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Poison In The Mix

When workplace toxicity goes unchecked, the entire operational climate begins to negatively change.

For anyone who’s ever been involved in a small business or nonprofit, there’s the undeniable temptation to presume that, due to the size or purpose of the entity, the organizational climate will automatically be a healthy one. The stigma of “big business” and the traditional trappings of corporate America can sometimes be the very catalysts that drive people to pursue a role in an enterprise that is either reduced in scale or committed to serving others in the social services or humanitarian realms. However, for anyone with delusions of some utopian existence within the walls of such organizations, entering into that type of team structure of can end up being a real eye-opener.

Although small businesses and nonprofits share many aspects of this dilemma, the nonprofit experience is most often the one in which the presumption of those entering the group is nothing short of idyllic. Since pursuing a position within such an organization will happen in large part because the job seeker believes in its mission and purpose, the misguided belief that everyone there is likeminded and equally committed is often quickly embraced. Some who enter the nonprofit world are convinced that only the noblest of motives lie behind someone’s membership within the organization. This naïve attitude essentially can put blinders on the new team member and cause them to cast caution to the wind.

Similarly, persons accepting positions with small businesses tend to be under the assumption that there will be an opportunity to fashion solid relationships with their co-workers, far removed from the anonymity that often plagues members of large corporate teams. It’s only after the freshness of the new position has worn off that the new employee begins to see a different side to the situation – a scenario where there is little to no buffer zone between the worker and their colleagues. In this type of environment, conflicting personality types can suddenly begin rubbing elbows, and the new employee will soon learn who is on board with the company’s mission and who isn’t.

A 2015 study by the Harvard Business School presented an academic discussion on the phenomenon of toxic individuals in the workplace and the overall negative organizational impact that they cause. Although much of the negativity is directly attributable to the staff members themselves, it has to be stated that the management style adopted within the organization can also play a significant role. Balanced managerial oversight is certainly optimal for the health of the enterprise, but sometimes methods of management tend to swing toward one pole or the other.

The stereotypical syndrome known as micro-management can certainly cause ill effects. When supervisors feel compelled to immerse themselves in every nuance of the directions they give to others, staff members can end up feeling devalued and insufficient. When not encouraged and empowered to make their own decisions in the best interest of the organization, employees can lose initiative and carry out their job functions grudgingly, doing bare minimum and never embracing the mission and vision behind the work they carry out. At the other end of the spectrum is macro-management, where supervisors are only looking at the big picture and not really paying attention to the day-to-day, nuts and bolts components that actually get the work done. And, irrespective of management style, any organization that doesn’t have properly structured policies and procedures to govern how it works is simply opening the door for toxic personalities to sow seeds of discord.

Even when management is soberly assessing what needs to be done, and is administrating a structure to support that goal, it’s sometimes that very structure which causes the toxic staff member to bristle. That type of employee tends to seek their own agenda above that of the organization, so the more clearly responsibilities are identified, the more apt the staff person is to push back against direction. It ultimately comes down to the idea of the toxic personality feeling that they know better than management does, which usually is a motivator for them to try to enlist allies. Therein lies the contradiction – it’s against the nature of toxic staff to work toward fostering any kind of cohesiveness in the team, yet they instinctively try to lure other people over to their point of view. This can be an attempt to validate their imagined superiority, and, unchecked, this behavior will quickly erode the team dynamic.

Another challenge with toxic staff is that they are often times very skillful at putting on a good front, so much so that management can be unaware of their true intentions. The story is very different behind the supervisor’s back, where the ill-intentioned staff will openly complain about management, policies, rules, and regulations, usually with the goal of convincing others of just how wronged the staff is at the hands of the powers that be. Even if management identifies such staff members and makes a good faith effort to question them about why they embrace the attitude that they do, more often than not the gap continues to widen. That type of personality usually just adopts an arbitrary stance, unwilling to change or to seek any interests other than their own.

The longer workplace toxicity goes unchecked, the more it will gradually permeate the organization until the entire operational climate begins to negatively change. Although there’s no easy remedy for the issue, ignoring it and hoping it will go away is never a valid strategy. Encouraging team members who do believe in the organization to counter toxic behavior with actions that foster partnership and goal attainment will ultimately discourage the nay-sayers in the group. They may still stubbornly stay on unless asked to leave, but the scope of their influence can be tremendously scaled down through the pursuit of real, collaborative teamwork.


Do you want to get a deeper perspective on the overall health of your small business or nonprofit? If so, visit You can also contact us at or call 240-329-9387. Also, be sure to visit us on our YouTube Channel for tips, insights, and guidance on how you can truly do smart work in your organization.

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