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7 Toxic Employee Types—And What You Can Do About Them

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

One of the most common pieces of advice I am asked to provide to leaders is how to handle difficult employees. That’s why we devoted an entire chapter to it in my new book, Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others, which I wrote with my colleague Tacy Byham.

Difficult employees represent an especially challenging issue for first-time leaders, who typically lack the experience and proficiency to deal with the wide variety of personalities, work styles, team dynamics, and personal agendas that can define a team.

In the book we describe seven different types of employee dysfunction:

The Invisibles The Invisibles
The “nowhere to be seen” employees who come in late, leave early, spend much of their working hours alone in their cubicles, and, when they do attend meetings, their eyes are glued to their laptops or smart phones.
The Zombies The Zombies
Those who go through the motions of work until it’s time to shut down. Completely apathetic and disengaged, Zombies can easily bite and turn peers into sleepwalkers or slackers like themselves.
The Volcanoes The Volcanoes
Volcanoes are unpredictable and volatile with constant mood swings. An eruption can happen any time—and usually unexpectedly—spewing fireballs and ash at everyone around them—including your customers.
The Selfies The Selfies
They are people pleasers, yet are clueless that everyone rolls their eyes at their shameless self-promotion. Ultracompetitive, they feel entitled to get every perk and incentive available, including promotions they're not ready for.
The Statues The Statues
Statues stand tall and smug on a pedestal, feeling far superior to the teammates they tower over—even though they don’t do any of the real work. While they depend on others to get things done, they typically put down their peers so they can continue to be the most admired and respected people on the team.
The Wallflowers The Wallflowers
Wallflowers avoid eye contact and wait to be approached or told what to do, almost as if they’re embarrassed to contribute. They avoid making waves, preferring to stay safe and avoid responsibility.
The Black Clouds The Black Clouds
Those who sulk, badmouth, and whine at every opportunity, and have trouble seeing the good in others; they spread suspicion, fear, and negativity in the workplace.

What’s a new leader to do with these troubled cases? From my experience I can offer four broad lessons that apply to all of these situations.

  1. Focus on the situation, not the person. Even though I have included “toxic employees” in the title of this blog, I must admit that I question whether any person is truly toxic. Sure, we've all run into employees who seem well suited to that descriptor; no matter where they go, what they do, or who they touch, they leave problems behind.

    But I would contend that about 90 percent of the time, as a leader, you aren’t dealing with a bad person. Instead, the trouble-causing employee is likely facing a situation or set of circumstances that is impacting his work and relationships with others. And, with a bit of detective work to understand the root of the problem and some deft coaching, you can usually turn the situation around. The key is to stay focused on what the employee is doing or not doing (the situation), rather than the employee’s personality.

    Consider two examples of leaders having a discussion with an employee about his problem behavior. One leader says, “I have been noticing that in a few interactions with others, you seem to have gotten upset pretty easily and jumped to conclusions. Is this the way you see it? Is something going on you would like to share?” Another leader, meanwhile, says, “You have become a very angry and resentful person. What the heck is going on?” In the first example, the leader tries to get to the root of the problem and deal with the situation and behavior. In the second, the leader attacks the “person.” Which leader do you think will attain a better outcome?
  2. You need to act, not ignore. It is amazing how many leaders are fearful of giving feedback and addressing difficult employee situations. They instead choose to stick their heads in the sand. This simply is not fair—to themselves, to the employee, to other members of their team, or to their company. If you do nothing, things are likely to get no better, and will perhaps get worse.

    But if you can get to the cause of the employee’s problem behavior and provide effective coaching, there’s a high likelihood you can turn the difficult employee situation around. Granted, occasionally, the discussions in which you confront the problem may lead to probation or termination. If that is the outcome, however, at the end of the day everyone is better off because the situation has been addressed. Remember, when you do need to act, the sooner the better!
  3. Don’t blame yourself. Many leaders point fingers at themselves when they encounter difficult employee situations. They beat themselves up with self-directed questions like “What did I do wrong?” or dwell on second-guessing their actions. Admittedly, a certain amount of introspection is important and healthy for an effective leader. And, in some cases, yes, you might have indeed handled a situation differently.

    But most of the time, the situation was not caused by you. Personal circumstances, the wrong motivations, changes in the organization’s culture or work demands—all can impact how an employee behaves. And in the end, keeping the focus on addressing the situation is a lot more constructive than self-blame.
  4. Select the best. You don’t have to be in a leadership role long before you understand one of the most important truths of leading a team: The right hiring decision will save you a whole bunch of problems later on. The quality of the people you hire or promote will make all the difference in the world in terms of your own success—and that of your team. When evaluating candidates, look carefully not only at skills, but also motivation for the job and overall fit with the organizational culture.

From Toxic to Rewarding

For an effective leader, handling employees exhibiting problem behaviors is not only possible but, believe it or not, it can also be gratifying. I will never forget what one of my leaders told me after she had handled a situation in which an employee had a number of tough personal challenges that had begun to impact his work performance. Through support and proactive coaching, the leader was able to help transform the individual back into an effective team member. The leader told me that this transformation was “one of the most rewarding moments” of her career.

With a bit of skill and thoughtful reframing of how you look at a “toxic” employee, as a leader you too can experience these rewarding moments.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., is senior vice president at DDI and co-author of the book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.

Posted: 01 Sep, 2015,

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