Antivirus Against Toxic People

I am a very cautious and paranoid web user since I am so exposed by the work that I do. Even so, I still get emails from time to time from technical troglodytes, mainly my sister and a few old high school friends, addressed to me (with somebody else’s bogus email address in the header) containing a link to some obscure website, but I absolutely never click on any of those links… as I am sure that they did to give up my email address from their address books. Now that I have cast such a perfect image of myself, it is true confessions time… I recently told an ESET Smart Security popup window that it was OK to allow access to a software upgrade and later found that it also came with malware. It took hours of digging to ferret out the culprit and make it stop. Why do people who write these programs think it’s acceptable to annoy the hell out of me and then try to sell me something? It is a sales tactic of “Here! Smell my armpit… and now buy my deodorant.”

I am an ardent advocate of demanding that human resources treat employees as people rather than assets to be manipulated and arranged neatly into orderly piles. Admittedly, sometimes that temptation to wish for a “Do you really want to deal with this person” button appearing like a popup from my antivirus program is overwhelming. Some people are never happy, never satisfied, always complaining, and are a constant reminder that 20% of the people will cause 80% of your problems. The antivirus for toxic people should already be resident in our personal CPU, our logical biological brain. Like most solutions, it must be programmed to respond appropriately and without overreaction.

  1. Never respond emotionally – Human to human interaction is always touchy at best, but it is always better to choose the appropriate organ with which to respond. Using the glands and firing off hormonal driven angry responses is never as productive as choosing the brain and offering logical conversation. These are not real daggers being hurled by the individual, so deflect them harmlessly and refrain from escalating the conflict.
  2. Analyze the situation – Every squeaky wheel is not just clamoring for more grease. Sometimes a wheel is legitimately contaminated by an irritant and even the smallest grain of sand can cause wear and pain. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt first clears the air for dialog. Reasonable accommodation to stress is an allowable solution, but offering pseudo-psychiatric advice is not.
  3. Discuss facts, not fiction – A perceived injustice may not be real, but it is real in the mind of the person who brings it forward. Listen to the whole story and allow it to unfold. Sometimes listening is all it takes to solve the problem for someone that is only looking for attention, but often a stronger case for truth has to be prepared. Only matters of life and death have to be resolved instantly, so taking a break to gather data is always appropriate. It also allows for a cooling off period.
  4. Call in the cavalry – Being careful not to give the impression that you are ganging up on the individual, bringing in a third party can often defuse a toxic situation. To avoid a “two against one” scenario, the other person should assume the role of an arbiter listening to all the facts. It is also important to plan for escalation beyond this point and an observer to the conflict can be valuable in later defending actions taken.
  5. Consider the next steps – Allowing that all efforts to resolve issues with a truly toxic individual may result in failure, the next step may be simply avoidance. The boiling pot will boil until their fire runs out of fuel… no harm done. More drastic measures must be considered if it is likely that the infection will spread. An antivirus-like quarantine may be necessary. Salvaging a productive employee is preferable to termination, but one individual can contribute to an unwelcome toxic culture.

Just as I had to take the blame for allowing malware to invade my computer, we must always be ready to look with honesty at the results of our actions in the workplace. Sometimes we are at fault when things go wrong. Hopefully the culture we are building will be as forgiving of us as we are of others.

Image credit: chaosmaker / 123RF Stock Photo


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  1. Tom A great post, I am in the process of writing a book about relationships at work and discuss the concept of toxic relationships (Adversary and Rival) as well as positive relationships (Ally and Supporter).
    A toxic relationship can be very stressful not just for the person on the receiving end but also those who are caught in the fall out around it. Taking action to address toxic behaviors before they infect the team / organization culture is critical, and owned by everyone.

  1. […] a little more limited when we encounter people who have decided to be painful. I wrote an article Antivirus Against Toxic People in which I pointed out five ways that problem people can be handled from a human resources […]

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