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You do not have to work for a lunatic.

The difference between toxic co-workers and toxic people is that you can choose to not associate with toxic people. At some stage anyone in employment ends up working with, or for, a toxic co-worker.

When I write “toxic” I do not mean an under performer, the person who asks the same questions in meetings, or someone who is set in their ways and refuses to embrace any new ideas.

I am writing about people with diminished empathy and thin, brittle, self-esteem.

They could be your co-workers, they could be your manager, but they are common in large organisations and they will do you harm.

In an excellent article published in 2004, Harvard’s Dr. Roy Lubit, covers four types of toxic managers. Narcissistic, aggressive, rigid and impaired.

The thing about a toxic manager or a toxic VP is that they were once a toxic employee. The system failed to protect co-workers and subordinates from their rise and now those working alongside them or those working under them are subject to their atrocious, pitiless, self-aggrandising behaviour.

We will focus on the most dangerous as they tend to gather the most power over other people, narcissists. Narcissists love comparing head count sizes. It is a numbers game they can win at.

Narcissistic managers and co-workers only value the illusion of competence they show to superiors. Superiors are envied and despised by narcissists in equal measure. They envy the status and the perceived power but they despise the fact someone else has it.  

To the narcissist their greatest effort is making those above them believe they are talented. This is never the actual case but people who climb high in an organisation begin to believe their judgment is more accurate than it is and fail to look deeper.

The narcissist knows how to alter how they are perceived just enough that those who can grant them power believe they are making the right choice by giving it to them.

“Look at their track record. That they keep telling me about! And the empire building. That they always do at the expense of their peers! This person must be talented. Because they keep telling me how great a boss I am!”

Are you seeing true talent? Or, is there a group of talented employees, usually two, under the narcissist who are doing all the real work?

If you have ever sat in a meeting watching a narcissist present to an audience you may suffer a feeling of déjà vu had you previously sat through a presentation by one those acolytes who prop them up. Knowing where the work came from you will then find yourself looking deeper at the person.

How much credit do they keep coming back for?

When they promote an employee’s achievement are they perfectly placed to bask in its reflected glory?

What type of people have been leaving their organisation?

Do you know or care how the results they are showing were achieved?

Does the environment you work in reward narcissistic managers?

It could.

Some organisations promote sicknesses because they see themselves as “results oriented.” This is an excuse to hide the dysfunction everywhere else in the organisation which they cannot fix. That is not leadership. Leaders provide guidance, develop the talent of the company and foster collaboration across the organisation.

If you do not do any of that you are not a leader. I promise you that your followers are holding out for a better offer to come along.

As Lubit points out, if for any reason you challenge a narcissistic manager you had better be ready for a furious response. A challenge is ill advised if you are a sub-ordinate. Crushing you is a crushing a challenge to their fragile self-esteem. They will use every personal, political and procedural weapon at their disposal to make you suffer. Better to make yourself invisible and leave their organisation at the first opportunity.

If dealing with a narcissistic peer a challenge is somewhat risky what with all the trash talking they might do about you during and after the conflict. Keep an accurate account of how you both ended up at this point. The game of “your word against theirs” means you lose if their “word” means nothing to them.

If you are a superior to a narcissist it is your job to challenge them when required. You might not be able to prevent toxic people from getting into the company but you can limit the rise of those who are fatally flawed. You can prevent them from driving away truly talented people.

If you notice good people leaving at a rate higher than natural attrition you need to start your problem diagnosis at a leadership level and then drill down. Do not go looking to pin a problem on someone but do not fail to confront it if you find one.

It is better to start from a position of trust when dealing with people at work, unless someone has shown you not to trust them. It is not weakness to take people at their word until their actions show you that is a bad idea. If you put anyone under a light and look hard enough all of their flaws start to look immense but some flaws will destroy morale, impact productivity and ruin your business much more than others.

Be aware of those flaws. In yourself and in others.

To anyone stuck working under a narcissist and is suffering for it, leave and go work for a real leader. You might just do great things together.

(And without malice, be sure to tell your network of work friends what you saw when the mask of the toxic employee slipped. They will thank you for it. You might not be able to repair any organisational damage but you can help other people navigate around it.)

Workin'. Why you'll stay. Why you'll leave.

Why do you stay with your current employer?

Do you like the company its people and believe in its shared values? Would there be an economic cost to you if you left and went elsewhere? Does your place of employment just happen to be convenient for you at the moment?

Are you committed or are you involved?

Researching commitment, Dr. Natalie Allen and Dr. John P. Meyer analysed what they saw as three components of workplace commitment, a psychological state which binds an employee to an organisation. All three components might be present in every employee, it is the intensity of each component which decides the productivity outcome.

The affective component is strongest in true believers. These are employees who remain with the organisation through thick and thin because of an emotional attachment to the organisation. An identification at a deep personal level with the organisation's goals driving them to put in extra discretionary effort in the workplace.

The continuance component is strongest in people who believe leaving would be too costly for them. An unacceptable loss of accumulated benefits and organisational seniority if they started working elsewhere keeping them where they are. They climbed up the corporate ladder with their teeth when required. They are not starting from the bottom somewhere else.

The normative commitment is a sense of loyalty one might feel for an employer who has treated you well. Or treated you poorly. The normative component reacts to circumstances and is transactional. You get back that which was put in.

Let us say if what you have been putting in is not coming back out and has not been for a while? As useful as it is to identify why people stay, it is as useful to discuss why even true believers should leave an organisation.

If you have walked around inside some different companies you can detect the rot. It is when different kinds of rot occur together that even the true believer should make plans to leave.

What does the rot look like?

Quality decreasing as complaints increase is always a warning sign for anyone who is committed to an organisation. If you are of a disposition where your affective component is intense this will be a psychologically painful situation for you.

If you see quality decreasing and it is not an aberration which can be resolved with elbow grease, you now need to start listening to who is complaining about cash. Is someone up the org chart showing photos of their new boat to anyone passing while your customers and suppliers grumble about slow order deliveries and payments that are not coming?

You now have the humiliation of your blood and sweat not only being attached to poorly made products, but people are also angry at you because the products they have paid for are not being delivered or the goods they sold you are not being paid for.

Then we come to the elevator drop, stomach churning moment faced by anyone who has ever worked in a dying company. When you ask leadership a direct question about the future of the organisation and the answer you get is so incoherent you may as well have asked a complete stranger sitting next to you on an airplane.

Quality in free fall, no money, senior leadership living it up like the great depression starts tomorrow morning and the future of the company is just random words a moron is stringing together? I expect anyone who has reached that point to yell “BINGO” make finger gun noises, then walk out of the meeting as it is in progress and go look for a job somewhere else.

So if you lead people, are responsible for their wellbeing and want to retain them what should you be doing in your organisation?

The 2004 Corporate Leadership Survey performed quantitive analysis on 50,000 employees from companies worldwide and has some very interesting findings.

For leaders the things which strengthen commitment and increase discretionary effort, affective component effort, are in demonstrating that you are open to new ideas. That you care deeply about employees and their success. That you make employee development opportunities a priority and that you are committed to job creation.

Employees like to see new life springing up around them. New life is new co-workers.

Not surprisingly because of what we have covered in previous blog posts the top three drivers for increased effort come from understanding how your work is part of the organizational strategy, how important your work is to the organisation’s success and how the projects you are working on should get completed.

People leave workplaces for a variety of reasons. Some are rational reasons others are emotional reasons but people who stay and are productive all stay for the same reason.


If you can increase commitment in your corner of the organisation people will work with you for longer periods of time and do more with you while they are around.

(And if you are ever living the nightmare and think it’ll be too embarrassing to walk out of an all hands meeting to the sound of finger guns as you quit your job at a crummy firm, call me and I’ll do it over speaker phone for you as you leave.

You’re welcome.)

There is never a good time to make a tough choice.

Given that we are supposed to live in a data driven world and there is always data to point in any direction you would like to go, why are decisions not made? Surely there is an algorithm for that?

Have you ever sat in a meeting where a decision, probably major, has to be made and it is not? It probably was not made because it was tied to an emotion. Every decision you make is tied to an emotion.

No matter how much we try and human proof the decision making process, books written about unconscious bias and tools you should use to “take the person out of the situation,” your feelings will continue to drive your decision making process.

Neurologist Anotine Bechara set out to examine the role of emotion in decision making with patients who had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Injury which impaired their emotional response range.

Not-sure-if-i-should-cut-the-red-wire-or-the-blueBuilding on the work of behavioural economists he targeted three classes of decision choices to study. Choice under certainty, choice under risk and choice under uncertainty.  If you have ever sat in a meeting where a decision was not made it was one of the latter two classes of decisions.

What Bechara found was where there was even a memory of an emotion in respect to a decision to be made, that memory was involved in the cognitive decision making process of the patients. That pale distant experience of an emotion in a person who might not be able to feel it anymore, counted.

When it comes to organisational decisions it is the most comfortable thing in the world to let things carry on as they are, until something outside of the organisation makes the choice for you. But there is something to keep in mind with regard to uncertain, high risk choices. Their full outcomes are unknowable.

You do not know what unintended consequences will occur even if you select the "best" option.

The minicomputer era ending, Digital Equipment Corporation found itself under siege from all sides. 32 Bit personal computers, Open Systems and cheap(er) networking technologies forming a wave that was drowning DEC. CEO, Ken Olsen, threw his most intellectually vigorous executives into a room and told them they needed to come up with a plan for DEC’s future and it needed to be supported by consensus. Days turned to weeks and the executives hardened around the choice of focusing on servers, solutions or semiconductors. When Olson turned up the heat for a decision his top brass crumbled, no decision made. Hand waving platitudes about doing it all and doing it the best. There was probably a corporate memo and a new vision statement to deliver the non-news.

Bob Palmer, a chip guy to the bone, came rocking up and replaced Olsen. Palmer went with semiconductors. He did not look for consensus because he knew he was rolling the dice. DEC died anyway.

Did Palmer make the wrong choice?

With perfect hindsight we know that DEC could not have succeeded in servers, in solutions or in semiconductors. It was not the leader in any of those categories and faced battles against more established and better equipped competitors in each segment. If anyone in Olsen’s pressure cooker knew that they did not pass it upwards. They did not make a decision.

When you consider the Execs had all the information about the company they required and the knowledge that other companies in different industries have faced a similar type of major realignment requirement, it does show you that you have to be willing to stick your neck out to commit to something. Palmer stuck his neck out and made an uncomfortable call, that it did not work does not take away from the fact he had the grit to do so.

Your decision might be wrong. Though you probably will not have all the information required to know why that is until later. As a decision maker it is your job to quantify unquantifiable information to the best of your ability. No other system involved can.

People might leave because of a decision you make. They might. Or they might stay and continue to work with you. You have no ownership over co-workers or employees and while you do have a responsibility not to drive them away you have a greater responsibility to create value for the business. Your decision might ensure everyone involved can make their mortgage payments for the near future as much as it might not. You do not know and will not know for a while to come. For any employee who may leave because of a strategic decision you make, if you have provide them with interesting work and have made sure they are paid enough that they do not feel exploited you have done all you can.

There is never a good time to make a tough choice. No matter the data you have or the tools you use eventually you have to step into the unknown. This will generate an emotional response.

That discomfort you are feeling is there to make sure you are committed to the outcome.

Money will not encourage you to do your job better. Unless you don't have any of it.

As your career changes the value you put on things does too. When you are starting out in your adult life acquiring money is very important. You have startup costs involved with leaving the family home or finishing college. You might want to travel or immigrate to another country. Increases in your pay matter to you very much.

When you have no money, money matters a lot.

TradingplacesIf you are in technical pre-sales and you get to influence which sales person you will work with, choose the one with two ex-spouses, three houses, the shiniest car on the road and a boat. That person is hanging on to the illusion of success by a thread. They will dig through a granite mountain with a tin spoon to make their bonus targets because they are a missed debt payment away from losing everything. If you are tied to their success expect to be worked until you break but I assure you if the compensation plan is solid, you’ll get a check at the end that’ll make your eyes bulge.

On the other hand, when you’re further along in your career and the big bad debt wolf is not at your door, money matters a bit. But not enough that it will affect how you behave to get it.

No, this is not a robust defence of why during your last performance appraisal your manager might have told you that your pay increase will just about match inflation. I am not saying you should be fine with that. You might want to consider looking across the table at them and yelling “BUT I’M POOR!” when that situation occurs. What this post will be is a quick run through what people look for at work. Why do they stay at a firm? Why do they leave?

Fredrick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory states that there are motivating factors, that is things that inspire better performance, and hygiene factors, things that prevent demotivation from lowering our performance. Money, he found, was hygiene factor. As was the relationship to your management structure and the quality of interaction with your peers.

Hygiene factors do not contribute to motivation at work, but if they’re seen to fall below a specific level they do lead to de-motivation.

A 10% raise won’t motivate you to work 10% better. A 10% pay cut could lead you to feeling what you are doing does not matter, you are not appreciated for doing it so why not do a half assed job?

Kenneth Kovach showed the theory applied with a longitudinal study (Same factors, different people across different times) he carried out in 1941, 1981 and 1986. Dr. Kovach passed away before he could take his research into our century but his findings were consistent over the decades.

Employee rankings of Kovach’s factors varied in some places but were very much driven by the state of the world at the time. Factors changing position between times of war and times of peace. That said, what Kovach found was what managers thought motivated their employees was consistently wrong over 45 years of study.

Not what they thought was wrong by a bit. They were entirely wrong in exactly the same way every time he did a survey.

I apologise for my hideous abuse of Excel in advance. Looking at the 1986 survey results we find the following factors ranked by managers and employees.


45 years and the manager rankings kept their exact positions. Across three different sets of survey takers. It makes you question if employees and managers even speak to one another? They do, of course they do but it is easy to see that we do an awful of lot of projecting intentions and motivations onto other people. This helps us comfortably fit them into our mental model so we can get on with the rest of our life.

If an employee leaves a job it is because they are getting what they see as a more interesting work challenge or a better life. They might get more money with the new job but it is certain that it is the job satisfaction, the co-worker experience or a change in life situation that is driving the change.

Across all three studies “Good wages” ranked consistently in the middle of the pack for employees. More important than personal sympathy for problems at home, less important than interesting work and appreciation. "Good wages" was ranked number one in every manager survey when managers were asked what mattered most to their employees.

When you have no money, money matters a lot but above a point where someone feels you are not exploiting them you will get more productive work out of them with a kind word and an interesting problem than with cold cash.

(Though for your next performance appraisal you might want to start rehearsing your “BUT I’M POOR!” moment as soon as possible.)

Cash Traps. Mirages you truly believe in.

“Regardless of reported profit, a business or product is worthless unless it compounds and returns the cash invested in it.”

Think of the most innovate company you know of that is still in business. The reason it is in business is because part of their innovation is getting money out of their products which exceeds the investment they have put in to them.

Exceeds not by a little, but by an awful lot.

There are many amazing ideas out there, new ones every day, but the ones we all know about are the ones that a lot of people regularly pay for.

I read an interesting paper written in the 1972 by Bruce Henderson of the Boston Consulting Group, Bruce states that the vast majority of products in a company are cash traps. Consistently profitable on paper but to launch them, maintain a competitive position, support them and then develop them in order to keep customers buying them, you will find that they have absorbed every penny they generated over their lifetime.

All that work and on the product’s best day it has only managed to stand still. No forward momentum. The true profit in a company with multiple product lines tends to come from a small number of major hits.

For everything else that is not a giant in the market in which it competes the outlook is bleak. Customers want more features, sooner. They want support for older versions, longer. Competitors will try and discount you out of a contract renewal, in every customer of yours they can get a meeting with. All of these eat into whatever "respectable" profit you think you’re making. That product that isn't exactly a hit is now not even worth the effort.

If you have been involved in detail or in passing with Enterprise IT products you have seen, or used, or sold heartbreakers. Amazing ideas that make wonderful products which go nowhere. Everyone agrees the idea and the product are great, but there’s never an economic payback which exceeds not doing the product in the first place. Money-pit

You will find heartbreakers in startups that do not make it. Startups which do make it but never capitalise on the breakthrough they have made. You will find heartbreakers at small companies who think they have something but don’t and at big companies, who people on the outside think do not know the value of the heartbreaker they have.

What all of these have in common are that the economics of the product are incorrect at the moment of its creation. The equation is wrong.

According to Bruce to escape the cash trap you need to be the leader. Be the whale product in its market space with competitors far in the rear view mirror. But fast growing products alone are not enough, they are more dangerous because you spend money at a faster rate to grab market share. Racking up deep losses you might never recover any cash from.

What if you can’t be the leader? Stop. Take your money and go do something where you can be the leader.

I see a lot of new products at various points of gestation. Early on in the process some are experiments which cost little but from which you learn much. Others might generate one or more patents, which while not delivering cash does potentially add value to the company if the patents prove to be of economic value to the company owners later. Fortunately what I have not seen are products made to make the organisation feel good about itself. Vanity projects of no practical value done only to show how much engineering can be engineered by the company engineers. Great to wheel out on stage in front of the press with a delusional sticker price and no expectation of any sales.

I usually sit in every new product meeting asking myself the question “who can I sell this to?” That might have been the wrong question all along. Perhaps I should be asking myself “who can I sell an awful lot of this to before the competition does?”

Growth that locks in your advantages is great. Growth that puts you deeper into a cash trap is worse than an outright failure. At least when you see your failure you adapt, a cash trap product hides the failure. It's just a mirage you truly believe in.

Flow experiences.

Coming from an electronic engineering background, a solutions development background and a technical pre-sales background I wouldn’t have had much time for woolly headed theories of happiness. Until I found one that was repeatable and actually worked.

It was less about discovering something new and more about discovering what I had experienced.

With 80 Billion plus people having lived on this planet until this moment there really isn’t that much left to discover about the human condition. We tend to rediscover things and pass them off as new. Junk comes and goes but if you live long enough you’ll see the good ideas which fell out of fashion come around on the wheel again.

An idea I like and a personal philosophy I have adopted is flow. Flow is that feeling you get when you are in the zone. You are operating at your peak mental and physical condition. Things are challenging and enjoyable. Time flies by and your concentration is laser focused on the task at hand.

Flow wasn’t invented or discovered by anyone but it was mapped Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago. The Chicago team set out to discover what happiness was and what they found was that the most satisfying experiences in people’s lives were those where the challenge they faced was slightly higher than the skills they had available to meet that challenge.The people in the studies stretched. Their mental or physical capabilities extended just enough that they rose to the challenge at hand.

Those taking part in the study recorded these events as times that they were at their happiest.

If things were too tough the experience was miserable, too easy and it was boring. The flow experience is an active experience, you have to be involved and when in flow you will be so involved you’ll find you are unusally satisfied.

If you’re looking for flow in your leisure time make sure the leisure is active. No one finds flow in front of the TV watching someone else do something, but you might find it while doing a crossword puzzle, in a good book, while playing an instrument, playing a sport or painting a picture. Flow is in the stretch. The improvement. Always look for the opportunity to rise to a challenge just beyond your grasp, you’ll feel great during the flow experience and afterwards.

Not every part of your job is going to allow for flow. The challenges of your job may not match or stretch your abilities, but you do have a level of control over your job. There are challenges out there. Go find your flow experiences.