Toxicity in the Workplace

In my recent book, “Assholes Matter,” I discussed the effects of criticism in the workplace and its effects on mental health. This morning, I read an article by regarding Arianna Huffington’s approach and thought I would add some perspective.

Selecting the right employees for an organization is a nuanced and critical process that demands thorough evaluation, irrespective of their intelligence or qualifications. This fundamental principle stands in stark contrast to the divergent perspectives presented by thought leaders Robert Sutton and Arianna Huffington regarding the presence of toxic individuals within a company.

Robert Sutton’s Hypothesis: The Value of “Assholes”

Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University and author of “The No Asshole Rule,” posits a controversial hypothesis that suggests having an “Asshole” within an organization can, at times, yield benefits. Sutton’s argument revolves around the notion that these individuals, although abrasive and disruptive, can bring a certain level of assertiveness and determination that might drive results in competitive environments. He argues that their behavior, while unpleasant, can sometimes shake up complacency and challenge the status quo, leading to innovation and improved performance in certain scenarios.

Sutton’s viewpoint acknowledges the complexities of human behavior and organizational dynamics, recognizing that not all “Assholes” are uniformly detrimental. He emphasizes the need for careful management and strategic placement of such individuals to harness their potential contributions while mitigating their negative impacts on team morale and cohesion.

Arianna Huffington’s Stance: No Room for “Brilliant Jerks”

On the other hand, Arianna Huffington takes a diametrically opposed stance with her steadfast rule of “no brilliant jerks allowed” in her hiring practices. This philosophy underscores the importance of fostering a positive and harmonious work environment free from toxic behavior. Huffington prioritizes values such as empathy, collaboration, and mutual respect, believing that toxic individuals, regardless of their talent or intellect, can erode trust, hinder collaboration, and ultimately impede organizational success.

Huffington’s approach aligns with broader trends in contemporary management theories that emphasize the significance of psychological safety, employee well-being, and inclusive leadership practices. She advocates for swift action in addressing toxic behavior and, if necessary, removing toxic individuals from the organization to preserve its culture and effectiveness.

Navigating the Terrain: Identifying and Managing Toxicity

While both Sutton and Huffington offer valuable insights into navigating workplace dynamics, their contrasting views highlight the complex nature of managing toxicity within organizations. Identifying toxic individuals early on remains a crucial challenge, as toxic behavior can manifest in various forms, from aggression and manipulation to passive-aggressive tendencies and micromanagement.

Huffington’s emphasis on warning signs such as sharing confidential information, persistent negativity, and controlling behaviors resonates with Sutton’s characterization of “Assholes” who disrupt teamwork and foster a toxic atmosphere. Both perspectives underscore the importance of proactive measures to address toxic behavior and cultivate a healthy work environment conducive to productivity, innovation, and employee well-being.

Balancing Dismissal and Assistance

While Sutton’s hypothesis challenges conventional wisdom by exploring the potential benefits of assertive individuals labeled as “Assholes,” Huffington’s unwavering stance against toxic behavior underscores the importance of maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace culture. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and our choices reflect how we can bring the reality of our situations closest to the optimal environment. There can never be room in any organization for truly toxic individuals, the irredeemable individuals whose toxic behaviors and actions undercut the ability of their colleagues to be productive and extract satisfaction from their work lives. However, people are rarely opaque in all their behaviors, and thus navigating this terrain requires a nuanced approach that balances individual contributions with collective well-being, ultimately shaping the organizational ethos and trajectory.

Managing people requires leaders to deal with all sorts of issues, and no matter how carefully one builds a team, there will always be conflicts, and sometimes, someone becomes known as an Asshole. Not all Assholes are evil people. As humorous as the word usage may appear to some, we can observe the differences by reducing the issue to its most basic terminology. Some people come to be viewed as Assholes within an organization because they are passionate about their work and the work of those around them. Their Asshole-like behavior is not about criticizing or demeaning other people. Evil Assholes, however, are toxic individuals whose interactions are marked by personal attacks. In both cases, the individuals may bring important skills to an organization. However, while one is an overly passionate contributor who lacks emotional control or awareness, the bad Asshole who is unwilling to reform their behavior must be dismissed.

As with anything in life, anyone who wants to learn can learn. Some people will progress more rapidly than others. Even the most passionate or volatile team members can learn to mollify their behavior and control their Asshole tendencies. An organization’s leadership’s most significant task is to manage and uplift all team members to perform at a higher level than when they joined the organization. It is no different when dealing with challenged individuals. A leader’s first imperative is to model and uphold dignity, even when they themselves are under attack by Assholes. By implementing respectful feedback guidelines and accountability policies, leaders gain exponentially more ingenuity and dedication over time. By modeling appropriate behaviors, they teach others to celebrate diverse thinking without tolerating demeaning behaviors.

When difficult personalities use personal attacks to bully or demean colleagues, particularly subordinate staff with limited power, leaders must act swiftly to stem contagion. Leaders must discern whether passionate outbursts are aimed to motivate colleagues’ potential or only serve to undermine dignity. Some workplace barbs are intended to provoke a positive response, while others claim to be well-intended but create uncertainty and stress.

In any organization, leaders and managers are faced with challenging personalities. However valuable these individuals’ skills and drive are, their interpersonal skills, or lack thereof, create conflict and bruised feelings. If these individuals become aware of the damage their behavior creates, and if they are willing to focus on facts and set aside their malignant behaviors, leaders can coach them to express themselves more constructively and productively. As Robert Sutton explored in his books on the workplace, toxicity severely impacts morale, retention, and performance.

Dismissing toxic staff outright overlooks opportunities for exponential growth hidden within their personality clashes. With empathy and skillful feedback, leaders can unlock tremendous potential by transforming destructive tendencies into catalysts for growth. Some friction is healthy and necessary. If lacking in personal attacks, it can illuminate pathways forward that homogeneous groups overlook and yield innovation where harmony stagnates.

However, difficult personalities who depend on personal attacks to score points are people manifesting poor behavior due to the impact of unresolved adverse childhood experiences that become embedded coping mechanisms, as revealed in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Their behaviors were learned early on to help them cope with and survive the trauma of abuse or neglect. As an adult, their actions are defense mechanisms, combating childhood fears and creating a buffer around themselves by punishing others for any attempt at progress.

When employees join a workplace, they arrive with a toolbox filled with skills. But they also arrive bearing the effects of their childhood experiences that shape their positive and negative behavioral tendencies. Managers are rarely trained psychologists, yet they must learn the skills to manage various personalities and coach them to become their best contributors. The manager’s impact, however, does not stop at the doorway to the office, as the example they set is also reflected in how staff comport themselves while away from the office.

Today’s staff are tomorrow’s leaders, and the examples you set are ones they will emulate when leading others. Their training begins with the example a leader sets in shaping workplace culture and how they help troubled employees adopt healthier coping skills. With support, high-functioning yet provocative personalities (Assholes) can evolve from liabilities into assets, driving competitive advantage. Despite leaving bruised feelings via blunt delivery, a redeemable “Asshole” can be an organization’s secret weapon when their passion is harnessed properly.