Don’t Let a Toxic Employee Define You

Those master manipulators have a way of destroying morale and draining bosses’ energy.

Every person who has spent any significant amount of time in a management role has encountered at least one employee from that warm place, and I am not talking about Phoenix. The best of the worst are master manipulators who work within the system confounding attempts to discipline or dismiss them with vexing, nose-thumbing ease. Along the way, these walking toxic waste dumps destroy group morale and drain the life energy for leading from their bosses.

While it would be nice to believe you could avoid these close encounters of the evil kind, life is never that easy. A bad apple slips through the hiring cracks. An employee passed over for a promotion feels slighted and seemingly devotes her free time to thinking of ways to torture you. The brilliant but mercurial employee you support because of her brilliance turns out to be the epicenter of dysfunction on your team. And those are just three I dealt with at various points in my career. I hear new examples regularly from my coaching clients.

These are often bitter, crushing situations filled with regrets and second-guesses and creeping self-doubt. “If only I had…” is the refrain I hear most often as managers describe their own painful situations. And while some readers might wonder why the managers failed to exorcise these people from the workplace, the reality is that the system is typically set-up to minimize litigation and not maximize speed of resolution. Due process in some firms becomes dead-slow process, where the manager is forced to survive and teammates suffer while the individual in question skates along on the thin line between survival and elimination.

In most instances, these situations eventually come to an inglorious ending and the manager and team are left to clean up the mess and cope with the post-traumatic stress fallout that follows in the wake of these bad apples. I know a few managers who lost their love for their work of guiding and developing others and made radical changes in their careers. Others have become suspicious and cynical about everyone they encounter and hesitant ever again to extend their trust, lest it be trampled upon. And some managers use these experiences to come back stronger and more committed to their work than ever before. It is the behaviors of this latter group that most inspire me.

Four Lessons in Constructive Recovery from Dealing with a Toxic Employee:

1. Press the restart button. Use the immediate post toxic employee period to build stronger relationships with your team members as individuals and as a group. One manager met with her employees and without revisiting the entire painful experience, took full responsibility for her missteps and the past pain. She apologized and committed to doing everything in her power to avoiding a repeat scenario. She met personally with each team member to let them vent and she redoubled her efforts to insure accountability for respect and results in daily activities.

2. Roll up the lessons learned and apply them moving forward. One of my personal favorite examples of constructive recovery involved a manager who engaged a mentor to review what had transpired and to identify situations where she failed to act or to act properly to drive a speedy resolution. She summarized the lessons learned, shared them with her boss and her boss’s boss and identified how she would handle a difficult employee in the future. By providing problem employees with direct and specific feedback and follow-up, and quickly engaging the human resources staff to ensure proper processes were followed from the start, she was well prepared for her next difficult situation.

3. Reset on your group’s or firm’s values. Another manager recognized that he had failed to live up to the values of the firm in his handling of a challenging employee. He admitted as such to his group and asked for their help in creating an internal initiative to review the values and identify opportunities to translate them into daily activities. The group’s effort was appreciated by senior management and soon became a companywide initiative.

4. Take a break. I actually did this. It turns out that after a few months of being responsible for no one but myself, I realized how important it was for me to be supporting the efforts of others. The break allowed me to reset and rethink how I practiced leadership. I came back ferociously committed to helping others develop while helping my business succeed.

The common threads in the “survivor” lessons above include the recognition and admission of responsibility and the resolve to turn the negative situation into a set of strong, positive behaviors in the future. Those who give up miss out on the opportunity for growth created by a tough experience. They allow themselves to be defined by this one situation and the world loses someone who now has the context and experience to truly help others in the future. My counsel: lick your wounds; admit your responsibility; rethink your approach to leading and turn this one lousy experience into a set of behaviors that help others succeed on their career journeys. And remember, no one said this would be easy.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.