Identifying and Combatting Toxic Personalities

A survey by Fierce, Inc., finds that 4 out of 5 workers believe leadership isn’t doing enough to combat toxic employees.

One of the reasons leadership isn’t battling and weeding out toxic workplace personalities is because they’re hard to identify. The scary thing is that often the most effective leaders are also the most damaging. They know how to get things done, but, in the process (and often in sneaky ways), they also undermine the organization.

I was part of an international sorority in college, and I still keep in touch with the organization. Our chapter on the University of Alabama campus recently built a $14 million house. The person overseeing the building and furnishing of the house was in the chapter the same time as me, and was a friend of mine. She was a great go-getter, who served as chapter president during my time in college, and I’m pretty sure the new house wouldn’t have been built without her.

Unfortunately, it turns out she also was arrested last month for embezzling $400,000 from the sorority. She was arrested on many federal charges, including money laundering, bank fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud, among several other charges. As she achieved a great success using her powerful personality to push for, and get built, this spectacular new house, she also used that same powerful personality to steal from us and undermine.

The actions of my (now former) sorority sister go well beyond “toxic personality,” but it reminds me of that issue because even before her arrest as a newly discovered criminal, she was known as a controversial personality. Even as she pushed the chapter as a member, and then as president, to achieve great things, many members quietly grumbled about her. She could be almost nastily aggressive, as well as manipulative. It was hard for many of us to get upset about it, or try to unseat her from her positions, though, because side-by-side with this unfavorable personality was impressive achievement. When news of her arrest spread across Facebook, some (like me) were surprised, while others were not surprised at all—they just hadn’t felt it was OK to voice their concerns before now. “I can believe it,” one sorority sister wrote. “She’s been a damn nightmare since the day I met her.”

What can companies do so toxic personalities get exposed before damage (sometimes even criminal damage) is done? I’ve noticed in the corporate world that the same dynamic prevails of being afraid to speak up as long as a manager or leader is looked on favorably by the executive decision-makers. It’s one thing if you notice the leader committing a criminal act—then you can go to Human Resources and be hailed as a heroic “whistleblower,” and even be protected by whistleblower laws, but what about when the behavior isn’t criminal, but just psychologically damaging?

Reviews that require leaders to get feedback from those who work laterally, above, and below, are helpful to the leaders’ self-awareness, but won’t give employees the confidence to speak up. Is there a way for Human Resources and Learning professionals to give employees a safe forum to share what they really think of those who work above them and have the ability to penalize them? Are anonymous 360-degree reviews the answer? If employees have no fear of repercussions, you might be surprised what you could learn about your company’s leaders.

At my own company, I know of one high-level employee who’s described by lower-level employees as a little (she’s only about 4’10) dictator. Another leader rubs people the wrong way so much that his reputation proceeds him—a person I used to work with, who worked with this man at another company, said people would half-jokingly wonder if he is the devil. Isn’t odd how these seemingly toxic personalities just keep advancing in their careers? How does that happen?

How can companies make the most of powerful, aggressive personalities while identifying those who have another, dangerous side to their successes?


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