How to deal with toxic employees?
Especially if you consider that most “difficult employees’ articles” on Google’s first page help very little.
Well, here’s for you a Realpolitik resource for dealing with toxic employees.
First, I will briefly explain the psychology of toxic employees.
And then I’ll give you some advice based on their specific personality profile.
#1. Rebels Without A Cause
I hate you, don’t fire me
These types of toxic employees cannot stand having a boss.
They reject any type of outside authority, are hypersensitive to power dynamics and they soon come to resent any boss who doesn’t grant them enough freedom.
Some rebels had an overbearing parent or a highly demanding parent to whom they are still rebelling.
Accepting dominance hierarchies is indeed a sign of maturity, but rebels are locked into a child role (see Transactional Analysis).
And now, even as adults, any outside authority triggers the same parental resistances of their teenage years.
But today, instead of slaying the overbearing father, they want to slay you.
Sometimes though childhood has little to do with it and Rebels are simply power-hungry individuals themselves.
They want to be the ones giving orders and calling the shots and they hate you for having authority over them.
These types of toxic employees often have huge egos coupled with very thin-skin. A terrible combination for anyone aspiring to a leader position (see Trump).
Rebels Make Excuses to Hate You
Rebels hide behind causes and ideals.
They might pose as “social justice warriors”, saying they hate power and bosses because “it’s unfair”, because “they oppress people” or because the boss is “abusive and mean”.
That’s only a front of course: the truth is that they resent people who have power over them.
They don’t want a good relationship with their bosses, they want power over their bosses.
Watch out for these people: the ones who are good at playing this game can easily sow discontent and potentially turn your whole team into an enemy.
How it Feels Managing Rebels
With the aggressive types, you will get into power struggles.
How to Deal With Rebels
It’s a common mistake trying to overpower.
Overpowering rebels is tantamount to cure a problem with more of what causes the problem.
They will come to see you more and more as the abusive inflictor of terrible ego beat downs.
And they will want to destroy you to vindicate the infamy.
What to do then?
If they are poor at what they do, fire them.
If they are good, you must give them “freedom of operation”.
Make them feel like they are special agents with “license to act like self-employed”.
Yep, that’s the secret to keep these guys performing problem-free: make them feel like they are self-employed.
Allow them to work from home, come and go at their time and, if they perform, remove any needs for reporting.
Just let them come to you with the results and the money they earn for your company -that’s what you want in the end, no?-.
Just Like Investment Bank’s Traders
Banks grant them lots of freedom and let alone to perform. When they lose more than they make, that’s the time to fire them.
After all, they never had any allegiance to you, right?
Skills You Need to Master
If too many people in your team seem to resent your management, it’s time to face the fact that you might be the problem.
You need to learn to manage not through authority and title, but more by example (read power over VS power through).
And if you cannot grant more freedom to top-performers, then you must wonder if you are the one with power issues (in this case: the need to feel powerful).
#2. The Cynics
Just when you want to soar with the eagles… A cynic will bring you back with the turkeys.
Cynics are insidious because they masquerade their envious doom and gloom as realism.
They position themselves as simply rational, realist types that the rest of your team should better listen to.
And that makes them toxic employees per excellence.
There are 3 main types of cynics:
- Defensive cynicism (it’s not that I’m successful, it’s just that everything sucks and I don’t even want to try)
- Power mover (use cynicism to discredit others)
- Former idealists
The last one is most common in plum Western societies -poor countries have seen too much dog-eat-dog behavior to nurture many idealists-.
Former idealists change tack when they hit life difficulties and realize that the company, the state, the people or whatever it is they were duped to believe in, weren’t there.
Hurt and disappointed, instead of rebalancing their views, they swing in the opposite direction.
Cynics Misunderstand The Power Moves
The cynic says he loves Robert Greene, but it’s mostly just The 48 Laws of Power and he vibes with that “everyone manipulates” message.
He reads the power moves, and loves articles such as “corporate lies” and “how politicians manipulate the masses“.
But he fails to read the finer print, where it says that any social contract can be win-win.
And that our efforts should be in developing a fairer system, not on withdrawing or destroying the system.
Here’s the kicker:
Most executives and top performers are positively cynic.
The positive cynic is a different breed.
Not swayed by corporate BS, he focuses on giving because he obeys the cardinal rule of effective cynicism:
- #1. Rule of a successful cynic: the more I give, the more I can ask.
And, contrary to Pollyanna operators who apply misguided advice of “giving without asking“, they are very assertive in demanding their share of the pie:
Cynic High-Flyer: don’t give me BS, I put X on the table, and I want Y back.
And they are not wrong!
Better to assertively ask for what’s fair, then waiting and hoping the man will be nice enough to give.
How to Deal With Cynics
If they are poor performers, what are they doing in your team?
They destroy team morale and undermine your authority.
If they are high-achieving cynics, make sure the non written contract is in place: they can remain cynic, but they must play the game.
Playing the game entails showing up to team events, pay lip service to the company’s values and pretending they give a f*ck about Mark the IT nerd’s birthday.
Yep, welcome to company’s politics Mr. Cynic.
#3. Homo Economicus
I am paid for 8 hours. At 17:30 hours I go home.
What you wrote on the contract, you get.
Don’t expect extra work, extra effort or special allegiance.
With him, you get what you pay for -literally-.
Sometimes the homo economicus is afraid of being taken advantage of.
He is afraid that if he does more and doesn’t get more, then he will get hurt by the unfairness of this world -he fails to see that that’s the perfect test for an employer-.
But more often the homo economicus is your average Joe.
Not particularly driven, no particularly motivated and, often, not particularly bright either.
He’s gotten his degree with average grades so that he could live a simple yet comfortable life with a mortgage, a car, and an average lady on his side.
He pays his health insurance, his pension plan and he trusts the system to take care of him if things go south.
He’s not bad… He’s just an average fella.
How can this guy be a toxic employee?
Well, he’s not… If you are running simple operations like, say, business process outsourcing, or if he is some dull compliance work.
But the homo economicus is toxic for top-performing teams.
Because they will form a clique with other homo economicus, slackers and cynics.
And they will become the ballast preventing you from flying.
That average-performing clique will also stand in stark contrast to the top performers, the extra-milers and your screaming fans employees.
The two groups will grow further and further apart and, at a certain point, some of the extra-mile employees will start thinking “why working hard if these slackers will be reaping the same rewards”?
And, like in any public good game, the givers will stop giving.
That’s how average Joes harm team performance.
If you need excellence, you don’t the Homo Economicus
#4. The Thin-Skinned
This meme sums up well the Thin-Skinned employee:
They have a fragile ego that easily gets hurt.
And that means that you need to police your words and much of your effort must go on etiquette, not on results.
They also make a lot of drama and, potentially, unneeded escalation to upper management.
Thin-Skinned are prototypes of fixed mindset people.
That is, they believe that their traits and skills are fixed in time, which in turn means they interpret negative feedback on their work as you telling them they are bad and unworthy.
Everything is personal with Thin-Skinned employees.
And that’s why they can’t stomach reality: reality is often harsh.
Thin-Skinned don’t belong in high-performance, result-oriented teams because unadulterated, raw and quick feedback from reality should be the only metric there (see Ray Dalio’s Principles).
Thin-Skinned employees can’t grow quick enough to meet the needs of performance-based teams, so one of two things will happen:
- The team comes down to meet the thin-skinned employees, a “kid gloves approach” takes hold and efficiency pays the price
- The team steamrolls the Thin-Skinned who is left behind, quits or creates drama
Watch out because what you perceive as “honesty” and “no-BS approach” is “bullying” and “verbal abuse” for the thin-skinned employee.
And those you don’t want those labels in an HR formal complaint.
The Vindictive Thin-Skinned
Vindictive employees are a subset of thin-skinned and they are particularly toxic employees to deal with.
They might put a fake stoic face, but in reality, they hurt and they never forget.
And they swear that they will make you pay for your insolence.
They never communicate directly and honestly and as they stew in their resentment for you, their interpretation of reality becomes more and more distorted.
Many managers fail to see the signs, and that’s how they end up blindsided when they got called by HR with no idea how the hell they got there.
And there might be no real proof in that brief.
The dumbest and most spiteful of them will sue you even if they got nothing on you -contrary to the Machiavellian players outlined below-.
How to Deal With Thin-Skins
If you’re in big sprawling corporations, you can’t avoid them.
If you can move them, put them into easier roles.
They will do well in quieter back-office environments: they tend to be conscientious people.
They can also become very loyal to you because their fragile ego goes both ways: they get hurt easily and they also get hooked easily on emotional rewards.
Oh, and what to do if you’re in a startup or in any “no space for faint of heart employees”?
Then you know what you gotta do…
Efficiency is doing as little as possible while collecting the same salary
Shirkers are some of the most common toxic employees.
They are busy with mysterious projects, take long to finish tasks, and generally try to do as little as possible to get by.
Oh, and they also take long lunches and often get sick.
There several types of shirkers:
- Entitled shirkers: victims of entitlement mentality, such as the belief that they are due stuff without having to put in the work
- Nurtured shirkers: grew up with helicopter parents who gave everything (except good parenting)
- Lazy shirkers: apathetic to work and life, they just don’t see the point and their biggest ambition is Netflix and pizza
Finally, there are the socially clueless shirkers.
They overlap with entitled and nurtured and don’t see or understand that healthy relationships entail an exchange.
How it Feels Managing Shirkers
Some shirkers are professionals in looking busy.
They like being in multiple easy projects so that you never know what’s their real workload.
And they can always refer to “that other project they’re working on”.
But the most toxic shirkers have learned the greatest secret of easy office life: if they make it difficult for people to approach and deal with them, nobody will ever give them work.
Some of them become difficult employees through latent aggression, while others do it with passive aggression.
Milton in “Office Space” is an example of the second type:
What’s toxic with shirkers?
They spread the virus!
Free-riders aren’t just toxic in companies and teams: free-riders are toxic to societies.
The number of free riders varies widely depending on whether or not punishment is introduced in the exchanges (Fehr and Gächter, 2000).
The issue is that free rider, as James Surowiecki righteously notes, “poison” the whole system.
Employees who would go the extra mile in a fair contribution system stop giving when free riders show up.
And that’s why free riders are devastatingly toxic: they trigger vicious circles of apathy, demotivation, and disinvestment.
#6. Power Seekers
My boss is my stepping stone
Power Seekers have huge ambitions.
That ambition includes taking your place or, even better, jumping straight above you.
They are dangerous for managers because if moving up means destroying you in the process, they will happily do so.
The poorest power seekers will make it obvious that they reject your authority and are planning of overtaking you.
But most of them are Machiavellian and manipulative to the core.
They pretend of being all about “doing a great job” and “learning from you”. And they’ll even build you up in the process.
Of course, they fully support management and the company’s values.
But not because they believe in them, but because they know that aligning with power is always one of the best strategies to accrue power.
You Are The Placeholder Boss
I work for you now because I couldn’t find any better, but you’re only my stepping stone and I’ll move up as soon as I can.
This breed of toxic reports is not planning to be your report for long. Unless you’re equally ruthless as they are, they have contempt for you.
How to Deal With Power Seekers
If it’s your company, you can use them.
Unless they’re pure sociopaths, you can bridle them and milk their ambitions for your own benefit.
Just be extremely careful though: the most toxic types focus more on politics and rival elimination than on actual results.
If it’s not your company and you don’t have great ambitions, don’t cross them and let them free to walk their power path: that way you won’t get hurt.
And if you want to compete with them, then make sure they learn nothing from you and get ready to rumble.
#7. Suck-Up Players
The closer I get to my boss, the more power I have
Suck-up players’ flatter you and support you.
But it doesn’t come for free: they do it because they want you to like them, protect them and, crucially, to play favorites with them.
We talked about Suck-up players in office politics players as well.
Suck-up players can brown-nose for different reasons, ranging from admiration to love to power-infatuation.
True suck-up players are not very ambitious.
Seeking power by reflection and brown-nosing indeed are defensive games, low-status behavior, and inherently submissive.
Just like children unconsciously seek their parents’ goodwill, so suck-up players seek political safety.
You might wonder:
How can these guys be toxic?
They are toxic for two reasons:
- Your other reports might think you two are in cahoots
- It injects politics into your teams and lowers the morale
Finally, if you’re not attentive enough, they might even manage to get too close and win your favors.
You want to avoid that at all costs or you’ll come across as weak and easy to manipulate.
Remember this golden rule of management:
When you grow too close to someone specific, you grow distant with all the others
#8. The Predators
How can I screw them over…
If shirkers are happy to give as little as possible, predatory employees actively look for ways to take as much as possible.
Employees with this mindset rarely stop at moral and ethical considerations.
And they even rarely stop at lawful boundaries -unless they can leverage the law to screw you over, that is-
Here we start getting into criminal psychology and psychopathologies.
They have no moral standards, are cynics and sometimes are sociopaths and psychopaths.
If they do have internal morals, some of them will manipulate themselves first and foremost.
They will twist the story in their mind and paint you as the evil boss they must destroy -and yeah, they are the Robin Hood of that story of course-.
The lowest quality overlaps with the shirkers.
They’re the kind of toxic employees who are mentally deranged enough to voluntarily hurt themselves just to get insurance money.
The most Machiavellian of them instead connive and conspire to enact more elaborate frauds.
For example, they will read corporate laws and record your infractions just so that one day they can sue you and your company.
These types of toxic employees, needless to say, are some of the most dangerous you’ll ever meet.
They destroy team morale, bring about legal woes and make for terrible PR and publicity.
How to Deal With Predators
You must learn to read people and prevent.
Look for signs of antisocial-disorder personalities, examine past employment history -often dotted by very brief stints- and check references.
If they are already in your company, the best solution is always to cut them off.
But you must do so with ruthless Machiavellianism.
Because if they have dirt on your or on your company, expect getting sued.
American Beauty has an example of a predatory toxic employee:
Why Most “Difficult Employees” Guides Are Useless
Google feeds in the first-page content that comes from big publishers such as Forbes or Harvard Business Review.
Albeit these publications got there because they, often, have great content, that does not hold true when it comes to more nuanced social dynamics.
This is the first result when typing “how to deal with difficult employees”:
This catch-all advice is rarely effective, often useless and, sometimes, counterproductive.
Here are just a few reasons why it’s wrong:
- Listen: listening to suck-up players will communicate that you also want to get closer. You need to send the opposite message
- Feedback: giving feedback to a rebel will only make him hate you more. Remember, he’s like a rebel child rejecting parent-like behavior
- Walk through the company process: vindictive and predatory employees will only take it to mean they must get ready for war. Much better pretend all is good until you fire them out of the blue
Big publications are also forced to produce plain vanilla content that fits our zeitgeist of political correctness.
And that’s not going to cut it when you need effective, real-life advice.
Limitations of This Article
Reality is complex.
We know that.
Yet, embracing complexity doesn’t mean we have to suspend all our attempts at simplifying reality in order to make sense of it.
This article describes archetypes of toxic employees by clustering them within single-trait boxes.
Archetypes are a form of complexity-reduction.
Like all attempts at simplifying things, archetypes also distort reality and leave out important information.
Keep that in mind before you lock your colleagues and team members into any of the above boxes.
Toxic Employees… Or Toxic Manager?
Finally, if you are a manager reading here, you might ask yourself the difficult question.
Are you the problem?
In a complex world, it’s likely that there are multiple factors contributing to a problem.
And you might be one of them.
Looking in the mirror is always difficult, but it’s the first step towards true self-development and self-empowerment.
There is no one size fit all for dealing with toxic employees.
Because “toxic” is an umbrella term and “toxic employees” are all different.
And different personalities require different solutions.
The first step in dealing with toxic employees is understanding toxic employees.
That requires that managers improve their emotional intelligence and their people skills.
This article gave you an overview of the archetypes and psychological profiles of toxic employees.
For a holistic approach to office politics, check the workplace module.