Despite the tremendously negative impact they have in the workplace, toxic employees are too rarely confronted about their behavior. And in the IT profession in particular, there are often accepted cultural norms that actually create a toxic work environment.
That’s my best shot at encapsulating in two sentences what I took away from a recent interview with Susan Scott, CEO of Fierce Inc., a leadership development and training company in Seattle. What prompted the interview was a recent survey Fierce had conducted on the topic of employee toxicity, but it was what Scott shared on the basis of her own professional experience—including her experience with IT companies—that I found particularly insightful.
That’s not to say that that the survey wasn’t an eyebrow-raiser. I opened the conversation by asking Scott what in her view was the most surprising finding of the survey. She said she would have expected more of a willingness among leaders to just get rid of toxic employees:
As informative as those and the other survey findings were, it was what Scott shared based on her experience that I found especially valuable. That part of the conversation began when I asked her if she’s found that toxicity varies in the way it tends to be manifested in the workplace depending on the gender of the individual:
Yeah, I would say so. I don’t know that our survey uncovered that information, but from my own observations over several decades, what I think happens is that women tend to talk about people behind their backs—women tend to triangulate. They tend to gossip, and tend to complain, especially to other women in the workplace. They go home and talk to their husbands or their partners, and they talk to their coworkers [about a particular person], and they just get very stressed about it. They’re not in [a position to] have a decent conversation with the person, because they’re too emotional about it. … For women, relationships are key, especially their relationships with leadership. The pecking order is really important—who reports to whom, and what is the quality of the relationship. If that is threatened in any way, they can become upset and concerned. The can become very competitive; they can do their own version of fighting for turf—fighting to prove that they deserve a seat at the table. They can do more talking about other people behind their backs, which is really one of the most toxic things that can happen in a culture. Or they come and complain a lot to their leader about an individual that they’re having a problem with, and they haven’t talked with the person themselves.
Scott said that in men, the toxicity is often manifested in the form of arrogance:
They expect people to do a lot of work for them that isn’t even on the long list of those people’s job responsibilities. They expect privileges—they act as if they are entitled. They are sometimes disrespectful to coworkers, particularly support staff. Or they can just give you a look that says, ‘You’re not worth my time and attention. I don’t even see you, because you’re just not important in my world.’
Scott added that toxicity in men often comes in the form of “going dark”:
They’re not being particularly productive, they’re not talking with anybody, and you don’t really know why. … The toxic male tends to be silent—in a meeting, he’s often sort of glowering over in a corner. Or you just have a feeling there’s an agenda there, but you don’t know what it is. And you might hear a comment by the toxic employee, made after a meeting, like, ‘That plan is ridiculous—it’s never going to work.’
Interestingly, it was in this context that Scott raised the issue of toxicity in the IT profession:
I did some work with Microsoft years ago—I was doing some training for a bunch of programmers. One of the guys pulled out a large rubber rat, and he put it on the table. He said, ‘This is our mascot—we work in the dark, by ourselves, we don’t have to talk to anybody, and we like it that way.’ My response to him was, ‘Imagine yourself 20 years down the road—do you still want to be working in the dark, doing exactly the same thing, writing code and never talking to anyone? Or do you ever think you might like to get married and have a family? Would you like to advance in the organization? Would you like to be invited to take on more complex challenges? Would you like to be in a leadership position at some point, and see your compensation increase? If you have any thoughts like that, at some point you’re going to have to interact with other people.’ They did appreciate the formula that ‘conversation equals relationship’—they got that formula. People in high-tech, or engineering, typically want a formula. Fierce’s mission is to transform the conversations that are central to our clients’ success and happiness. So unless you want to stay exactly where you are, male employee, you’re going to need to learn how to engage—how to talk with people.
I asked Scott if she had any sense of whether toxic employees tend to be any more or less of a problem in the IT profession compared to other professions. She said in the IT profession, there are often cultural norms that actually cause toxicity:
I think Microsoft has changed this, but they were an example. They had a culture for many years that if a manager had a team of 10 people, they could only give one “A” rating—there couldn’t be two people who got the “A” rating. That causes people to compete internally, with their own teammates, in an unhealthy way. That causes people to sabotage each other: ‘I’m going to withhold some information that would be helpful to you. You’re not even going to know that I have this data—I’m just going to keep it in my desk, and you’ll never know about it.’ They’re fighting to take credit for things, or to get something to the marketplace before it’s really ready. They’re just always trying to prove themselves as individuals, rather than work as a team. And that happens often in IT companies.
Scott also brought up Nokia as an illustration:
I did some work with several leadership teams at Nokia, also, and no wonder they ended up on a burning platform. When Microsoft bought Nokia, I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be a disaster.’ Because even though they brought Stephen Elop in, he’s the person who got Nokia onto the burning platform in the first place. So it seems like these guys don’t really value others in the organization, whose input would be very valuable. I remember working with a team at Microsoft that was going to launch this little [Kin] cell phone that they thought was going to be very popular with teenagers. They were having problems with the battery life and the price and all this stuff, and I said, ‘Guys, don’t launch it—it’s not ready, it’s not going to sell.’ They launched it, and two months later they took it off the market. So sometimes in the IT world there’s this pressure to get stuff out there, that causes people to pretend not to know that the stuff sucks.
Scott went on to explain how men tend to react to toxic employees. It wasn’t pretty. But she said neither gender tends to do a particularly good job of it:
Men tend to clam up, and build an invisible barrier between themselves and the offender. They just avoid the person—they pretend the person doesn’t even exist. They don’t bring it up—they don’t talk about it, except maybe when they go home. But I’ll tell you one thing: Neither sex [is free from] discomfort with conflict. I have worked with a lot of CEOs who would do anything to avoid having a conversation that smacks of confronting someone about something. It’s so interesting, because what I have found is there is something within us that responds, at a deep level, to those who level with us. If I don’t level with you, there’s a subliminal message that says, ‘I don’t think you’re able to handle it. I don’t think you’re able to have a decent conversation with me about this problem.’ But I think it’s actually we ourselves who can’t handle it. We’re afraid of it.
Fortunately, Scott spoke at length about how her company trains employees and leaders to handle toxic employees. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.