wants to work. No matter how much you praise them or do nice things for them they aren’t loyal to you in the end.

When I first read their comment, I cringed. As an employee, I wouldn’t want to work for someone with that type of mindset because I believe it sets them up for failure as an employer. If my employer believes I will not be loyal to them, no matter what they do, it makes me think they won’t do anything out of the ordinary to keep me around, which makes me feel less loyal to them. But, from an employer perspective, if you feel like you’ve been good to your employees and they leave anyway, how could you not feel this way?

On the other hand, as an employee, why is it so easy to remember the bad things (the bad bosses, the bad work situations, etc.) and so hard to focus on any of the good (or even okay) things?

frustrated

What if I told you there is scientific evidence backing up why our brains focus on the negative aspects of employment more than the positive? By no means is this breaking news; in an article published in 2001, titled “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” researchers describe how humans and other animals may be evolutionarily wired to react this way:

From our perspective, it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes.

stacked papersTo make a point, the authors reviewed over 230 studies on the following topics: relationships, emotions, learning, neurological processes, child development, social support, information processing, memory, stereotypes, forming impressions, self-concept, feedback, and health to name a few.

The consistent factor between these 230+ studies revealed the impact of bad things is significantly worse than the power of good things. In other words: when one bad thing happens, five good things must happen to counteract the bad thing.

happy night - umbrella with lightsThe research suggests our desire to get out of a bad mood is stronger than our desire to get into a good one. Bad interactions, ones that feel unfriendly or conflictual, are interpreted in a stronger way. These bad interactions have bigger effects than equally friendly, nice, or harmonious ones. Thus, the bulk of our emotion regulation is directed at escaping from bad moods and negative emotions because bad moods and negative emotions have a stronger effect than good ones.

How does this apply to employees, bosses, managers, and organizations?

crazy papers flying

One bad apple can ruin it all. Bad things like negative emotions, abuse, dysfunctional acts (like intentionally slacking off), hostility, destructive relationships, and incompetence can ruin organizations striving to incorporate civility, competence, effort, and other kinds of “goodness” into their environment and culture. What can we do about this?

Employees:

As an employee, we must try to focus on the positive. Increasing our number of positive interactions will help us defeat the negative interactions. The researchers suggested it is possible for good to triumph over bad by sheer numbers. Many good events (at least five) can overcome the psychological effects of a single bad event.

happy gratefulUsing techniques from positive psychology, such as expressing gratitude can help us focus on positive interactions and experiences. Remember: a little kindness goes a long way.

We must also be self-aware. When employees are not self-aware, conflict in the workplace can be toxic and destructive. We need to take a conscious look at how we express ourselves at work and how we interact with others.

QuestionMost of the time, conflict is based on some underlying fear and is an issue of interpersonal, psycho-emotional dynamics. If we are self-aware, we can ask ourselves why we react a certain way, and if this reaction is supportive or limiting to our team, department, and organization. If we are honest with ourselves, this self-awareness and insight will allow us to view and improve the way we communicate and interact with others.

When we are self-aware, and those we work with are self-aware, workplace conflict can be minimal and constructive.

Bosses, managers, and organizations:

As someone in a leadership or management position, we must try to overpower the bad with good. This involves expressing gratitude to our employees on a regular basis and constantly assessing and evaluating our employees’ level of engagement.

When it comes to stopping a bad apple or a toxic employee, the first obvious thing to do is not hire them in the first place. However, this can be hard to do even with multiple rounds of interviews.

guard & protect

Dr. Robert Sutton gives a few suggestions on how we can defeat the toxicity in his article, “How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything.”

  • Screen employees in realistic job conditions. Bring candidates in for a day or two and give them a short job to accomplish. Watch not only their technical skills, but also their personality. How do they deal with setbacks? Do they know when to ask for help and to give others help? Is the candidate the kind of person they want to work with? Candidates with interpersonal weaknesses may be screened out using this process.
  • The best organizations make explicit their intolerance for bad apples; they spell out which behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and act decisively to prevent and halt them.
  • There are times, of course, when an organization can’t—or won’t—remove a destructive personality. Maybe the person is a star as well as a bad apple, for instance, or is otherwise crucial to the operation. In such cases, leaders might try to use coaching, warnings and incentives to curb the toxic employee’s behavior. Another tactic is to physically isolate the bad apple.
  • Beware: Leaders who believe destructive superstars are “too important” to fire often underestimate the damage they can do.

Connecting the dots - 2
Connecting the Dots

Scientific evidence shows we are wired to focus on the bad instead of the good, which is why it is so easy for one toxic person to ruin a company’s attempt at instilling and promoting a culture of engagement.

From an individual standpoint, we should try to consciously focus on the positive and increase our self-awareness. From a managerial or organizational perspective, we need to openly value our employees and we should not tolerate toxic behavior. We need to clearly spell out unacceptable behaviors and their consequences, and we need to be willing to fight the bad so we may protect our employees from its destructive properties.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post! If you’re looking for ways to increase your organization’s level of employee engagement, please review my services here and contact me here.

This was originally posted on LinkedIn on November 9th, 2017. See the full post here.