Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 10, 2018
At some point in our careers, nearly of all us will find ourselves working with bosses, direct reports or peers who lack ethics and integrity. These people are toxic and hinder the organization’s ability to achieve its objectives.
Toxic people will throw others who stand in their way under the proverbial bus for their own purpose of advancing through the organization at the expense of others. They will complain about others and talk behind their backs to undermine them.
Those who are toxic are not trusted by their peers or direct reports. The actions of everyone they work with have a defensive component, which hinders any group from becoming a high-performance team. Toxic people within the organization don’t realize that their personal integrity and reputation is a valuable asset. It determines if people want to deal with them.
Toxic people are good at managing up, so their behavior may not be transparent to their boss. Eventually, the boss learns about them and everyone hopes that sooner or later they will be terminated.
So, what do you do if:
You work for a toxic boss
Do your job and do it well. More than likely, you will not be permitted to make many decisions without the boss’s approval, so over-communicate to make sure you are both on the same page.
Ensure you are part of an informal network within your organization. It’s a source of mutual support on developing strategies to deal with toxic individuals.
You may decide to transfer to another position within the organization or the company. Or, you may decide to wait until your toxic boss leaves the company or is fired. You need to weigh your alternatives and decide on your personal course of action.
You work with a toxic peer
As in the case of working for a toxic boss, do your job and do it well, and develop informal alliances with others. They are a great source of information as to what your toxic peer is saying about you. Be on guard for criticism of your work behind your back.
Don’t play the same game as your toxic peer. Let your results speak to the quality of your work.
You have a toxic direct report
If one of your direct reports exhibits toxic behavior, that individual must be confronted and told to stop. They will deny the accusation. Expect them to be defensive. They need to know that if their behavior continues, they will part company with the organization.
How can you understand the interpersonal styles of the individuals that report to you? How can you tell if you have a toxic individual working for you?
As the leader, you need to periodically talk with those within your organization below your direct reports. Hold skip level meetings with them and ask how things are going and what they are working on. Ask questions for understanding, but never violate the chain of command by telling them what to do.
If the people within your organization trust you, they will tell you if there is a toxic individual within the organization. If one of your managers objects to you talking to their direct reports, it’s a dangerous sign they want to keep information from you.
The other way of obtaining information on your direct reports is through a 360-degree interview process, where information about an individual’s effectiveness is obtained through interviews with those within the organization with whom the individual interfaces.
There are those who say that 360 results should only be shared with the individual for personal performance improvement. I disagree. The results also should be used by the boss for a performance assessment.
You are a toxic individual
As a toxic individual, you need to realize that your behavior will not lead to sustainable success. Eventually you will be terminated, and your reputation ruined. No one will trust you nor want to work with you. There is a valuable adage, “never burn your bridges.” So true.
Rex Tillerson, former chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil and the former secretary of state under President Donald Trump, in his departure comments to employees of the U.S. State Department, stressed the importance of “honesty and integrity in all that you do.” Tillerson said, “Never lose sight of your most valuable asset, the most valuable asset that you possess – your personal integrity.”
He continued, “[Your integrity] … belongs to you, and [will] always … belong to you and you alone. Only you can relinquish it or allow it to be compromised. Once you’ve done so, it is very, very hard to regain it. So, guard it as the most precious thing you possess.”
Tillerson’s comments are an important message for all of us. Don’t do things that will damage or undermine your integrity or reputation. Aside from being the wrong thing to do, it’s just not worth it.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.