Warning: Hazardous workplace personalities (Guest Commentary)

HR’s challenge in dealing with toxic behaviour

“Single-handedly, he creates a poisoned work environment around here.”

“She’s so uptight and overextended, her every word fills the office with tension.”

“I actually thought I could trust him. He manages to keep smiling while he finds ways to stab people in the back.”

Sound familiar? We’ve all seen people like these. In some cases they act out their psychological games and agendas consciously and intentionally. In others, it appears they’re out of touch with their own behaviour and its destructive impact.

Hazardous materials get a lot of attention in workplace regulation, policy and practice. So what about hazardous workplace personalities? They take many different forms and show up in such varied ways. They’re not as easy to control, neutralize or eliminate as chemical substances, explosive materials or dangerous tools and machines.

In your face or behind the scenes

Often, hazardous personalities and venomous behaviour are up front and out in the open. Some bosses are known to be tyrants who must always get their way. Then there’s the corporate bully who enjoys putting others “in their place.”

Also in the up-front category are the arrogant, steamrolling and double-crossing individuals who believe that an atmosphere of fear is best for achieving the organization’s — or their own — goals. Perhaps they were exposed to a dog-eat-dog environment early in their lives or careers, and they cling to it now that they are top (or at least, not bottom) dog.

Other hazardous personalities exert their negative influence in lower key, less obvious ways. They may be even more insidious and destructive since they’re harder to read, more covert.

In this category we find the fearful, self-protective individual who finds it impossible to trust colleagues, and difficult to communicate openly or to empower others.

There are other behaviour that undermine trust, collaboration and engagement: the quiet power-brokers who manipulate or deceive others to obtain their own ends or the prima donnas who seem to be harmlessly “high maintenance” in their need for attention and coddling, but sap the group’s energy and distract focus from positive work outcomes.

One of the most corrosive managers I’ve known seemed completely benign. He excelled at the technical aspects of the job — therefore was promoted and rewarded by the company — but in human terms, was a frigid personality who devoted negligible time and energy to his team and coaching responsibilities. Talented people with the right skills and experience just drifted away.

Toxic leaders and others

Hazardous personalities are particularly problematic in formal leaders because of the hierarchical authority and structures that support, camouflage and even legitimize some of their dysfunctional behaviour.

They can be found, however, in any role. They’re especially harmful among those with significant informal influence because of their job responsibilities and network of relationships, and those in key positions with a high degree of employee, public or customer interaction.

I’ve also observed that many project managers and team leads with dictatorial, bullying, manipulative or paranoid tendencies. Today’s project-oriented work world relies on these front-line leaders, many of whom are ill-prepared for the roles they are thrust into.

HR’s role

Amidst all their challenges and priorities, problems generated by hazardous workplace personalities are vexing distractions most HR people wish would just go away. But that’s not reality, and HR finds itself playing a variety of roles related to people who exhibit toxic behaviour:

Peacekeeper: Ongoing vigilance toward departments or teams where hazardous personalities are known to exist; HR plays a high- or low-profile role in calming the waters and smoothing over emotional ripples.

Intervener: In response to incidents or complaints about toxic behaviour, HR investigates, facilitates or engages in conflict resolution.

Coach: HR provides coaching or arranges remedial training, counselling or development for one or more parties involved in personality clashes, morale problems or performance issues.

Policy advisor: HR monitors incidents, identifies concerns, advises managers and employees, enforces company policy to align individual behaviour and group dynamics with company values, climate and employee relations objectives.

Disciplinarian: Directly or through responsible leaders, HR takes disciplinary steps or implements corrective action when a hazardous workplace personality crosses the line into unacceptable territory.

Role model: From a big picture, proactive perspective, HR practises, models and encourages actions that counteract human pain and toxic behaviour in the organization.

The book Toxic Emotions at Work points out that healthy practices like open communication, supportive leadership, effective management of change and involving people in decisions are the necessary antidote to the anguish people often experience in the work context.

One last possible role in relation to workplace hazardous personalities: HR itself can be a party to toxic behaviour. Unfortunately, some of the confused, insecure, tyrannical and manipulative leaders I’ve come across have been in the HR function itself — but that’s another whole subject.

Red flags for HR

Here are some red flags for HR professionals to keep in mind when evaluating your own role in handling hazardous personalities:

•How much of HR’s time and attention are spent on monitoring, intervening and fixing the mess created by hazardous personalities?

•Is HR consistent in applying policy, discipline or corrective steps across the company, or is HR inclined (or obliged) to turn a blind eye to, or soft-pedal, some situations while coming down hard on others?

•How well are HR leaders and staff prepared for the roles they play (peacekeeper, intervener, coach)? Do they have the skills and the grounding needed to deal with the messy terrain of toxic behaviour?

•What is the emotional toll on HR staff? Toxic Emotions at Work describes the importance of “toxin handlers” — people like HR who help others deal with emotional pain through listening, facilitating healing, extricating, coaching, supporting. Toxin handlers are indispensable but they can absorb stress and suffer negative consequences for themselves. They need sources of support and self-renewal in order to continue providing these beneficial services.

•Does HR save the day, rescue the situation, let hazardous personalities off the hook, thus condoning or perpetuating the toxic behaviour in some fashion? How can this cycle be broken?

•Is there a pattern in your organization related to hazardous personalities and the damage they are allowed to wreak? If too much toxic behaviour is condoned or endured by the powers that be, what does this say about leadership values and the corporate culture?

A call to action

HR is uniquely placed and uniquely accountable to address hazardous personalities and toxic behaviour in the workplace. Yes, all organizational leaders are ultimately accountable. But many need HR’s help to figure out what to do, how to deal with the dilemma. And some, unfortunately, are part of the problem. Often only a credible, confident HR professional can provide the necessary wake-up call — and the insight, support and guidance to resolve the situation.

If you’ve been successful in developing healthy ways to combat and prevent toxic behaviour, resolve occasional problems, coach and help hazardous workplace personalities turn themselves around, congratulations. Remain vigilant and remember what you’ve learned, for new incidents and flare-ups will emerge from time to time.

If, on the other hand, many or all of the red flags listed above are flapping in the wind in your company and for your HR function, recognize the severity of the risks and take action.

Ask yourself what is the organization’s perception of HR’s role vis-à-vis hazardous workplace personalities? Is HR seen as policeman, fixer, protector or problem-solver, and what are the implications? Each of these roles carries pros and cons. Finding the right balance is vital.

A new book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders, asks the searching question: “Why do we knowingly follow, seldom unseat, frequently prefer and sometimes even create toxic leaders?” While “we” includes everyone, “we in HR” have special reason to take action.

HR’s mandate is to lead and support the effort to build a healthy, productive organization. HR is responsible for professional practices in employee relations, leadership skill development and a workplace free of harassment and intimidation. Moreover, the HR professional has a personal career interest in being part of a company that is honest and constructive in confronting hazardous personalities and working toward improvement.

Hazardous workplace personalities create a zone marked by landmines and quagmire. Take care that HR doesn’t become trapped or circumscribed in its effectiveness.

Develop a systematic approach to articulate the risks, construct the necessary policy framework and obtain senior leader commitment. Work toward building the credibility and degrees of freedom you need to be part of the organization’s solution to the problem.

Ray Brillinger is a certified management consultant who works with clients on organizational change, HR strategy and performance improvement. He can be reached at (905) 547-8193 or [email protected].

From the HR Manager’s Bookshelf:

The Allure of Toxic Leaders by Jean Lipman-Blumen, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Toxic Emotions at Work by Peter J. Frost, Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

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