Identifying Toxic Team Members
High performers with low trust can become toxic leaders and team members. Even with mediocre performers, you are better off with team members who inspire high trust. The challenge is assisting those who lack trust in gradually building it so they can succeed.
Simon Sinek is a consultant, author, motivational speaker and has one of the 10 most popular Ted Talks: “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”. Sinek has served as an organizational consultant for the Navy Seals, the U.S. Navy’s special operations force, which is known for its high demands for top performance and flawless teamwork. During his time with the Navy Seals, Sinek was introduced to classifying team members based on two factors – trust and performance; visualized in a figure below and adapter from his speech “The Most Toxic Person in The Workplace”:
Performance vs. Trust
Everyone wants star leaders and team members in the top right quadrant (High Performance & High Trust) and nobody wants non-performing and untrustworthy leaders and team members in the bottom left quadrant (Low Performance & Low Trust). However, the most challenging one is the upper left quadrant (High Performance & Low Trust), what Sinek calls the “toxic leaders and team members” who perform exceptionally well but can’t build trust among their colleagues.
Sinek states that they are not necessarily bad people: “Don’t fire them, coach them to develop the right skills and improve performance.” They might have been lacking feedback or worked for organizations that incentivized such behavior. Many of them have the potential to grow significantly. However, if they are “un-coachable”, he advised, they should be terminated.
According to Sinek, trust equates to a person’s character, such as whether someone will “have your back when the chips are down.” Trust is desired not only in Navy Seals but also in strong leaders and good teachers and yet are often overlooked by a too narrow focus on performance, Sinek remarked.
At Kodo People, we define trust as the tendency to believe that a person or group will act appropriately in a certain situation. Trustful people do not fear being in others’ hands as they expect others to reciprocate their trust (Behave4, 2019). While trustworthiness refers to the tendency to generate trust, acting with a positive and favorable attitude towards the demands and expectations of others. A person is trustworthy when s/he does not take advantage of the trust that others place in her/him. Closely related to positive reciprocity (Behave4, 2019)
What is Toxic Behavior and Why Does it Matter?
Well, viruses are not the only contagions that can spread across a workplace and jeopardize the whole organization’s overall wellbeing. It’s bad behavior, too.
According to a Harvard Business School study from 2015, toxic employees can cause a ripple effect on their coworkers in terms of toxicity and productivity. Toxic employees’ behavior can spread like a virus, infecting even the team members who take precautions to avoid it. In severe circumstances, a toxic team member might cost the company a fortune in terms of legal fees and liabilities (Housman & Minor, 2015).
It has been established that a negative work environment within an organization can have significant consequences for the employees who work there (Fitzgerald & Eijnatten, 2002). Toxic workers demotivate their co-workers, leading to an increase in their frustration. Toxic leaders’ behavior can have a negative ripple effect on the organizational culture and attract toxic managers and toxic workers, creating a toxic culture. These terms are currently being used more frequently in business management, leadership, and related literature to define the antecedents of what makes a company toxic (Appelbaum & Roy-Girard, 2007).
Even modest levels of toxic behavior can result in significant organizational costs, such as customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among key external stakeholders (Ermongkonchai, 2010).
The impact of this deviant behavior is tied to the employee’s attitude, perception, and personality, as well as the employee’s surrounding environment. Absenteeism, theft, inefficiency, and unethical actions are the most expensive of these activities (Appelbaum & Roy-Girard, 2007).
At their most harmless, these workers could simply be a bad fit, leading to premature termination and a costly search for and training of new talents. However, more damaging to the firm is an employee who engages in behavior that adversely affects fellow workers or other company assets; we label this type of worker “toxic”. Thus, a toxic worker is defined as a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people (Housman & Minor, 2015).
Detoxicate Your Workplace by Measuring Trustworthiness
In his speech “The Most Toxic Person in The Workplace”, Sinek points out that: “We have a million and one metrics to measure someone’s performance and negligible to no metrics to measure someone’s trustworthiness,” therefore, companies inadvertently end up promoting toxicity in their businesses which can eventually destroy the organizational culture and is bad for business.
The good news is, at Kodo People we can measure someone’s trust and trustworthiness.
We can identify the toxic and counterproductive work behaviors with our behavioral assessment which is carried out in a digital environment through the Behave4 Diagnosis platform. People go through our online behavioral assessment in which they make choices with real financial consequences. We classify employees according to their behavioral profiles to reveal the factors that explain companies’ Human Resources Indicators. You will get your people’s behavioral radiography and knowing the behavioral map of your teams will allow your organization to avoid toxicity and capitalize on trust.
Special mention to Aida Ranande Ezati, HR & Communications Specialist at Kodo People, who was the main contributor to this post.
Appelbaum, S. H., & Roy‐Girard, D. (2007). Toxins in the workplace: Affect on organizations and employees. Corporate Governance: The International Journal of Business in Society, 7(1), 17-28.
Behave4. (2019) 5 Dimensions behavioral variables. Definitions & extremes. Behave4.
Ermongkonchai, P. (2010). Understanding Reasons for Employee Unethical Conduct in Thai Organizations: A Qualitative Inquiry. Contemporary Management Research, 6(2).
Fitzgerald, L. A., & Eijnatten, F. M. (2002). Reflections: Chaos in organizational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 15(4), 402-411. doi:10.1108/09534810210433700
Housman, M., & Minor, D. (2015). Toxic Workers. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 16-057.
Sinek, S. (2020). Biography. Retrieved June 04, 2021, from http://simonsinek.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Simon-Sinek_Bio_June-2020.pdf
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