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How to deal with toxic behaviour in the workplace

Toxic behaviour in the workplace can be difficult to deal with — but it's necessary to do so. Leadership coach Alice Driscoll tells us how.

By Amy Lewin

Alice Driscoll is a leadership coach who works with startup and scaleup CEOs and first-time leaders — and specialises in workplace conflict. She’s also a trained mediator. Here, she explains what to do when somebody on your team starts regularly displaying toxic behaviours.

This Q&A first appeared in our weekly Startup Life newsletter. For more insights like this, sign up here.

Get to the heart of what happened

Whether you’re the person on the receiving end of this talking to your manager, or you’re the manager of someone who is telling this to you, you have to ask, ‘What happened? How did you respond? How did your response impact your/the work?’

For example: ‘X entered the room and said Y. I immediately felt as flat as a pancake and I couldn’t think straight so I didn’t contribute any more to the meeting.’

Figure out the frequency of the impact and the number of people it’s affecting

There’s a difference between two people who work well with others, but for all sorts of reasons push each other’s buttons — and one person who through their behaviour seems to be pushing a lot of people’s buttons.

Have a 1-1 with the person displaying toxic behaviour

First, be extremely clear and direct about the concern. ‘I need to talk to you because it has come to my attention that some behaviours you’re displaying are impacting others negatively in this way.’

This is where a lot of people go wrong; they pussyfoot around. Be super clear and direct. Then as soon as you’ve delivered the headline, ask ‘How are you and what is going on for you?’

This first conversation is all about making sure the person accused has a chance to share what’s happening for them. Eight times out of 10 you’ll probably get everything you need to know — that they’re not in a good place, personally or professionally, and might need some support.

Protect the team

The conversation isn’t ‘Let’s improve together’. It’s ‘Let’s look at support for you, and meanwhile I’m taking you off this project for now, or you can only have meetings with that [impacted] person with their manager present.’

For commercial and ethical reasons, you have to take a zero tolerance approach to the impact on the group from the moment you become aware of it.

Get legal advice

If you have a reason to think this isn’t going to work — perhaps the person doesn’t have the self-awareness or the appetite for change — and if you don’t have a full-time HR person, speak to someone who knows about this. They will tell you all the things you need to do [to get rid of this person]; it’s a very formal process.

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Create a set of guiding principles

This — an agreement on how we work together at this company — will be your most powerful tool, but you need these in place before you have a problem like this. It depersonalises all the conversations. It helps you go, ‘You’re not the problem, but the problem is that you’re violating principle number five, which is that we treat each other with respect’.

If you don’t have those ‘values’ in place, then you end up having a conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable in your culture.

And remember, there is only toxic behaviour, not toxic people

When we talk about toxic behaviour, what we don’t mean is ‘difficult’. ‘Difficult’ is a behaviour that we might experience as frustrating or uncomfortable but it might not bother everyone.

You can be difficult but highly valuable if with good intent, you are challenging the status quo, even if this is uncomfortable and makes things more complicated initially.

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s deputy editor. She covers VC, mobility and diversity in tech, coauthors our Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @amyrlewin.

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