If I knew two years ago how to be a toxic employee, the knowledge would have saved me much grief.
In a recent piece on Entrepreneur.com, David G. Javitch (from my neck of the woods) talks about toxic employees. He lists 8 “symptoms,” and anyone who fits the description he promptly labels “toxic” or “problem.”
So just what are the symptoms? They are many:
- A decrease in or lack of productivity
- A decrease in or poor morale
- An increased frequency in arguments between the employee and others
- A sense that the employee is increasingly frustrated because “things just aren’t going right”
- A negative, antagonistic attitude
- An increase in negative comments and personal attacks
- An unwillingness to work overtime or stay late without reason
- An unwillingness to “go the extra mile” while encouraging others to refuse as well
Other symptoms include infighting, backbiting, passive/aggressive behavior (aggressive actions done in a passive or weak manner), arguments or criticisms for the sake of being different or antagonistic, and an unwillingness to help out others in a culture that values providing input and assistance to colleagues.
For a creative team, even for a non-creative one, this is just plain wrong.
If an employee can’t do his work or feels bad about the work, especially if he used to be happy and energetic, this usually indicates a problem with the work environment or the management.
Of Alistair Cockburn’s 7 properties of successful teams, number 4 is Personal Safety. This means if something is bothering you, you feel free to say something about it. And if only one employee is griping, it frequently means he’s the one who’s not afraid to get fired.
Attitudes are not behaviors, and doing something about an employee’s “attitude” is more likely to cause trouble than to fix it. Instead, coach an employee to improve observable, measurable behavior.
Thought workers decrease productivity as they work more hours. An unwillingness to work overtime without reason frequently means they’re self-aware enough and professional enough to regulate their work habits effectively. Ditto an unwillingness to “go the extra mile,” a cliche used far too often to justify out-of-control management by sloughing off responsibility for them onto the employee.
And God forbid that these employees start spreading their damned self-actualization to their teammates! Why, the whole command-and-control hierarchy could fall in on itself!
I want to be one of these employees. I don’t care if they broad-brush me with words like “toxic” and “problem.” I want to be self-aware and to treat my work as a profession, not “just a job.” The worst they can do is fire me.
So, how do you be a toxic employee? Here are some ideas.
Look for solutions, not just problems. If you’re in a hopeless situation, it’s easy to feel negative. But look for ways to do things right. Find the people who need to be involved in making it happen. Lobby them. You may be ignored. You may be vilified. But remember, the worst they can do is fire you.
Assume good intentions. Don’t assume everyone is out to get you. If someone asks you about a touchy subject, assume they just want more information. Be positive and enthusiastic. If someone challenges you, assume you don’t understand their point of view. Listen to them. They more they talk, the more you get to learn about them, the easier it will be for you to get them on board. Most of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People is about learning how to listen effectively.
Commit, but only to what you can actually deliver. Generate a good reputation for yourself: Make promises, and keep them. Also do the converse. Refuse to commit to what you may not be able to deliver. Your commitment means nothing if you’ll commit even to the impossible. Make it clear that you can’t commit to unrealistic goals, but you will do what you can, which is a lot.
Help your manager. You may work under a great manager in a troubled company. It’s happened. (But chances are he won’t stick around long.) If you don’t, re-frame your manager’s criticisms as constructive feedback. Find a mentor. Measure your own performance. Know your limits and respect them, even while looking for bona-fide ways to stretch them. Find ways to sell yourself on your manager’s goals. Understand the challenges your manager faces, and find ways to help him meet them.
Help others. Always be looking for ways to help others be happy. This may mean connecting them with resources they need to do their jobs more easily. It may mean being a sounding board for other “toxic employees.” It may mean passing around a funny Dilbert. It may mean helping others find alternative employment. This is networking at its finest. Keith Ferrazzi has many more ideas in his book Never Eat Alone.
Maybe you can think of even more ways to be a toxic employee.