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

  • Britany Wallace


    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?

  • Kneale Mann

    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.

  • Alan Kay

    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.

  • Alan Kay

    Interesting take on the toxic types at the top.

  • Jon Mertz

    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

  • Ted Coine

    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.

  • http://Website Yuvarajah

    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.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Great question! It’s one I wish more would ask.

    Usually the toxic person is known given previous projects, initiatives, or regular interactions. However, any person can be so against a change that they become toxic. In this case, here are a few things to consider:

    1. Don’t ignore it. Avoid creating drama, though, by going directly to the manager. First see if you can understand where the person is coming from.
    2. Don’t get stuck in “your position” on why the change is good, and for them why the change is not good. Key thing is to see if there is common interest that each other shares about the team, the customer, the product – whatever. Notice I’m not focusing on the change itself. Doing so can lead to a stalemate, deepening resistance and frustrations. What you want to uncover is the coworker’s value system. You can find common ground when you and the co-worker identify what’s important to team success, project success, etc. This action seeks to look below the surface of resistance.
    3. If a shared value of relationships, for example, is found, begin to look at how the person’s behaviors are impacting the relationship and the change’s progress.
    4. Explore what you can do together to nurture the relationship while working together in creating the change. Keep in mind that you don’t want to convince the person to see your side. You want to understand where they are coming from. And you want to show where you are coming from. As Covey says, “seek first to understand, then be understood.”
    5. Agree to check in with each other to see how progress is being made. If you can create a big enough break through you can even agree on signals when your coworker begins to show signs of toxicity when interacting with others.

    We are complicated creatures. It’s hard for us to see how our values and behaviors become incongruent. Change is hard for all of us, some more so than others. If you have been unsuccessful in your attempt to work with the coworker, it then becomes time to talk with management. Let them know what you’ve attempted to do and how it went. You will need to give it some time, though. How much? You be the judge of that.

    Hope this helps.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Thanks, Ted. Toxicity spreads fast. It is a wise leader who is aptly capable of spotting and moving swiftly from stopping the spread of toxicity. Unfortunately I’ve seen leaders paralyzed, especially when the toxic employee holds knowledge and experience needed by the team.

  • Shawn Murphy

    I’m glad you make the point of finding a place for toxic employees. In some cases a fresh start can be a new start to neutralize the damaging effects triggered by a toxic employee. If it’s a healthy and viable solution, I like to see leaders take such an action.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Hi Jon,
    I am grateful for your ongoing encouragement. Thank you for that.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Alan, re-framing the behavior of toxic people can also teach a little compassion, albeit from afar, for those unwilling to resolve their damaging behaviors. Good point.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Thank you, Alan, for sharing this link. An important topic for sure!

  • Shawn Murphy

    Correct, Kneale. A leader’s due diligence in having the difficult conversations when a toxic employee lashes out is critical. If the behavior is addressed, redirected, and reframed (as Alan Fry mentioned), there’s a chance the toxic employee could learn and grow.

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