Have you ever come across the following quote in a social media post or elsewhere? ‘The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.’ I’ve read this posted online recently by various authors and noticed how quickly the language shifted from ‘worst behaviour’ to ‘worst people’. I also observed how the word ‘toxic’ began to appear in their commentary along with other adjectives like incorrigible, malicious and obnoxious. None of the posts’ authors – primarily people involved in leadership training and development – seemed to notice the transition from a conversation about behaviour to one about people’s fixed traits. What’s often missing in ‘toxic employee/manager’ conversations is any interest in how that person got to be that way. In this article, I explore the growing use of the ‘toxic’ label: its ineffectiveness and impact, what’s driving its use, and what you can do instead, especially if you want to foster a thriving team culture in your workplace.
What does toxic really mean?
The word ‘toxic’ has recognised status in some areas, like conversations about ‘toxic masculinity' or exposure to poison. However, that status is often being appropriated to validate the use of the word in other contexts, and the lack of calling out could be why it’s spreading. Are people concerned that responding to its misuse might have them being accused of going soft on serious matters like domestic violence?
Calling someone toxic, whether a manager or an employee, doesn’t even begin to unpack years of ineffective support and management when earlier versions of the person’s ‘worst behaviour’ were met with inadequate workplace responses. It also blames the individual and their personal qualities for their behaviour and ignores the history of the toxic behaviour rather than addressing critical factors that get to the heart of a matter such as:
- The skills and confidence managers need in order to have difficult conversations,
- Other personal barriers to effective engagement managers might have,
- The context of the individual’s behaviour, and
- The manager’s or organisation’s level of experience and understanding of what’s required to help staff ‘grow through’ the behaviour.
When a manager calls someone toxic, whether privately or worse, in front of others, the impact on the labelled person and everyone listening is shaped by their personal understanding of the term, a fact that the manager is usually neither present to nor being responsible about. The way people see the manager is also at risk, particularly if their labelling is considered derogatory or bullying.
Imagine if someone labelled toxic began to act in new, more productive ways? What would have happened to their so-called toxicity? If we can change our view of someone as toxic because their behaviour has changed, what value is there in calling someone toxic? Conversely, if ‘non-toxic’ people – the ones we generally have explanations or justifications for – can display ‘the worst behaviour’, why are we calling anyone toxic? Are people leaping from ‘the worst behaviour’ to toxicity, or is there a cluster of behaviours we don’t know how or don’t want to deal with?
If we, as leaders, started dividing the world into toxic and non-toxic people, we would end up with very few options to build an organisation, let alone a ‘non-toxic’ work culture. If calling someone toxic is a cover-up for our inability to admit that we don’t know how to respond effectively to toxic behaviour (or don’t care), what’s the cost to our organisation and employees?
Calling someone toxic displaces the need to be responsible for:
- Discovering what the individual in question is dealing with that makes their behaviour seem like a natural or appropriate reaction in their eyes. An employee displaying toxic behaviour needs a trusted relationship with someone who knows how to be present with them in what they are dealing with and has the necessary skills to help them dig deeper.
- Ensuring the right help is available. In my experience, this means personally-empowering organisational development through ontological coaching and coach training that helps people find the motivation and courage to develop ‘muscle’ in communication, ownership and responsibility.
- Working out what’s required to help the person be amenable to receiving support to change.
- Finding out if the person wants help from us.
- Asking ourselves if we have what it takes to help them.
If you need to ask for help from someone else, do you know enough about what to look for in a coach or trainer? That corporate coaching you had in your last management position might have been great for keeping you on target with your KPIs. But did it help you learn how to look at how you were being (with yourself and others), how to understand what would support you to manage and work with people more effectively, and how to deliver that learning to others within the organisation?
You don’t have to know everything and have all the right answers, but here’s a good place to start: as a leader, be committed to people’s growth and development, starting with yourself. And don’t fall into the trap of using labels for people, like ‘toxic’, which suggests they can’t change and causes more harm than good. Training effective managers for the future and building a sustainably healthy workplace culture requires you to know how to deal with what, at face value, looks like toxicity and understand that it is the behaviour that needs to be dealt with. There is no such thing as a toxic individual.