CEO Offers Tips on How to Deal with Toxic Employees

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    In a previous post, I wrote about the notion that in the IT profession, there are often accepted cultural norms that create a toxic work environment for the employees. To follow up on that topic here, it’s important to understand the harm that toxic employees can create in a work environment—and, more importantly, what to do about it.

    Addressing this topic stemmed from my recent interview with Susan Scott, CEO of Fierce Inc., a leadership development and training company in Seattle. That interview, in turn, was prompted by a Fierce survey on employee toxicity, which produced a lot of interesting information, including the finding that 80 percent of respondents felt their organizations are somewhat or extremely tolerant of toxic employees. In fact, the survey showed that only 40 percent of managers would get rid of a toxic employee.

    With that in mind, I began this part of my interview with Scott by asking her if the reason that managers are so reluctant to fire a toxic employee is related to a desire to avoid confrontation. Scott said that indeed is the case.

    I think almost everybody on the planet, including myself, would rather not go there. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Oh boy, I get to go confront someone about his or her behavior.’ Nobody does that. We don’t want to do it, and we don’t want to do it for very good reasons. We’ve tried it in the past, and boy did it go south in a heartbeat. We’ve paid the price—we can show each other the scars, and share the war stories about what happened when we tried to have this conversation. Finally we say, ‘I’m just not going to do it anymore.’ It’s because we don’t know how to do it. If we learned how, in a very simple way that’s clean and compelling and absolutely real, then we’ll get a different result.

    Scott went on to explain how to go about it:

    One of the common mistakes people make in starting the conversation is they’ll walk up to the person and say, ‘I need to talk to you about …’ As soon as we hear, ‘I need to talk to you,’ we can feel ourselves starting to look for a piece of armor to put on, because that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a fun conversation. One of the things we advise is to begin the conversation by saying, ‘I want to talk with you about …’ ‘I want to talk with you’ has a very different feeling to it than ‘I need to talk to you.’ The rest of the sentence would be, ‘I want to talk with you about the effect X is having on Y.’ For example, ‘I want to talk with you about the effect your leadership style is having on the team.’ Then you need to give one or two very specific examples that illustrate exactly what you’re talking about. For example, ‘You berated Jane in the meeting yesterday. And last week, you interrupted Sam when he was really trying passionately to make his case. This is hard for me to witness, because this is the effect I see of it happening. This is what I feel is at stake here: your relationship with the team; their degree of trust in and respect for you when they feel that you might attack them, easily and often. People are fearful of you, and I think if that doesn’t change, your team is going to become more and more disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disempowered. I know you don’t want that, and I don’t want that, either. So I’d really like to resolve this with you.’ I strongly suggest use of the phrase, ‘at stake.’ When you say, ‘This is what I feel is at stake here,’ that typically gets the person’s attention. Those words carry some weight. And when you say, ‘I want to resolve this with you,’ that’s telling the person, ‘I don’t hate you, I don’t want to see you get in trouble, I don’t want you to lose your job.’

    At that point, Scott said, it’s time to stop talking and listen:

    You say, ‘Tell me what’s going on from where you sit.’ Then you just be very quiet and listen for a long time, then ask questions. Because until that person has had a chance to say why he or she is behaving a certain way, you really don’t have much of an opportunity to advance your cause. People need to feel heard. All of that is just the opening of the conversation, but the opening is critical.

    The idea, then, is that the person who has the problem is the one who should approach the individual, as opposed to a supervisor approaching the individual. Scott explained why:

    Let’s say you and I work together on a team, and maybe you are my boss. You come to me and say, ‘Susan, there are some people on the team who are really having a tough time with you. What I’m hearing is that you take credit when others have done the work. I’m hearing that you monopolize all the airtime in meetings, and it’s really frustrating for some of the people on your team.’ All I’m going to be thinking about is, ‘Who thinks that about me, and why do they think that about me? And why didn’t they come and tell me about it?’ The first thing people say is, ‘It would have been nice if they had told me about it, instead of going to “Mom” or “Dad” or HR and tattling.’ We’ve created a very childish, immature culture when we teach people that they can’t talk directly with a person, and that they have to go tell a supervisor. That puts supervisors in a very tough position, because they probably weren’t there, so they can’t give specific examples. One of the most popular parts of the training we do is about how you have this conversation, and actually enrich the relationship instead of making it worse than it was before you ever opened your mouth. That is possible—it’s a skill that takes practice, but it’s not complicated.

    Still, if the problem is not resolved between the employees, doesn’t it need to be escalated? Scott said, “Yes,” but with a caveat:

    If somebody in our company came to me and said, ‘I’m really struggling with so-and-so,’ the first thing I would say is, ‘Have you talked with her?’ Let’s say the person responds, ‘Yes, I have—as a matter of fact, I’ve talked with her a couple of times, and nothing is changing.’ Then I would be willing to step in, and help out in any way that I could. But I also know that usually, when we try to talk with someone, we don’t do it very well. We do it in a way that immediately triggers the other person, and we get the kind of reactions we don’t want—we get anger and defensiveness. So it really is a skill. We focus on what comes out of your mouth in the first 60 seconds—what you say in those first 60 seconds has to be very clear and very compelling. It’s an invitation to the person to have this conversation with you. So until we learn how to do that, we probably aren’t going to get the results that we want.

    Finally, I asked Scott what her advice would be for employees who find that the toxicity lies in the company’s leadership. She said unfortunately, that does happen all too often:

    If it is your leader who has a behavior or an attitude or something that is a problem, we recommend that you go and talk directly with that leader, using the same model for that conversation that we teach. When you get it right—you’ve written it down, you’ve practiced, you’ve honed and edited your 60-second opening statement—when you’ve got that statement right, it would be the rare leader who would lash out. If you do have a leader who lashes out, then you need to leave. Because ultimately, that company is going to pay the price. Now that the economy has improved, people have options. So if you’ve got a toxic leader, and you’ve tried to talk with that person, and you’ve gotten absolutely nowhere, then you probably do need to get out.

    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.

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