It’s a tough time to navigate the labor market. Organizations are still desperately seeking candidates. The Great Resignation rolls on, as the “quiet quitting” trend underscores people’s shifting attitudes about work. Meanwhile the looming threat of recession has some employers wondering if it’s time to slow hiring efforts. But—here’s the real question—are we so focused on recruiting that we’re ignoring the environment we’re asking people to join?
Michael E. Frisina, PhD, says however the future plays out, building (and keeping) the best possible team is urgent if you’re to remain competitive—and that means ferreting out any bad apples whose toxic behaviors could be spoiling your culture.
“Certain behaviors call for a zero-tolerance policy,” notes Frisina, who, along with Robert Frisina, wrote Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence (Health Administration Press, February 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6405532-7-9, $29.95). “Allowing them to go unchecked will either drive your best people away or it will disengage them and squash their ability to deploy their full range of talent.”
The “bad apples” who exhibit these toxic behaviors can be leaders or coworkers. Either way, when they’re allowed to run rampant, they create a culture that perpetually activates people’s “lower brain”—the part that governs fear and survival behaviors. When teams get trapped in lower-brain thinking, performance suffers greatly.
He reveals the top five toxic behaviors that squelch people’s ability to do their best work:
1. Narcissism. Narcissists lack empathy, have a strong desire to break rules and defy the status quo, and are likely to engage in manipulation to advance themselves at the expense of others. “Life is all about me and don’t you ever forget it” is the narcissist’s motto.
2. Micromanagement. Toxic people are highly independent to the point of exclusion. They lack the desire to work within the legitimate boundaries of a team, and constantly meddle in the work responsibilities of other people. They have a hard time letting go and trusting their team members to perform their work. The employee experience under such suffocating micromanagement can be downright demoralizing.
3. Setting unrealistic expectations. Effective leaders establish high standards and stretch goals. They are always coaching and encouraging their team members on the journey to continuous performance improvement. Toxic bosses set up their team members to fail with unachievable goals and then shame and blame them. Working in this kind of toxic culture creates a wave of negative emotions, leaving employees feeling disengaged and hopeless.
4. Rudeness. In meetings, toxic bosses and coworkers may interrupt their team members who present a perspective or idea that does not align with their own. Toxic bosses and coworkers may deliberately shut others down when they feel threatened by differing points of view. Toxic people will spread gossip; they disrupt communication among team members and show contempt for others through a lack of basic courtesies.
5. Behavior incompetence. Toxic people display fundamental incompetence in basic interpersonal relationship skills. This behavior incompetence often stems from arrogance and overconfidence in their level of technical skill, talent, and intellect.
Of course, a truly “bad apple” must be thrown out. But in many cases, says Frisina, toxic behaviors can be unlearned—and the damage done by them can be reversed.
“Leaders must be able to identify toxic members of the organization and deal with them,” he says. “We must also be introspective enough to recognize whether we, as leaders, are creating or have created a toxic environment that hinders team unity and harmony.
“What’s really great is that we can rebuild damaged relationships by literally rewiring the brain to replace bad memories with caring experiences,” he adds. “Trust can be built where it does not exist, increased where it is scarce, and regained where it was lost. So, too, can toxic organizations be rewired to become high-performing, nurturing ones.”
Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.
Robert W. Frisina, MA, is a principal in the Frisina Group and executive director at the Center for Influential Leadership, with primary responsibility for program development and research in leadership effectiveness and organizational development. He is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and served as a civil affairs specialist with the Second Brigade Combat Team in the 101st Airborne Division in southern Afghanistan.
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