When we talk to management about a toxic employee, management tends to put a lot of attention on that employee. When we talk to the toxic employee, they tend to put a lot of attention on management. This is very natural, very normal, and unfortunately, not very helpful in correcting the situation.

The evolution of toxicity is often a vicious cycle where both management and employees contribute to negativity. Here is a typical cycle.

1. The Injustice – Something happens that makes the employee question management or the company. This could be anything from management promoting someone the employee doesn’t like to management phrasing feedback in a way that comes across as rude or incompetent to the employee. The employee starts to look at the manager and the company as “bad”.

2. Fueling the Story – People are hardwired to think in terms of stories. The problem or challenge is that once we start to believe a story, we look for evidence to support that story. Once the Injustice has occurred, the employee naturally looks for evidence to support their conclusion. If they think management is making bad decisions, they will look for AND FIND other bad decisions. If they think a given manager is not good with people, they will look for AND FIND examples.

3. Negative Leadership – The toxic employee begins to see that they can’t directly address the problem. They can’t make management make good decisions. They can’t make a given manager lead more effectively. So they start to find power in other ways. They quietly or sometimes loudly push back wherever they can. They show negativity in meetings. They are very influential, meaning they are being an effective leader, but they are using their leadership skills negatively creating toxicity on the team.

4. Negative Reaction – As the toxic employee’s team and management detect the toxic behavior, they start to form their own story about the employee. Both start to treat the employee differently. The employee starts getting isolated and is often criticized. Oftentimes, people talk badly about this employee behind their back which often has a way of getting back to the employee.

5. The Cycle Builds – The employee detects the increased negativity from the team and the manager which only feeds their own negativity and supports their story. The employee continues to lash out which creates more negativity. Everyone is reacting to each other, making the situation become worse and worse.

6. Endgame – The cycle repeats until one of 3 things happens: the employee quits, the employee gets fired, or the employee becomes isolated to a degree that is incredibly unhealthy for everyone involved.

So how do you break the cycle?

If you are the employer, it is important to engage the toxic employee and help them to understand that their attitude is having a really negative impact on the team. Most toxic employees are so focused on the injustice that they don’t notice the negative impact they are having on the people around them. The best strategy is to reflect that back to the employee. If they see and want to work on it, then work through their issues with them with the stipulation that the attitude must change immediately. If they don’t want to change, then its time for them to move onto another team. If you think they are too valuable to let go, they aren’t. The negative impact on a team of people is never worth the performance of one person.

If you are the employee, the first step is to recognize that you are toxic and that it is your fault. I understand there was an injustice and that your employer may be making bad choices, but one bad decision outside of your control shouldn’t lead to another bad decision by you to become a negative leader on your team. Try being a positive leader for awhile. Give it some time and real effort. If the company still doesn’t value it, then fire your employer, but leave in a positive way.

The cycle can be broken!

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