Silent Culture Killer

Is there ever a time when it’s okay to turn your back on someone?

It’s a question that surfaces often in my consulting work. Whether it be helping an organization, a team, or an individual work through change, there is always one person, or a small but vocal group, who plays the foil.

We often refer to such people as the resistors. Deemed in some way as trouble, the foil threatens the forward march of change.

Resistors aren’t bad. In fact we know resistors can play an essential role in strengthening change. My opening question isn’t directed towards such individuals. I’m referring to those whose behaviors are toxic and cripple the health of a team and threaten the heart of a company – its culture.

Is it okay to turn your back on the person who fits into this role? Yes.

For a team or an organization to thrive during or after change, the person or persons who truly weaken the future must be removed. No one person is more important than the team.

To allow for toxic individuals to poison progress and a team is a harmful leadership choice that cuts to the heart. It’s a choice that stifles relationships. It’s a culture killer. It’s a choice that sends a message that toxic behavior will be tolerated.

Leaders owe to their employees a diligent cultivation of workplace optimism. To allow for anything else is leadership malpractice.


Photo courtesy of  U.S. Army’s Family & MWR Programs

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Shawn,

    Great post! Short, simple, and important!

    I just wanted to ask one thing: what if you are a coworker, instead of a leader, and you have discovered a ‘toxic’ person in the midst of a change?

    Is it as simple as alerting leadership to the presence of this person and leave it alone? Or are there actions we should take as coworkers to prevent the toxicity from leaking or becoming infectious?

  • Another great post Shawn, I’m sure you aren’t suggesting that at the instant of tension people are fired but I do agree with the tactic when it becomes clear someone is more interested in being right or fighting an external source because they hate external sources or because they don’t want things to change. I say that’s when it’s time to free up their future.

  • Yes, turn your back on them by re-framing the toxic people.

    Toxic people are almost always insecure, exhibit their lack of self-confidence in many ways and mask it by trying to control others. Importantly, they are often under skilled at their job. They inhibit productivity, innovation and goal attainment. They are a fact of life in organizations. It should be the job of their bosses to correct the behavior, but mostly, they don’t.

    Hence, deal with the issue by re-framing it. Leaders need to be able to identify the behavior when it is present. The leader should focus on the skill deficiency of the toxic person, not their toxic behavior. Often, the person should have support staff taken away from them.

    None of these will make a significant difference to the toxic person, but it will work to help those around them deal with the situation and do their job.

  • Interesting take on the toxic types at the top.

  • Shawn, Positive tension create better decisions and discussions. It is when there is an undercurrent that team members get discouraged and begin to opt out. It is so important to build and foster that positive culture in which positive discussions can take place. An important call to action, Shawn. Thanks! Jon

  • David Lapin

    You’re always courageously sharp in the intellectual targets you strike so elegantly, Shawn. You know my thesis that corporations and teams have souks too. Individuals who threaten the lifeblood of organizational soul threaten its very sustenance. They need to be helped to find a place where their to toxicity will be neutralized.

    David Lapin
    Author: Lead By Greatness

  • Shawn, you lay this out perfectly – bravo!

    Teams need more dissenting opinions and counter-arguments, not less – or they fall easy prey to groupthink. However, toxicity and dissent are different animals entirely. A talented leader learns to spot the difference and deal with both types. My view is, celebrate the vital contribution of the former, and quickly fire the latter.

  • Hi Shawn,

    Yes, fire the toxic guy. This easier said than done because often the toxic behaviour is condoned by the very top gun. What do you do then, when it is made clear that the guy’s association and political influence is so powerfully strong. As you rightly put it, it paralyses leaders who are trying to bring the change. They either tow the line or go. I have been there.

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