Tolerance and Toxicity in the Workplace

Written By: Sirvan Jackson

Spicy food, with just the right level of heat, is delightful, much like a well-balanced team member who brings a healthy dose of challenge and fresh perspective to the table. But just as an overabundance of spice can ruin a meal, too much of this ‘challenging’ behavior can tip the scales from productive to destructive in the workplace.

Consider the case of a team member who initially shines bright – exceptional in pitches, client interactions, and breaking down complex issues. But beneath this veneer of brilliance, there’s a toxic trait that’s harder to digest. Abrasive, condescending, and prone to gossip, their behavior is akin to that infamous pepper – too intense, leaving a lasting burn. The real conundrum arises when such behavior is overlooked by leadership, rationalized as a quirk of a high-performer.

Leaders often misjudge such situations as temporary, hoping the issue resolves itself, or fear the talent gap that might emerge upon addressing it. This misstep is common when the toxic individual is a high performer, creating a misguided belief that their output outweighs the negative impact on team morale.

Why Do We Put Up With the Toxic Heat?

  • Top Performers Get a Pass: If someone brings in great results, they often get away with bad behavior.

  • Short-Term Wins Over Long-Term Health: Leaders chase immediate results, ignoring how toxic behavior hurts the team in the long run.

  • Old Habits Die Hard: Some places still have a ‘boys club’ vibe, where the toxic ones are protected.

  • Leaders Stuck in the Past: Some bosses just can’t keep up with how to handle today’s workplace culture.

An astute leader prioritizes the collective success of the organization over the contributions of a single individual. Allowing high performers to exhibit toxic behavior communicates that exceptional performance can exempt someone from standard rules. This not only creates a double standard but also reinforces the harmful behavior of the individual in question, as they perceive their actions as acceptable.

So, What Can We Do About It?

  • Zero Tolerance: Implement firm rules against toxic behavior, ensuring immediate investigation and decisive action.

  • Feel the Pulse: Use surveys and direct conversations to understand team dynamics and set the tone for the company culture.

  • Make Reporting Easier: Provide channels for employees to report toxic behaviors, including anonymous tools and external HR support.

  • Walk the Talk: Reinforce core values in all business operations, ensuring they are reflected in daily practices.

  • Leaders, Step It Up: Leaders should actively address toxic situations, understanding that inaction contributes to a detrimental culture.

In essence, managing a team is much like perfecting a recipe – it requires a balance of flavors, a refusal to tolerate overpowering elements, and a commitment to creating an environment that’s palatable to all. It’s a challenging task, but with the right approach, it’s definitely achievable.