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?
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.)