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Managing Principals by Julia KramerToxic Waste

Victims, martyrs, bad-mouthers and naysayers waste energy and reduce efficiency. They are dangerous to a productive workplace.

By Julia Kramer

I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I try to glean the positive from most every situation, believe even the worst problems have solutions and think everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Still, there are some people that drain my half-full glass in two seconds flat. These individuals are hazardous to those around them, and the energy they expend (and that others expend dealing with them) creates toxic waste in the workplace.

So who are the biggest producers of toxic waste? If you recognize any of your employees, co-workers or (say it’s not so!) yourself in the paragraphs below, read on to find out how to clean up the mess and make the office hospitable for everyone.

The victim is never responsible for the ills that “befall” him, seeks sympathy rather than solutions, and mucks around in a noxious cesspool of pessimism and inertia. Worse, the victim never tires of sharing his distress with others. Some people have experienced true and horrifying victimization, violence or discrimination—these are not the folks I’m talking about. I’m talking about those who find comfort in not taking charge of their own destiny and, indeed, in blaming others. Statements like “He gives me no choice,” “Why do I put up with this,” and “It’s just not fair!” are the smoke that leads to the burning toxic waste dump. Counter these statements with: “Of course you have choices; let’s talk about them”; “Why >do you put up with this—what do you get out of the situation”; and “Why don’t you think it’s fair and what can you do about it?” Challenging victims’ negative perspective by sticking to the facts and helping them find solutions will at least stop them from coming to you for sympathy. It may also help them realize that they have some control and many choices, in every situation.

The martyr, a close relative of the victim, by choice sacrifices her own needs and then angrily reminds everyone of her sacrifices. Martyrs fume because they feel taken advantage of and feel their efforts are not fully appreciated, but they have only themselves to blame. Martyrs are easily identified by their use of phrases such as “I do all the work around here,” “After all I’ve done, this is the thanks I get,” and “I never have time for my own work; I’m always doing something for others.” Counter the martyr’s woe-is-me personality by expressing your confusion as to why a person would volunteer for a task and then act like it was forced upon them. You can also help them think through their decisions. However, the motivation for change must come from within the individual.

The bad-mouther has few kind words to say about anyone or anything. A temporarily stressed-out manager may be labeled a “rhymes with witch”; a new process may be denigrated for no good reason; and someone in a great mood may be looked upon with scorn. A bad-mouther is not necessarily a pessimist, just someone who enjoys finding or inventing fault with others and spreading the word. Bad-mouthers dish up a venomous blend of gossip, hearsay, accusation, divisiveness and finger pointing. The best way to rid the office of the poison is to catch the person in the act. Overhearing or being told that “the mouth” is in action allows you to confront, tell the individual to cease and desist, and communicate consequences if the gossip train keeps on running. And, of course, you must model appropriate behavior—bad-mouthing may be a behavior learned from, and accepted by, others on the job.

The naysayer never met a change they didn’t dislike. Change shakes their confidence, uproots hidden fears and uncovers a toxic level of distrust. No matter that the change is in their benefit and/or the benefit of the majority of their colleagues—a naysayer is an equal opportunity wet blanket, one that will smother the spirit of those around him if steps aren’t taken. While I don’t typically advocate greasing the squeaky wheel, in this case a little extra care when crafting or introducing a change is worth the time. Including the naysayer in planning, having a separate conversation prior to a formal change presentation, and meeting with him soon after an initiative is rolled out can minimize his fears and distrust. But, just like the bad-mouther, a naysayer’s transformation will come about only when he is ready. Help him be ready by doing your part.

Toxic employees, and the waste of energy and reduced efficiency that accompanies them, are dangerous to a productive office. Be your firm’s environmentalist and take steps to eliminate their behavior (or end their employment if necessary) to ensure that others are not contaminated. You don’t need a superfund to help with the clean-up, just an understanding of the job ahead of you, a commitment to change and clear communication. When everyone’s glass is again half-full, raise a toast to celebrate your healthy workplace.

Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer. Julia.Kramer@LeadersEdgeMagazine.com

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