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How to handle toxic personalities at work
You won’t find it on a resume, but it’s one of the most
important factors a worker brings to the job: personality.
Some personality types are so toxic they can poison
everyone around them.
The so-called “Eeyore”—the donkey of Winnie the Pooh fame
who suffered from persistent negativity—can leave even upbeat co-workers feeling
down. The “Blamers” never take personal responsibility, even when they should. “Credit
Thieves” demoralize co-workers. “Drama Kings” and “Drama Queens” suck oxygen from
“We’re really good at dealing with skills stuff,” in
hiring and performance reviews, said Mark Murphy, founder of D.C.-based Leadership
IQ, a leadership training and research firm. “Eighty-nine percent of hiring
failures come from attitude rather than skills issues.”
But experts said there are ways human resources managers
can handle problem personalities.
Like the character in the children’s books, these folks
always see the cloudy side. Their attitude is: the project can’t possibly be
done; the company will never succeed; they are never treated fairly.
Too often, managers feel they have to change themselves
or the work environment to suit this negative person. “They end up damaging the
[other] 90 percent of people” who have a positive outlook, pointed out Dean
Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, a Raleigh, N.C.-based work/life benefits
If the workplace Eeyore is allowed to get away with doing
less because of his or her complaints, team productivity can drop as other
employees begin to ask themselves, “Why am I working this hard?”
HR managers should use objective performance measures to show
an Eeyore that people can and do meet job demands that the Eeyore claims are unreasonable.
These types of workers blame their failures on other people and departments,
Murphy said. “Even a little bit of blame can become infectious,” he said.
In such a climate, other workers can become defensive and
a bit paranoid, worried that the Blamer may throw them under the bus, Murphy
said. Thus, he said, they can waste “10 percent to 15 percent of their time on
activities that are nothing more than covering themselves.”
HR’s role in this case is to coach managers to foster a
culture where problems are addressed before they fester, and where employees
can feel safe admitting mistakes and learning from them. It’s important not to
blow errors out of proportion or to come down too hard on workers because of
infractions. “You can’t have a ‘gotcha’ culture,” Debnam said.
When leaders aren’t paying close attention to who’s really
contributing, Murphy said, employees can get away with stealing the credit for
others’ work. This can happen especially in companies where people work in
teams, but are rewarded individually.
The Credit Thieves often get away with this behavior because
they are favorites of managers in top-down hierarchies. Peer reviews like
360-degree assessments can bring the problem to light.
Drama Kings and Queens react emotionally to almost
everything—whether it’s a work setback or personal crisis—and try to lure
colleagues into their theatrics. “They’re toxic because no one can get anything
done when they’re all stirred up emotionally,” Murphy said.
HR managers should first focus on the facts behind what’s
upsetting the employee, leaving emotional elements out of the conversation. Next,
they should invite the worker to focus on key aspects of the problem at hand to
encourage them to take personal responsibility and address the issue head-on.
are prone to sudden outbursts punctuated with dramatics, such as screaming or
throwing things. They often end up in leadership jobs because they are bright extroverts
and appear perfect on paper.
However, these types of employees tend to unravel under
stress, said Scott Davies, who has a Ph.D in industrial and organizational
psychology and is the head of PointLeader Inc., a Northern Virginia talent
management system that uses personality- and ability-based predictive
assessments. While their bosses often don’t see the problem, their subordinates
live in fear of the next blowup. Often, the Volcano’s tenure is marked by the
resignations of people who had to work under this turbulent management style.
Executive coaching can help Volcanoes figure out their
stress triggers and learn how to react more appropriately, Davies said.
Whatever the difficult personality, try to avoid hiring
them in the first place by using personality and attitude assessments during
the hiring process, Murphy advised.
If the problem person is already on board, HR managers
need to encourage managers to put personality problems into performance
reviews—noting specific behaviors that have caused problems, Murphy said.
Lytle is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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