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.
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.
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?
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.