A long time ago, I worked with someone who was clearly not doing their job. They were regularly missing deadlines and their quality of work was so poor that everyone around them often had to redo it. Worse yet, the person had a terrible attitude and didn’t seem to care. The poor performance was bad enough that it had a significant impact on our team. The worst part about it was that management did nothing.

I can remember my attention shift from the coworker to the manager who just seemed to tolerate the poor performance. It made me question the manager and even the company. How could they let a whole team suffer because of one person?

Several weeks went by and my frustration grew. I had regular water cooler discussions with other coworkers about the situation and our mutual frustration. We all decided that our manager needed to do his job and we wondered why he hadn’t done it. Our own performance started to suffer as our attitudes declined.

One day, we arrived at work to find that the coworker had been dismissed. Our team was ecstatic, but still bitter. Why had it taken so long? Why hadn’t our boss done what he was supposed to do a long time ago.

A few months later, with a bitter taste in my mouth about my manager still lingering, we did my performance review. He pointed out my own bad attitude and how influential I was with the team. He pointed to the situation with the fired coworker as an example. He shared that he was trying to work through the situation and that my impatience had made it more difficult for everyone involved.

I asked the manager why he hadn’t acted more quickly and the manager pointed out something that I hadn’t thought about until then. He said, “How do you know how I reacted? If I was having disciplinary discussions or working with our director on how to fill the position or navigating our corporate process for terminating an employee, I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell you or anyone else on our team that I was doing it.”.

That insight created an epiphany for me.

I had assumed that the manager wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing, but this conversation suggested that maybe he was doing everything he could do and I just didn’t know about it. I didn’t know about it because I shouldn’t know about it. I ran with the story in my head that our manager was not doing a good job and then I spread the story amongst our team. I fanned the flames of discontent.

I had become toxic.

In our jobs as consultants, we meet with employees who have become toxic on a regular basis and I’ve come to notice three trends:

1.  The Employee Doesn’t See Themselves as Toxic – The best definition of toxicity is simply misalignment. Misalignment doesn’t apply right or wrong, it simply applies incongruity. Most toxic employees see themselves as the hero in the story, just as I saw myself in the above example. They don’t realize the negative impact they are having on their team.

2.  The Employee is a Little Right – When the toxic employee shares their own story, they usually have a point. In my story above, it is true that allowing the poor performer to work within the team for a long period of time was negative to the team. Toxic employees become toxic because of some “injustice” and the injustice is usually based in some reality. The toxicity might be justified, however…

3.  The Employee is a Little Wrong – Most toxic employees are so focused on their own story that they fail to consider other stories. In my example above, my boss was likely doing everything he could to protect our team, but outside forces prevented him from acting more quickly and confidentiality prevented him from defending his own actions. I didn’t consider this and it led me to having a negative impact on the team. The situation might not have been ideal, but neither was my response.

Everyone feels toxic at work from time to time. We all think in terms of stories and our stories are our own. They are based on our limited perceptions of the world and sometimes we miss something. That’s why we need each other and that’s why we need to communicate well with people we work with. We often say that good communication can only occur when everyone knows that they might be wrong.

If you feel toxic about your job, it is easy to focus on your own story and wait for others to change. However, it is more impactful if you explore other people’s stories. Why did my manager act the way he did? Why did my poor performing coworker act the way he did?

When you start to explore other people’s stories, you get closer to the truth and you are more likely to gain perspectives that allow you to make a positive impact on your team and on your own job.