Skip to main content

Help Your Toxic Worker Change

Help Your Toxic Worker Change

In many cases, managers are afraid to address a bullying or toxic employee because of the person's role within the organization. He may be an employee others look up to, one who closes the big sale and maintains key accounts or someone with seniority over others -- including the manager.

You can help your toxic worker get past his bad behavior. Here's how to adjust your attitude toward him and get him to change his ways.

Assess Organizational Standards

If an organization values the sale, ship time or product over the people who make it happen, the bad behavior may seem normal, says Scott Cawood, PhD, president of research and innovative management consulting firm ModernThink. While you can teach people to make better products, ship on time and be more efficient, you rarely can teach someone to be nice, he explains.

However, a company will have to choose which behaviors are acceptable to them. If someone with enough influence wants the behavior stopped, it will be, Cawood says.

"Unfortunately, many leaders miss the opportunity to stop the behavior until it ends up impacting some sort of litigation," says Cawood, author of Destination Profit: Creating People Profit Opportunities in Your Organization. "The first step in stopping it, though, is to recognize that the behavior is not acceptable in that particular workplace -- regardless of how successful the person doing the behavior is perceived to be."

The Manager's Role

One of the most important skills a manager must learn is how to talk to employees who are creating toxicity within the team, says Judith E. Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications and author of Creating We and The DNA of Leadership.

"Often managers are afraid to give constructive feedback for fear they will lose a person who is contributing to the bottom line," says Glaser. "However, toxicity erodes productivity for others in the team and needs to be addressed with candor and caring."

In addition to being a good coach, the manager must also get to the truth. Once someone is labeled "toxic" or "a bully," it's natural to assign the person negative motivations and agendas. Once someone becomes "bad in our minds," we only see that person as bad. And once a person seems toxic, we stop caring about him and make him the enemy, says Glaser.

"Perhaps sitting down with the toxic employee and listening with a heart to find out what they are all about and what they are feeling could be just the thing the bully needs to come to a better place with the manager and with the team," Glaser advises.

How to Handle Workers Tagged 'Toxic'

If a toxic or bullying employee works for you, consider these tips from Jim Tamm, author of Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships:

  • Get Your Employee's Attention: Sit down with the employee. Let him know his behavior is unacceptable and if he doesn't change, it will destroy his career -- no matter how competent he is -- because nobody wants to work with a jerk. Tell him the behavior destroys trust and creativity, increases turnover and litigation, and over time will negatively impact the company's bottom line -- and his own.

  • Help Him Identify an Early-Warning System: Highlight when you or coworkers have noticed the worker moving into negative behaviors. For example, whenever the person starts to raise his voice, think the other person is an idiot, feel a charge of energy or notice he is trying to prove the other person wrong, these factors should act as a warning he is becoming ineffective.

    "They should pick their top two or three negative behaviors and begin to pay very close attention to them, actively being on the lookout for them," says Tamm.

  • Create an Action Plan Ahead of Time: Once the employee starts to act inappropriately and the early-warning system tips him off, the worker can implement a premade action plan. For example, if he yells, the action step could be to consciously become quiet for two minutes.

"It will also be helpful to remind the bullies that they are not being asked to turn themselves into wimps but rather simply to knock off the contemptuous and abusive way they are treating others," says Tamm. "They can still be very direct and forceful, and if they drop the contemptuous attitude, they will be much more successful."