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The Six Forms Of Toxic Workplace Behaviour

Julie A. Christiansen is a leading authority on anger and emotional mastery. She is known as "The Anger Lady" and founded the Anger Solutions Program, the best evidence-based alternative to anger management. She is the author of The Rise of Rage (2024), and the host of the Freedomology podcast.

Executive Contributor Julie A. Christiansen

Since 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic that forced employees to work remotely, the North American workplace has seen an unprecedented fracturing in communication and team cohesiveness. The most common complaints include passive-aggressive behaviors, microaggressions, breakdowns in communication, increases in interpersonal conflict, increased aggression in the workplace, and higher incidents of stress-related leaves and quiet quitting.

Two male colleagues fighting in office

Workplace toxicity takes a massive toll on workplace productivity, on morale, on employee retention, and overall profits. How can we identify employees that are contributing to workplace toxicity? What is the impact of those behaviours in the workplace, and what can we do to defend against dysfunctional behaviours?

The reality

Psychologist William Glasser believes that every problem is, at its heart, a relationship problem. The foundation of every relationship – good, bad, or ugly – is communication.

Poor communication is a relationship problem. Conflict within the workplace is a relationship problem. Passive-aggressive behaviors and microaggressions are relationship problems. Lack of diversity, inclusivity and equality in the workplace is a relationship problem. Quiet quitting is a relationship problem. Poor productivity and the corresponding low profits are relationship problems.

Markers of toxic employees

Maladaptive workplace behaviours are a function of relationship problems. Those marked by poor communication styles often have challenges in their relationship with themselves, which leak into the way they interact with their supervisors, peers, subordinates, and even with customers or clients. Toxic behaviours can present in various forms, and they may be grouped into various categories.

1. The steam roller

The steam roller is a know-it-all with bully tendencies. They tend to push, manipulate, or intimidate others into going along with their point of view. They may often come up with grand ideas and insist that they should be implemented, often without thinking through the ramifications of their ideas on other departments or members of the team. Steam rollers stifle creativity and diversity of opinion. If successful in always pressing their agendas, they may make the organization one-dimensional and less agile.

2. The social loafer

Simple Psychology describes social loafing as “the phenomenon where individuals exert less effort in a group task than when working alone”. This often occurs when there is a perception of reduced accountability and shared or diffused responsibility. When each individual team member’s efforts are combined into a group project, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint the contributions of each member, hence the notion of diffused responsibility. Social loafing results in resentments due to other workers feeling overwhelmed and sensing unfairness in the process as they pick up the slack for the loafers. Since the work of the team is being judged, rather than individual efforts, the more conscientious workers will feel responsible to do what is necessary to effect positive outcomes. They will feel overworked and unfairly rewarded, while the social loafer will feel gratified in having achieved the positive outcome despite having offered the minimum personal effort. Over time, social loafing can lead to reduced productivity, leading to lower profits.

3. The ideas thief

This is typically someone who is a position of power (middle to upper management) or sometimes it can be a peer. When a worker presents and idea that will increase profits, help the company to run leaner, or something that will boost morale for the team, the Ideas Thief immediately dismisses the idea as inappropriate, too expensive, or too much work. When sufficient time has passed, the thief will “tweak” the idea, putting their personal spin on it, and will introduce the concept to the team and engage buy in to move it forward. They effectively steal credit for your idea, but because they have amended it, you would appear petty and foolish for trying to claim the idea as having been yours first.

4. The narcissist

The narcissist is easily spotted as most of their communication is egocentric in nature, and it primarily focuses only on the positive attributes or accomplishments of the person. Narcissists are fueled by praise, adoration, and self-aggrandization. Seeing others succeed or perform admirably sparks a sense of insecurity or inferiority in the narcissist, who responds by trying to make themselves appear ‘bigger’ or more successful by making their perceived rival appear ‘smaller’ or less competent. Any criticism, however constructive, is quickly turned back on the one offering it, and any attempts to call the narcissist on their behaviour are met with gaslighting or minimization.

5. The bully victim

Often, a narcissist with abuser traits falls into the victim category. Let’s be clear that people who are targeted by toxic employees are the true victims; however, the bully victim is one who creates relationship problems, and then cries foul when they are called on their behaviour. Bully victims can be highly manipulative and may often be successful at convincing management and HR that they are innocent of all the accusations against them, resulting in punitive action being taken against the one who lodged the complaint. Because of this, many employers lose their best and most productive employees who would rather move on than try to fight for fair treatment in the current work environment.

6. The abuser

The word abuse comes from the Latin ab and use. Ab – to take away, and Use – power. To abuse someone is to systematically take away their power. Perhaps someone in your workplace takes credit for your work, speaks over you in meetings or monopolizes the floor so that “we’ve run out of time; we’ll get to your issues next meeting”. Perhaps they are influential in policy making or they bend procedure to work in their favour but not in yours. Maybe they have the ear of the decision maker, and they use lies and manipulation to suggest that you’re overwhelmed or incapable of handling your responsibilities, so they need to be shifted to the abuser. Abusive behaviour can also be more overt: snide remarks, insults, back-handed compliments, eye rolling, assigning meaningless tasks, or social/professional isolation. It is important to note that not all narcissists are abusers, when abusive behaviour is coupled with a narcissistic personality and victim mentality, this could possibly be the worst type of toxic worker.

The cost to business

The Grammarly “State of Business Communication” study reports that 66% of business leaders approximate that they experience miscommunication at least once a day; 48% of business leaders report they experience miscommunication multiple times a day.

The 2023 study revealed that miscommunication costs US businesses $12,506 per employee per year. The previous year’s study stated that 9/10 business leaders have experienced the adverse impact of poor communication at work, for example, it is estimated that for every interruption experienced at work, approximately 15 minutes of concentration and productivity is lost.

David Grossman highlighted in “The Cost of Poor Communications” that a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each revealed an average annual loss of $62.4 million per company due to insufficient communication within and among employees.

Debra Hamilton pointed out in her piece “Top Ten Email Blunders that Cost Companies Money” that miscommunication resulted in an average yearly cost of $420,000 for even smaller companies with 100 employees.

Can your company afford to lose up to $420,000 due to poor communication?

The first steps in shifting the narrative

Be proactive! Employers, HR managers, and leaders have a responsibility to do what is necessary to support those productive, high-performing employees, and to remediate toxic behaviours before they poison the work environment.

When in doubt, check it out! Investigations need to be fair and thorough. Employees need to feel heard, and their complaints validated. Attention must be paid to what is happening on the floor. When questionable behaviours occur, ask clarifying questions, and approach each situation without bias or prejudice. There is no need to be accusatory when investigating, but certainly, checking in on questionable interactions is a simple and non-confrontational way to hold people accountable for their inter-office communications.

Cultivate a culture of community. Business owners, employers, managers and leaders must be intentional about creating a culture of community that goes deeper than quarterly bonuses or branded merch for the team. Emphasize the importance of clear, empathetic, and collaborative communication. Don’t expect people to “just know” how to communicate effectively. Invest in equipping employees at all levels with the verbal and written communication skills they need to be successful and continue to coach as needed rather than saving all the feedback for the annual performance review.

Addressing toxic behaviors in the workplace is not just a matter of improving communication; it’s about safeguarding the health, morale, and productivity of your entire organization. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cracks in our communication structures have widened, making it more crucial than ever to recognize and remediate these harmful behaviors. Toxic employees like The Steam Roller, The Social Loafer, The Ideas Thief, The Narcissist, The Bully Victim, and The Abuser erode team cohesion and organizational integrity. The financial toll of poor communication and relationship issues is staggering, with companies losing hundreds of thousands to millions annually. But there is hope. By taking proactive steps to support high-performing employees, conducting fair and thorough investigations into toxic behaviors, and fostering a culture of community and effective communication, we can turn the tide. Employers must move beyond mere awareness and take decisive action to cultivate a work environment where everyone thrives. By prioritizing clear, empathetic, and collaborative communication, we not only enhance productivity but also build a resilient, engaged, and motivated workforce ready to meet the challenges of the future. For an objective assessment of your current workplace communication processes, and to learn how to spot these toxic behaviours in your organization, contact Julie Christiansen for a complimentary consultation.

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Read more from Julie A. Christiansen


Julie A. Christiansen, Speaker, Author, Registered Psychotherapist, Coach

Julie Christiansen has an extensive background in mental health counselling, public speaking that spans almost 30 years. She has authored fifteen books including The Rise of Rage. Julie's personal mission is to leverage people and organizations into radical, positive, lasting change. She fulfills this purpose with passion as a keynote speaker, podcaster, psychotherapist, and executive coach.



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