Taking the Toxin out of your Environment by Ron Cacioppe

Almost everyone has worked with a toxic personality, in fact, according to a recent study by US Professors Mitch Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, 94 per cent of us have worked with one.

Toxic people are sarcastic, manipulative and egocentric and display a range of other counterproductive behaviours while surviving and even prospering in organisations. They affect colleagues and managers’ morale and debilitate an organisation's productivity. As one person in the study by Kusy and Holloway said - "The day this person left our company is considered an annual holiday."

According to Kusy and Holloway there are three types of toxic behaviours: shaming, passive hostility and team sabotage and these behaviours are often subtle and habitual. A toxic person can be a manager or senior professional and can quickly infect staff confidence, team cohesion, organisational culture, and individual well-being. High turnover and absenteeism are often the collateral damage of such behaviour.

The toxic individual affects profit at both a financial and human level. The cost of recruiting a new person ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 times the person's annual salary, so the financial impact of toxic behaviour is significant. On top of this is the human cost, which includes loss of morale and commitment and an increase in stress.

The study showed the following harmful effects for individuals and organisations:

• 50 per cent of people contemplated leaving their jobs; 12 per cent did!
• 25 per cent of "victims" of toxic behaviour ceased doing things voluntarily.
• 20 per cent reduced their rate of work.
• 10 per cent deliberately cut back the amount of time they spent at work

Recognition of a toxic personality is often made difficult due to the role of a protector – a person within the organisation or team that deliberately covers for the toxic person because they receive something in return.

Other protectors may be trying to protect their teams from the debilitating effects of the person's behaviour and inadvertently enable the toxicity to continue unabated. Realising you are a protector of toxic personalities is a positive step and can be a major awakening for some people.

According to Kusy and Holloways’ study, many organisations misdiagnose the correct treatment for a toxic personality. A manager’s typical reaction is to avoid the toxic personality, reconfigure the team, or give performance feedback but the most common strategy of one-on-one feedback is largely ineffective because toxic individuals are unaware of the negative effect they have on others or simply feel justified in treating others badly.
There are, however a number of effective systematic approaches at an individual, team and organisational level to prevent the spread of toxicity:

Individual strategies include specific feedback, coaching, use of formal authority and even a process of termination that is fair.

Team strategies include selecting people based on suitable interpersonal skills and personality factors such as cooperativeness, listening and emotional stability. Other strategies include implementing organisational and team values into the team operation, 360-degree team assessment systems, innovative use of exit interviews and identifying "toxic protectors".

Organisational strategies include organisation-wide implementation of concrete values that result in respectful engagement, integration of values into existing performance systems and encourage people to go above their managers if toxic behaviour is not being managed effectively.

A number of organisations have implemented these actions at the individual, team and organisational levels to reduce the probability of a toxic person entering the organisation and to create cultures of respectful engagement based on the Kusy and Holloway’s recommended actions.

Professors Kusy and Holloways’ book Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power outlines their study and recommended actions to manage toxic personalities in the workplace. They will be presenting a ½ day seminar at the Perth Conference Exhibition Centre on July 9th. For further details contact Integral Development on (08) 9242 8122.

* As published in WA Business News, June 24, 2010

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