Management Real change is hard

A Toxic Paradox

Everyone is an adjustment. When you’re interacting with anyone, you leave the core you and become slightly them. This is not a betrayal of who you are, this is the middle ground we define between any two people. It’s a place of compromise so we can communicate.

There are those people with whom this is an easy, natural place to reach. It’s that friend that you haven’t seen or heard from in six months, and the 12 seconds it takes for both of you to get back into a familiar place where the six months vanish. It’s the easy now.

Then there are those people who are more work. They require a protocol of context setting, translation, and cautious check-ins. Hi, I said this, is this what you heard? Ok, good. This set of abilities, of communication skills, is more work and is a skill you refine over the years. It is a requirement of seasoned managers who are constantly thrown into meetings with strangers where they need to move quickly and efficiently past the “getting to know you” phase and into the “we’ve got work to do” portion of the meeting.

My guess is the majority of our relationships fall into the either the natural or slightly-more-work buckets. The majority of the folks you surround yourself with both inside and outside of work are manageable. Not all are natural, so they are work, but you can live with them and are willing to do the work to maintain the relationships.

Then, there are those you can’t handle. These are the folks who, for reasons you may never understand, behave in a way that you’ll never grasp, can’t define, nor will ever like.

These people are toxic.

Big Fat Toxic Assumptions

This article is going to end with someone getting fired and it makes two large, uncomfortable assumptions.

First, as I explain the serious issues with toxic co-workers, I need to remind you that when it comes to disconnects between two people that there are always two vastly different stories regarding perceived toxicity. If I were to say that Veronica had a toxic personality, you would do well to spend some time with Veronica and see what her perception was of me. While I might have done as much due diligence as possible to examine every possible personality angle regarding Veronica, there would still be essential data to be gathered directly from her.

A declaration of toxicity is a judgement. Sometimes defined by a group, sometimes spearheaded by an influential individual who simply cannot find a healthy way to relate to this person, but regardless, never trust a toxicity label without doing your own research.

Second, this article isn’t about fixing the problem; this article assumes you’re done. You’re done trying to bridge the gap between you and this toxic person. If you’re a manager, this is hopefully the end result of months of careful negotiating, delicate compromise, and hardcore communication.

There are entire parts of your organization dedicated to providing ideas and skills about how to interact better with anyone on your team and this article assumes you’ve employed all of them.

I’m not going to walk you through strategies for dealing with toxic people because you’re past that. This person is infecting the team with their toxicity and you’re vastly underestimating the daily damage this person is doing to the group.

This article is here to convince you it’s time to make a change.

Go Team!

A toxic person kills, and by kills I mean totally destroys teamwork.

Teamwork is one of those painful managementese buzzwords that is blindly used at inopportune times as a means of motivation. We need better teamwork to improve efficiency and productivity. Ew. I just threw up in my mouth. Fact is, teamwork — teams of people actually working together — is kind’a magical.

Listen, it takes all I can muster to get along with my brother who I’ve known my entire life, so the fact that a group of people sitting in close proximity to each other can build a product without killing each other is a fucking miracle.

It’s not actually a miracle. It’s years of practice, starting in elementary school where you learned the basics: raise your hand when you want to speak, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and don’t eat the glue. In school, you learn just as much about how to deal with different types of personalities as you do about the world, so when it comes time to jump into the workforce, you already have years of experience in social interactions with a variety of personalities.

However, all of these hand-raising, glue-free pleasantries barely prepare you for a toxic personality.

Let’s go back to the personality buckets I described above: natural, work, and toxic. Let’s say the cost of natural relationships is 1x. It’s the base unit. It’s no work, it’s simple. Let’s say that the work relationships are 2x. It requires twice as much effort on your part to bridge the communication and social gap. It’s not difficult. It’s just work. You reduce this cost as you gather more experience and as you get to know people a bit, but these relationships will never be totally natural. Fact of life.

A toxic relationship cannot be measured in terms of these work units because, at its core, it does not work. You never get to a state of comfortable communication in these relationships. They are never predictable, nor very productive, because you are in a constant state of social corrosion. There are brief moments of clarity where you have a lightning strike of insight: She’s this way because I said that and this is how she always reacts to that… so I won’t do that. Brilliant!

These moments of respite are short-lived. For reasons you may never understand, you are incapable of reverse engineering this personality, or your patterns of reaction to it, and it’s only a matter of time before you rediscover this basic disconnect and move back to thrashing around, trying to figure out the unknowable.

Yes, this is a worst case scenario.

Groups of people get along because they all subscribe to a similar culture. Yes, these people are all unique, but they get along because they have a similar belief system and buy into the same goals. This similarity of beliefs has a lot of benefit, but the biggest win is that it reduces organizational friction. There are heated arguments, but they are arguments based on similar beliefs and the presence of these beliefs means these arguments have a chance of resolution.

Now, think about your base interaction with this toxic person. You sit down in the conference room across from them and the topic at hand is easy, really cultural easy. “We’re discussing a small change to the architecture, and since you own a big part of it, I wanted to get your opinion.”

Reasonable. Professional. Respectful.

THIS ISN’T A SMALL CHANGE. YOU HAVEN’T THOUGHT THIS THROUGH. WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED EARLIER? HOW COULD WE CONSIDER THIS GIVEN WHAT I SAID 14 MONTHS AGO ON THIS VERY TOPIC WHEN I WAS IGNORED…

It’s a flood of incomprehensible toxicity. Now, inside of the flood is a bunch of historic fuck-ups on everyone’s part, but go back and read that previous paragraph. Are you seeing any of the content or are you seeing the toxicity?

Do the math. This is one meeting, and while you might pull off a meeting win when everyone’s calmed down, you’re spending the first 30 minutes of the meeting in ALL CAPS, and here’s the bad news: a majority of the team is having similar experiences. Most of the folks interacting with this person are spending their time trying to figure out how to keep this person from going ALL CAPS rather than actually getting work done.

After a time, this results in even more damage. People stop scheduling meetings with this person. They stop traveling to their part of the building and, again, I’m not talking about one or two people here, I’m talking about the majority of the team.

My definition of toxicity isn’t based on the idea that you are incapable of getting to a professional place with this person; it’s based on the idea that the culture of your group, your company, is literally rejecting this person. Everyone is avoiding this corrosive person and this avoidance is affecting productivity and morale across the board. It’s a daily emotional tax of frustration and demoralization.

A culture rarely changes for one person and in the case of a toxic person a culture will protect itself through rejection.

A Toxic Paradox

Rands, he’s just not getting along with the right people.

No.

This is not high school. I’m not talking about cliques here, I’m talking about culture. Cliques are inevitable micro-collections of people who like the look and sound of each other. Culture is the foundational broad strokes of beliefs, values, and goals in a group of people, and a healthy culture is inclusive. It seeks out new members who evolve the culture into something new and better. It’s constantly growing in interesting ways because of the people it’s built on.

A rejection by the culture, while not pleasant for anyone involved, is not a rejection based on individual taste, it’s not because someone doesn’t like someone else. It’s a rejection because of a lack of shared core beliefs. Vastly different personalities get along famously when they share a common goal.

Yes. People get petty and people dislike each other for seemingly inane, reasons, and yes, it’s a manager’s job, along with HR, to figure out how to build a constructive working relationship among these people, but this is not the situation I’m describing. I’m talking about trying to shove a toxic square peg in a cultural round hole. It doesn’t work. Keep pushing all you want, but… it’s not happening.

It’s hard to remember this when a toxic person is yelling at you, but they’re not actually yelling at you. They’re yelling at the culture. They’re pissed because their belief structure isn’t a fit with just about everyone else’s and they know it. They know that they’re not winning this argument… ever. They know that in order to win this argument, they’d need to restart the culture of the company and such an endeavor makes a re-org look like a walk in the park.

And, here’s the worst part, they might be right.

The history of the Silicon Valley is full of stories of toxic people who were, well, right. These people were physically removed from their respective companies, but their agenda, their ideas, however unpalatable to the existing cultural regime, were actually the right thing to do for that particular company.

The paradox is we often need these toxic people. We need these self-centered assholes to totally ignore cultural conventions and to mix things up beyond recognition. They don’t need social grace and they don’t need charisma. Both help, but their value lies in their intense belief in their own culture.

We need these folks, but it can’t be at the cost of the existing culture. Yes, this toxic person might have a core cultural contradictory belief that is key to the future of the business, but assess the risk. What if the cost of integrating that idea is half the team quitting because they can’t work with the idea’s toxic architect? Is that a viable solution?

No? Maybe?

The deportation of a toxic asset is a judgement call and it’s based on the fundamental idea that fitting in is easy, but real change is hard.

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43 Responses

  1. Anonymous Toxic Asset 7 years ago

    Ouch. I’m currently in the process of exiting a position where I’m pretty sure I’m the toxic asset. I have no idea whether I could have contributed anything paradigm-changing had the team been able to change enough to accommodate me, but six months of cold shoulder in a ten-month-old job have been enough to get message across to me.

  2. Tonky 7 years ago

    i think you got a typo: “affective productivity” should be “affecting productivity”

  3. ANONYMOUS TOXIC ASSET 2 7 years ago

    Another person who fears they may have been a toxic asset in a previous company.

    “THIS ISN’T A SMALL CHANGE. YOU HAVEN’T THOUGHT THIS THROUGH. WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED EARLIER? HOW COULD WE CONSIDER THIS GIVEN WHAT I SAID 14 MONTHS AGO ON THIS VERY TOPIC WHEN I WAS IGNORED…”

    Is this type of rant ever justified? I was the technical lead in a team and the project manager would repeatedly ignore my input and then I’d end up having a few diatribes like this. I’m still good friends with a few of the guys in the team and they seemed to be sad to see me leave (I quit) but I was accused by management of being “overly negative” and “bad for morale” before I did.

    Interested in anyone’s thoughts on this.

  4. If you have a toxic asset in your company and you’re not in a position to do anything about it, what can you do?

  5. You can mix things up without having toxic assets or “higher lifeforms” around. It starts with fostering constructive decent not keeping around the group blowhard.

    It’s not worth all the pain and suffering to cater to a toxic asset. They sap your entire group of their motivation to innovate. Keeping toxic assets around shows that it’s OK to be an asshole. This reinforces the wrong behavior. Pretty soon, more people start to act like assholes and then the group is in trouble.

  6. Possible toxic team member 7 years ago

    I have identified myself as this toxic asset in my current company. So 8 months ago I decided to quit and rather search for a team whom will appreciate my inputs (I know such exist for me because I have had numerous successfull teams before this one). Strange thing is that our management asked me to stay on – and I must say that things are progressing since this. Strangely though the team members whom made me feel toxic now seem to be the toxic ones of the new group that has formed. This shit is a never ending circle and it seems someone has to go to make it work. In future I will simply take it as it goes… I either fit in or I don’t and quit if there is no management support.

  7. Possible toxic team member 7 years ago

    I have identified myself as this toxic asset in my current company. So 8 months ago I decided to quit and rather search for a team whom will appreciate my inputs (I know such exist for me because I have had numerous successfull teams before this one). Strange thing is that our management asked me to stay on – and I must say that things are progressing since this. Strangely though the team members whom made me feel toxic now seem to be the toxic ones of the new group that has formed. This shit is a never ending circle and it seems someone has to go to make it work. In future I will simply take it as it goes… I either fit in or I don’t and quit if there is no management support (not that the intent is to hurt anyone, but I do want to live a life where my work has impact).

  8. While I was reading your article, I wondered if the toxic asset was me, or my boss. Until I got to the “rant,” that is. Now I know: it was me. But like others who have commented here, my feeling is exactly the same. I had these emotions and these outbursts because I was _constantly_ marginalized. I was always asked for my opinion, sure, but then the project always went the opposite direction. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was doing. I had already been doing what it was I was supposed to be doing, successfully, for many years before being transferred to that project.

    To his credit, my boss dealt with me professionally. Most of the time, that is. But because he had to route around me, it frequently wound up feeling personal, and sometimes it got pretty strained. A divestiture cleared up the problem for me, though I was still getting stabbed in the back during the process, and I’ve since left that whole company for someplace that values my input, treats me like I know what I’m doing, and allows me the freedom to accomplish the _goal_ by the _means_ I find suitable. In retrospect, I realize now that my toxicity was, indeed, as you say, deeply ingrained, and would never have been solved by “understanding” or “teamwork.”

    Though I liked my boss very much, personally, he was a conniving scoundrel when it came to office politics, and getting favor for our project. That was anethma to me, and I could never have been comfortable with all the slander and truth-twisting he employed to be successful. My only option was to leave, and I tried for years. It was only after the problem resolved itself that the doors swung wide open and I got a great new job. The whole story has a deeply spiritual meaning for me, but that’s another story. 😉

  9. “…keep this person from going ALL CAPS…”

    I love that! I can be sure I’ll be using that term in the future, to good effect…

  10. Tom Cole 7 years ago

    It’s probably worth noting that I don’t think the idea of “toxic asset” necessarily needs to have a judgement associated with it – the point is that some personalities don’t fit a given culture, period

    The comments indicate instances where someone thinks they are the TA, i.e. the outlier in the culture. Sometimes that’s because an individual is a great contributor to a culture that doesn’t value it, and sometimes the TA is a poor contribution to an otherwise productive team.

    All of these are points of view – for the most part, culture is neither good or bad, it simply is. The successful ones are productive, the rest fade away or reform.

    Recognizing when you are the TA and need to find a culture that is a better fit seems like a really valuable professional (and maybe life) skill, just as managing a culture requires recognizing an unsolvable TA problem.

  11. Lead May Be Toxic 7 years ago

    THIS ISN’T A SMALL CHANGE. YOU HAVEN’T THOUGHT THIS THROUGH. WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED EARLIER? HOW COULD WE CONSIDER THIS GIVEN WHAT I SAID 14 MONTHS AGO ON THIS VERY TOPIC WHEN I WAS IGNORED…

    Maaaaan, I can’t tell you the number of times I gave that speech to my PM – both as a lowly engineer, then as the software lead and jr. architect. 4 years of that shit, no kidding.

    But the thing is … all the engineers gave the PM that speech. It wasn’t just me.

    It seems to me that in my case, the PM was actually the toxic individual – not me or the other engineers. Granted, he never did the freak out I quoted above – but between self-imposed isolation and an absence of project-grok, the freak-out seemed to be the natural result of his cultural mores.

    Outside of meetings with him, the team planned around him. We settled on design, schedule, bug priorities, all with very little input from him. Our meetings with him were largely self-motivated for a CYA sign-off, and it was back to business. We largely resented his feedback, though we did our best to hear him out. Occasionally he had a point, but more often than not he got the freak-out (or a more PC “to hell with you – fix it if you’re so smart” reply) if he persisted.

    I left that situation at the beginning of this year. I regularly meet with my engineers whom I left behind. Most of them have or are planning for new employment.

    The engineers seemed to function culturally. It was when the PM got involved that all manner of dysfunction and fireworks occurred. So I can’t help thinking that it was the PM that was toxic, not me (or anyone else).

    But here’s the craziest of all crap, Rands. Toxic PM got promoted. There’s no justice!

    You ever seen a similar situation?

  12. Toxic ambiguity 7 years ago

    I left a company last year, and I’m still unclear on whether I was a toxic asset or the CEO was. The company continues to be successful without me, so that seems to indicate I was the one that couldn’t fit in. But when I was there, everybody was avoiding the CEO and working around him and creating schemes to avoid dealing with him until they absolutely required his signoff.

    Regardless, Rands makes a great point – there was a sufficient gap in worldview that I was never going to understand or like this person. The relationship was clearly toxic, and I’ve been much happier since moving on to another company where I fit in better.

    This was actually the second time in my career where I felt like there was a cultural disconnect between the management team and the employees, and tried to lead a cultural change as an employee. I failed both times, as pulling off a cultural transplant is extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) without management support. I’d love to hear Rands’s opinion on how he’d approach a situation where his boss is the toxic asset.

  13. Tom J. 7 years ago

    A “toxic asset” has to go.

    People can be toxic because they actually have vile, negative, blood-sucking personalities. Or they can be toxic because the rest of the organization is not prepared to deal with them and is repelling them. The first case is easy. The second is not, because it is easy to think that you “need the different viewpoint” (or whatever jargon you choose).

    However, once the person has gone from being challenging to being toxic, the damage is done.

    The fixing the organization to be able to get good from the next difficult person is worth doing, but for the current (toxic) guy it is too late.

  14. COMPANY MAY BE TOXIC 7 years ago

    I think I am in a situation where the company itself is toxic. I believe it is because of extremely poor hiring and retention practices. Why reward talent and results (requires constant vigilance to identify and cultivate) when you can simply reward length of service and political savvy (counting years is easy, and the butt-kissers come to you!)?

    All most all of the rock stars that I hold in high regard are gone, and I will be heading out next. I highly doubt the group will implode overnight if for no other reason than that the government is presently throwing money at their projects. Incompetence and failure are hard to spot in a sea of easy money.

  15. Read the No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton.

    Not sure why, but Asshole’s have a way of both being toxic and undermining a persons believe in themselves. I think that good managers create cultures where all ideas are valued.

    Assholes create cultures that continually put your personal believes against the companies believes. It is their ability to re-define what is ‘right’ that causes the issue.

  16. As I was reading this, I kept thinking… wow, I worked with lots of toxic people on my last gig… then I realized, “shit, I WAS the toxic one”. Only the rant in all caps never happened outside my head. Im pretty calm all the time, although I made myself heard when I thought it was needed.

    Now I’m in a new company (i quit the old one) and I dont feel like Im toxic anymore. These people have different culture, and I feel like my ideas are apreciated.

    Nice article, Rands.

  17. wibble without a pause 7 years ago

    I guess our board thought the CEO to be toxic when they fired him a few weeks back. Finally after a year of not being able to work with the new board chair it all happened over an afternoon and a morning.

    The only thing is, I’m not sure it was the CEO that was the TA. It might have been the Board Chair. After a career in politics she was mighty used to getting her own way on things. The CEO was an engineer and they don’t like things that look good unless they make sense.

    I’m not saying the CEO was all sweetness and light. He could be surly and grumpy at times but he didn’t sugar coat things, or lie to you. Unlike our Board Chair who told us he said he wanted “none of it”.

  18. Another toxic fool 7 years ago

    I have recognized myself as toxic. I wasn’t always such. Also, I am not justifying myself, as I know I should control my temper better. However, when I heard from 1000th time that I have to have something done by yesterday, and nothing I said or did helped to either move current deadline or the next one, I just gave up trying.

  19. COMPANY CULTURE - ASSHOLES OR MAVERICKS? 7 years ago

    The company I work for you is having some issues in this regard. Unlike some other companies I worked for, they are very relaxed when it comes to promoting professionalism. This creates a relaxed atmosphere but it also leaves plenty of room for abuse. It is not uncommon for people to go off in a rant using colorful language at meetings. Discussions that were supposed to be technical digress as emotions creep in. There are only a few people who are like this. I think in their minds they believe they are mavericks. But the damage is there for everybody to see. Cooperation has been reduced to a minimum. Some bugs are not even reported back simply because nobody wants to deal with these people. It is a shame.

  20. I’m always ignored, but I have too much sense to fly into any sort of tirade.

    I’d also say that they aren’t ‘toxic’ so much as ‘different’. You might talk of squares and circles or something, as you touched on briefly. They can’t live together, but if the balance of team-mates shifts from circle to square, as one commenter above had, suddenly the regular people become toxic and the toxic people become regular.

  21. that fitting in is easy, but real change is hard.

    What a conclusion.

  22. Great article!

    I think that you may be conflating two different types of people who don’t fit: the person whose culture is incompatible with the corporation’s, and the person who is incapable of working and playing well with others.

    For the first type, think of someone who worked for Intel for many years, then moved to HP. This person lived in a social-Darwinist, in-your-face culture where forceful–some might say obnoxious–argument was not only tolerated but expected. Drop this guy or gal into the more consensus-driven HP, and sparks are gonna fly (unless, of course, they left Intel because they couldn’t tolerate that culture). This is a bona fide culture clash that may or may not be fixable, but it’s usually worth some effort to try to resolve.

    The second type, the doesn’t-work-and-play-well-with-others person, is what I’d label toxic, at least in any environment where regular interaction with other people is part of the job. These folks tend to follow the 98/2 rule: 98% of them think that their skills are sufficiently valuable to preclude any need for social skills, whereas only 2% of them are actually that valuable. Some Silicon Valley firms collect this type of person the way kids collect baseball cards; they are miserable places to work.

  23. There is the flip-side to the Toxic Asset, which is the the Yogurt of the Gods. When a company is in flux, or about to go into flux, these personalities crop up. I happen to be that personality quite a bit, and can be a good force for change, or a seagull-like shit-dropper, and it all depends on if the culture is up for the change that they claim to want.

    I’ve worked at companies where we went from Mom-and-Pop-Shop to $25M-Enterprise in the course of 2 years. And people like me were the voice of reason (ragged, loud, obnoxious, yes, but still of reason) as the world was dramatically reshaped for the core team of people who had “been here forever”.

    It really is a judgement call on how the toxin is going to affect your team. Sometimes you need the toxin to heal a hurt that you can’t remove otherwise. Just like Chemo, it’s not pleasant, but it can be necessary.

  24. ALTERNATIVE VIEW 7 years ago

    What I see as a toxic asset, when well managed, is actually (as has already been observed) a good catalyst.

    I would add that this happens more when the Toxic asset in question is a little more mature and better at knowing when to “blow” and when to “suck”.

    A..

  25. Toxic assets? I’ve been one. But only because the boss was a toxic liability. He couldn’t handle confrontation, so he put everyone into individual silos, tried to handle the communication for the whole team, and agreed with everyone so they wouldn’t be rude to him. Needless to say, nobody was on the same page at any point in the project.

  26. Toxic assets? I’ve been one. But only because the boss was a toxic liability. He couldn’t handle confrontation, so he put everyone into individual silos, tried to handle the communication for the whole team, and agreed with everyone so they wouldn’t be rude to him. Needless to say, nobody was on the same page at any point in the project.

  27. Andomar 7 years ago

    Doesn’t firing someone make the person doing the firing a toxic asset?

  28. Klaatu 7 years ago

    Rands;

    Waht you said! I have been on both sides – working for a toxic supervisor and being a toxic worker (who was actually in the right). I think the best way to keep toxic workers out of the workplace is to be very careful to research that corporation you’re going to work for. You can smell them: high turnover rate, mainly hiring from the inside so basically everyone is quietly trying to stab each other in the back versus work as a team, a lack of scheduling, and a retarded operations (you’re overqualified but you always end up doing the tech’s job and the techs smell it and consider you on their level). In hindsight, I should have left that job before I was considered a toxic asset – it’s very demoralizing. The best part of it was that my old company had a Homeland Security contract, and I reported them to the GAO for wastefulness. it turned out the Justice Dept. did an audit and found that, yes, all that abovementioned crappy culture that produced toxicity wasted money. The Justice Department compared my old corporation to a government-run lab where they’re not allowed to get away with all that backbiting and back stabbing sh*t, and thus saving money. (HA!)

  29. As much as I like this article, I don’t think I quite buy it. Let me offer a friendly amendment to your framework. It’s more about relationships than individual personalities. It’s also more about returns than costs.

    My discomfort starts with your personality buckets and relationship “cost” math. The buckets you describe are about relationships, not personalities.

    The “good” relationships are those that both parties get more out of than they put into. If you want to use a mathematical metaphor, use an investment model, not a cost model. “Good” relationships produce a positive return with minimal, if any, upfront investment (you can discount these if you want to go all finance geek.) Good relationships are examples of “gains from trade.” It’s not zero sum. Both sides gain. “Work” relationships require an investment by at least one party, but eventually at least break even. “Toxic” relationships require some investment but never break even, and may not even ever generate any return, for at least one party (and often both). Toxic relationships are negative npv relationships.

    This explains why many of the above comments have the theme of “oh my god…I was the toxic asset…”

    It wasn’t you, it was the relationship. A toxic relationship is bad when it is between individuals. It is fatal when it’s between an individual and the corporate culture. No one can sustain giving more than they get over the long haul.

    This doesn’t mean that the person labeled as “the problem” in a toxic relationship was wrong. In fact, as you point out, they may be spot on, and important for the company. This happens all of the time in the finance world, when good projects are not undertaken because the green eyeshade types underestimate returns, misapprehend a proposed strategic initiative, or overvalue idle capital (wrong discount rate).

    Any way, thanks for floating this. I’m interested in reactions to this “friendly amendment.”

  30. @ANONYMOUS TOXIC ASSET 2

    Consider rephrasing so you state what you do want, instead of what you don’t want. If you only state others are wrong, they will perceive you as negative and demoralizing.

    If you show solutions instead of exposing problems, they will perceive you as visionary and encouraging.

    It’s easy to get into the habit of complaining and you might do well when you start, but it’s a trap. Everyone will quickly become tired of it.

  31. I don’t think I’m a toxic asset, but I’ve certainly played one at one or another company, if not on TV.

    If you have cancer, the right amount of toxicity can cure you — we call it chemotherapy. Without it, you’ll perish.

    The challenge, then, is to identify if a company has a “cancer” that might be cured by the toxic asset’s advice. Perhaps it is exactly because everyone else is getting along so well that the company is headed for doom.

    Many people get to the ALL CAPS state when they feel they are being ignored or bypassed — that their input isn’t valued. Do this enough, and anyone would become toxic. Sometimes the smartest folks lose ability to correctly pitch their idea in this state.

    The job for the manager is to recognize that his staff member isn’t just being an asshole — he’s just become so passionate about an idea that is being ignored that he’s incoherent. A great manager can look deep enough to see the value of the idea itself beyond the behavior of the messenger.

    Seems like this would be a great follow-up topic — recognizing cancer in your company, or recognizing value in the rantings of toxic assets.

  32. I’m most interested in the response posted above by “J David”.

    Whilst I do very much like the metaphor of toxicity, I think it would be well to develop the metaphor even further.

    I’m not a chemist, but I believe it’s true to say some toxic substances are synthesised from two or more non-toxic substances. It is not the constituent substances themselves which are toxic; it’s the specific combination of substances which causes a toxic reaction.

    In the same way, I don’t believe individuals can be toxic; rather it’s relationships between two specific individuals that can be toxic.

    In this case, the relationship between one ‘different’ individual and many other ‘in the culture’ individuals.

    I’m not making this point for reasons of political correctness, and I would have no qualms about calling something what it is. There are perhaps _people_ who are toxic: serial killers, rapists, fraudsters. But in general I think it’s very unhelpful to identify _people_ as toxic.

    I know the article wasn’t literally calling people ‘toxic’ – it was written in a far more nuanced way – but I do worry about some of the response comments that indicate people have interpreted it this way.

    We’ve all been in relationships where the woman has been branded “unfaithful” because she cheated, or the man has been branded “brute” because he was angry and insensitive. I’m convinced that in 90% of cases, people don’t want to act this way, but they have acquired a certain mentality to cope with the toxic _relationship_.

    Great article. Food for thought.

  33. Well every social group has it’s hirarchy. if you have a boss that ignores you all the time, you have to start to comunicate with the team and find out to whom your boss listens to. many ‘manager’ trust those most which they know best.

    also doing some social engeneerign (drinking coffee with the others … try to get to know them more) is also a good way to get your boss to listen more. (sometimes there is some asymetrie in the group in which the real leader is some alfa-male-engineer and the manager just does his bidding, you have to realize these sort of things)

  34. Rands do you have anything to say about causeless and unprovoked “toxicity” affecting the MAJORITY of a team of employees?

    I’m not talking about the toxicity of myself, being unable to relate to them. Perhaps _I_ am caustic to their group, but through no fault of my own, through no lack of trying, being courteous and respectful (and even complimentary for the sake of at least having some sort of positive conversation with them)?

    Ive studied long and hard whether or not I am a toxic person, but I do not go “all-caps”, and I do not mesh badly with any of their personalities. They simply dislike me for reasons beyond my ability to fathom.

    So, being barred the resource of good networking with my peers, I must make extra steps to ensure anything I do is even noticed or appreciated by PM’s and other project team members.

    I would otherwise even get along with their personalities, likes and dislikes were a preconceived notion not already stuck in their head about who or what I am.

    Should I just give up on trying to ingratiate myself with this vindictive, spiteful group of people?

  35. > Are you seeing any of the content or are you seeing the toxicity?

    To tell the truth… yeah I do, for one. The toxity itself is content, and the meaning of that content is that something is VERY wrong with the team culture. This is being told in the most direct way imaginable.

    Question is, are you actually able to handle the situation where local culture went a very wrong way ? Not to mention considering the possibility to begin with?

    Each time this happened in my case, all predicted screwups coming from team decisions actually happened. So you can’t just say that ‘that guy’ was wrong. To make things more clear, all the other members of the team were incapable of seeing these screwups coming because of sharing common groupthink with common blind spots. That warm feeling of being part of the team and sharing common groupthink has equal levels of blessing and a curse, and while it comforts the mind, it also brainwashes and reinforces blindness in certain places for the whole team.

    The team where everybody understands each other with half a word and does not let any outliers in could be as good as dead while not being aware of it.

    Does this all sounds toxic ? Could be. But that does not cancel out the content part, and that part is much more important.

    On the other hand (light sarcarm warning), if there is indeed no leader in the project who can handle toxic content, than that already disabled team won’t become much worse after removing the toxic/outlier person. Those folks could be greatest assets and provide insight into blind spots of the team, but you need to be able to handle them. Personally if necessary. Everybody who can spot your blind spots is important.

  36. One more note though: there are outliers who can essentially predict everything that the team is going to do, including the flow and outcomes of all meetings even before the idea to do those meetings is brought up. They know who will speak about what and why, even before the speakers know that themselves.

    This could end up pretty good in many ways, IF the manager is ready to handle it and the employee does not abuse that.

    But there are also not-yet-ready folks, perhaps just not familiar with the particular strain of culture, who just can’t process incoming information in the particular format used by the team.

    Last time I’ve been caught in the second type of position, it took me half a year after I’ve left the place to finish deciphering, processing and accepting what was actually happening there instead of what I thought was happening. Trying to do that on-the-job would deplete you resilience reserves pretty fast.

    Note that neither case has anything to do with belief systems, only with personal input/output processing and being able to predict from past expirience. Addressing belief systems directly is a whole different kind of animal.

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  38. Bistander to a Toxic Asset 6 years ago

    I’ve been separated from a company by someone that is a self-proclaimed asshole. After reading, I strongly consider sending hard copy of this article to the Owner (who is also the HR department), the PM, and the lead Sales guy. This is a very small company, and the one that is practically running the company for the Owner was also the self-proclaimed asshole. He openly states he is an asshole, everyone knows, and it was his prerogative to be an asshole. But I digress, the mock meeting in the article of ALL CAPS was so close to real life I had to read it twice before continuing on. I’m not software, but have been in the technology industry for a long enough time to know my way around a meeting and what’s acceptable behavior in an office.

    My experience in the real life meeting included the following players: myself, a install technician, the PM, and toxic man. Topic: discuss implementation options. Five minutes in, toxic man has switched to ALL CAPS and is berating the PM. This continues for almost 45 minutes, at which point he packs up and saying something to the effect of “Fuck this, I’m done” and leaves the meeting in a huff slamming the door to the conference room. The PM runs off to console toxic man and to convince him to return to the meeting. Original planned meeting length: 30 minutes. Total meeting time: almost 3 hours plus. All because someone couldn’t play well in the sandbox.

  39. Outing myself as a toxic asset 6 years ago

    Great article and interesting comments. I have learned from these comments that I will obviously have to leave this organisation, shame I have been here 11.5 years. It hasn’t always been this bad, until we go a new dept manager approx 2 years ago and he started to apply his version of company culture (and rewarded those below him who also held these views), things were OK. In actual fact only a matter of months prior the company was sold and I was paid a reasonable amount to stay with the company as I was considered to be a ‘valuable asset’. Now however, whenever my current manager gets the chance she offers me (very nicely of course) the chance to leave. How does that work??!!

    The deal is that the new manager does not understand the business and its a little like the ’emperor with no clothes’, no-one has either the balls or the intelligence to see that he is naked. I have given up being the toxic asset and have zipped my lip as I was threatened with performance management. Will put my resume out in the new year and see what happens. As I said, shame about that.

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  41. Anon Y. Mous 4 years ago

    Yep. I’ve been the toxic one. Twice. Funny thing about it though. I think I was most toxic… to myself.

    I let me own theories develop into an alternate “reality” of how I thought things should happen. With this developed, I plunged head-first into it and never poked my head out to consider alternative viewpoints. It took leaving a job twice for me to do some deep soul-searching and figure out what my problem was and what I could do about it.

    I am happy to say that luckily the first job was willing to take me back. The whole experience and its aftermath have given me a whole different outlook on life and I believe as a result has made me a much better contributor.

    Its sad that I had to put myself and my teammates through that whole experience to get to this point though.

  42. With all the “me too … I was one of those” confessions going on here, I feel I need to do the same.

    As with others commenting here, there was (still is … not long though) a cultural gap issue.

    I now realise that the reason why I have for some time obsessed about the issue is because the culture of the company I’m in is diametrically opposed to my belief system.

    The lesson I’ve learnt though is one of those universally accepted (albeit not so widely practiced) truths — don’t entertain a situation that clearly has no happy ending; get out of it as quickly as possible.

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  44. nugget 1 year ago

    Great article.

    I’ve been this toxic person. At my current company, actually.

    3 years or so ago, a new divisional manager took over my department. Apparently some of the upper management had read things about ‘User Experience’ and how important it was, and said, ‘Ok! Let’s get us a UX designer!’

    Unfortunately, they didn’t actually have much of a clue what a UX Designer does, or why. And so, of course, this wasn’t communicated to anyone else in the department.

    So in I come, all bouncy and shiny from years of working with people who actually know and welcome what I do. And no one in my new company knows. Most view me as some silly faddish creature imposed on them by the powers that be.

    The first 1.5 years were utter Hell.

    But they were also 1.5 years of very painful learning. Trying to communicate over and over again, in method after method, and failing. Doing my job the best I knew how, KNOWING that nothing I did, and nothing I specced stood a whelk’s chance in a supernova of being implemented.

    But at around year 1.5, things started to change. Slowly but surely. After soooooo many methods and so many tries, I found a method that finally communicated why I should be listened to. I proved that I wasn’t just a talking head, that I could create and deliver UI assets. I bribed people with a crapton of home-made food. ._.

    I won almost every single damn person in the department, ONE AT A TIME. There are still a few hold-outs, but I don’t need them all. I just need a critical mass.

    2.5 years later, my opinions are valued. The artefacts I produce are viewed as integral. What I spec tends to get done, and if it can’t or shouldn’t be done, people do me the courtesy of telling me early – then we work out a better solution from there.

    2.5 years later, I can finally do my job. It’s been really quite lovely, being able to effectively do my job since 2.5 years ago.

    The toxic person CAN win. It’s just that it usually isn’t worth their while.

    Why did I stay?

    Permanent Residency Visa.

    Do I feel any loyalty to the organisation? I’ll leave that one for you to guess. 😉