Monkey Puzzle Blog

Toxic work place

When does difficult behaviour become toxic

Leaders and managers often ask us to run training or coaching programmes to help them deal with difficult behaviour - it’s the most common request for training we get. It’s not surprising, difficult behaviour in the workplace is time consuming and frustrating. Even the most cohesive team may experience it.

How to spot when difficult behaviour becomes toxic – and resolve it

However, when that difficult behaviour becomes toxic, it takes disruption to a whole new level. It can destroy team morale, slow down productivity and suck up leadership time putting out all the fires it creates.

This article helps leaders spot when difficult behaviour is becoming toxic and gives helpful suggestions for managing the problem.

Not all difficult behaviour needs dealing with

Sometimes stress caused outside the workplace can trigger temporary difficult behaviour. We’ve covered this in more depth in our recent blog 3 signs that bad behaviour is caused by stress. There can be other factors such as health issues. Many of these causes will go away on their own if dealt with empathetically.

When difficult behaviour become toxic it’s a different matter. It has the potential to derail crucial projects caused by the huge amount of time and energy it can take to resolve. The answer lies in identifying it and having a strategy for intervention and successful resolution.

How do you know when difficult behaviour is becoming toxic?

It’s a pattern - the difficult behaviour is ‘how that person does things’. People will say ‘he always talks over us in meetings’ or you are aware that negative gossip always seems to have certain people involved. To ascertain whether it’s caused by stress or is a pattern of behaviour either give it a certain period of time or notice it a certain number of times (if you’re unsure go in 3’s - as a guide 3 months or 3 times is usually enough to indicate a pattern)

It’s systemic - the behaviour triggers off negative behaviours in others. If someone is just ranting to themselves and everyone is fine and carrying on then it’s not systemic. The key here is how much their behaviour is impacting and triggering other people. Look for evidence of normally confident people losing their confidence, people being generally more negative or combative or increased apathy in the team.

You are spending too much time sorting difficult behaviour - that certain people or situations triggered by certain people are taking up your time that could be spent more productively.

If you have all three of these then you need to take action. Here’s how.

How can leaders resolve the problem?

The nature of this will differ depending on the situation but here are some suggestions that a lot of leaders find useful:

Create an escalation process that is clear and consistent. This ensures fairness as well as creating an unconscious expectation in the team that certain behaviour will not be tolerated.

Role model the behaviour you want to see. As tempting as it is sometimes, avoid sinking into negative talk, gossiping and keep your temper in check. You don’t need to become a robot but be aware at all times of how your behaviour could be perceived. People will do what you do, not what you say.

Embed conflict resolution in your culture. Make sure people have training on how to resolve conflicts and negotiate and use the frameworks in the training in the day to day management until it becomes part of the culture.

In conclusion

People are rarely naturally good at conflict resolution and negotiating. These are highly empowering life skills that help people to feel capable in difficult situations. The fact that many organisations struggle to develop these skills runs the risk of difficult behaviours becoming toxic.

Leaders need to be able to identify patterns of toxic behaviour and call them out or deal with them appropriately - rather than waiting for someone else (usually them) to sort it out. The more the organisation can do to recognise the signs, the more chance they have of their people being able to focus their energy positively.

For further information

Toxic behaviour can also impact teams. If you are aware of this affecting a team you know, you might also find this article from our blog of interest. Can you repair toxic teams?

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into our training, coaching and personal development services and free resources, explore the Monkey Puzzle website.


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