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What If You Are the Toxic Person at Work?


Being toxic is like body odor.  We are oblivious to the discomfort we create for others.  A colleague described a healthcare Vice President that is a bully as well as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.  The first question is obvious.  Who promotes these people?  The offending executive must be like a blind umpire calling balls and strikes behind the plate.  My popular YouTube video, Is Your Boss an Idiot? Five clues to know for sure helps clarify idiocy in a boss.  However, it does not share insight into what makes someone toxic in the workplace.  Being an idiot and being toxic may overlap, yet they are not the same.  Human toxicity is more common than you might think.  I poll audiences regularly, and it seems most people know at least one toxic person at work.  More specifically, if you do not know anyone toxic at work, you might be the one!


I compare toxic people to tumors in the workplace.  There are benign tumors that cause pain and discomfort for other people.  Also, worse, there are malignant tumors that will kill your organization.  Benign tumors are mostly Negative Nancy’s (my apologies to positive Nancy’s everywhere).  They complain about the work, the people, and the organization.  Most of us attempt to ignore them.  Malignant tumors are usually in positions of power and have a wide span of influence in the organization.  Others can identify malignant tumors:


  1. Tumors have a history. Because of today’s litigious reality, hiring professionals have a difficult time determining a candidate’s real past.  Post-termination policies limit what the former company can say during past employment verification.  It is easy to be seduced by a powerful resume that does not reflect reality.  Most job interviews are superficial and do not dig into the candidate’s past relationship with the people they led. So frankly, previous employers may be excited that the toxic executive is moving on and no longer infecting their own culture.


  1. Tumors are pathological. The most common form of executive toxicity is narcissism.  We all have narcissistic tendencies; however, when these are amplified, they become a problem.  So how do you spot a narcissist?  Following are some clues to determine a toxic level of narcissism. They live in a binary world that is only one way or another.  It is usually their way or no way at all.  They do not utilize the input of subordinates when making decisions.  Coworkers are either “in the circle” or “out of the circle of trust.”  These executives see themselves as the “Messiah” who is omnipotent with solutions.  They also place the appearance of reality over solving problems.  In other words, they are more concerned with how a situation will reflect upon themselves rather than finding a solution.  It is easy to spot while coaching these executives because they reveal it readily when under stress.  “How will it look to our customers, the board, or my boss?” is a typical first reaction to a challenging situation. 


How does someone self-diagnose toxicity?  If you honestly answer yes to five (5) or more of the following questions, it is time to get a coach and ask for help.


  1. My coworkers avoid or rarely ask me to events away from work?
  2. Am I embarrassed by negative or constructive feedback in a group setting?
  3. I criticize other people or their work.
  4. I have at least one enemy at work.
  5. I suspect people are talking about me behind my back.
  6. I rarely do things to help others at work.
  7. I am too busy to spend time on small talk.
  8. I have a long memory for adverse events in the past.
  9. I stay angry or upset with others for more than two days.
  10. I say “it’s not my fault or it’s not my job” at work.
  11. I have yelled or screamed at a coworker more than once on this job.
  12. I judge others by the problems in their personal lives.
  13. I have felt like a victim in two or more positions.
  14. I think about myself and my upcoming day as I commute to work.
  15. Others mistreat me.
  16. I avoid certain coworkers.


Bonus:  If you think yes should be the answer to the questions above, you are indeed the problem. 


These questions help you honestly see yourself as others may see you at work.  I hesitate to use always and never; however, the focus for negative people is on themselves.  How do I see myself in a situation?  This intrinsic perspective prevents us from social queues that demonstrate caring and compassion for others.  We miss micro expressions that solicit expected responses.  We slowly become labeled as uncaring or insensitive by others.


A good coach is your chemotherapy and will help you understand the why behind your toxicity.  It takes practice to work on relationships and your conditioned response to situations.  Think of your awareness as a first step toward recovery.  Becoming less toxic is like a dial, not a switch.