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How to Handle Toxic Relationships in the Workplace

in PODCAST

Learn how you can handle toxic relationships in the workplace, including how to spot the signs of a toxic relationship and what you can do to mitigate them.

Image of Lynn Catalano with two coworkers fighting at work to show that this podcast addresses how to handle toxic relationships in the workplace

A 480 PODCAST

How to Handle Toxic Relationships in the Workplace

38 minutes | September 7, 2021

00:00:00 00:00

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, keynote speaker, coach, entrepreneur, and attorney Lynn Catalano joins us to discuss how leaders can best handle toxic relationships in the workplace. She describes how to recognize the signs of toxic relationships at work and how to deal with them.

Beth Almes:                        

Welcome back to the Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today's topic is a really sticky one, how leaders can stop toxic relationships in the workplace. And I'm so excited to have our guest today, Lynn Catalano. Lynn has a background in psychology and in law, and is a renowned speaker with a book coming out soon called "Wrecking Ball Relationships: How to Identify, Live With, or Leave the Narcissist in Your Life." Lynn, welcome to the Leadership 480 podcast.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Thank you. Thank you, Beth. So glad to be here with you today.

Beth Almes:                        

So let's dive into this tough topic, because I think a lot of us have probably experienced this, or know someone who has had this in their families, they come home from work and they're like, I just can't take this horrible person at work. So as a leader, how do you start to spot the signs of what's really a toxic relationship versus, we all have normal struggles at work with people. How do you know the difference?

Lynn Catalano:                  

Right. So for me, I've broken down 10 characteristics that we could all see in an employee, or a coworker, or colleague. And it helps us identify that there's a problem. So I'm going to share those 10 characteristics with you and feel free if you want to ask any questions along the way. 

One, these people do not take responsibility for their own decisions, their actions, anything. They're very difficult to accept responsibility. So, that's number one. We see that in a lot of different ways, and that's really a true characteristic of a narcissist as well, but certainly in the workplace, that's one of the characteristics. These people avoid conflict at all costs. They don't like to resolve anything. They don't like to be challenged or criticized. So they're very difficult to actually dive into the problem. They micromanage everyone.

So whether it's their own assistant, or members of their team, there's no trust. In order to delegate authority, we build trust, we trust our coworkers and our colleagues and our subordinates by saying, I'm going to assign you this task, and I trust that you're going to complete it. I know you have the skill set, you have experience, you have the education, you know how to do this. I trust you to do this. Toxic people in the workplace do not. They have zero trust. 

So they micromanage everything. They ask you a hundred times, did you do the job? Did you do the test? Did you write the letter? And then they ask people next to you, did you see, did they write the letter? On and on and on. And so they don't communicate well.

So while this person is probably recognized for their skills, their abilities, they've gotten where they are because they're intelligent and they may even be charismatic, but they don't communicate well because of all those other reasons, they don't have great trust. They avoid conflict. So when it comes down to it, to have a conversation one-on-one, they struggle with eye contact and listening, which I'm going to speak more about as we continue this, but they just overall do not communicate well at all. 

They also have issues with boundaries. They don't have good boundaries. To them everyone that works for the organization is there 24/7, available for emails and voicemails and texts and any communication that they need, because they feel that everyone's on call all the time. There's no respect for personal time. And so that's a big, big red flag, right there. They don't have a plan. They don't have a strategy. Right?

So in corporate leadership, we're all about strategic planning. And yet these people just react. Everything is off the cuff, right? Nothing is strategized and planned out. So I think that's really important to look at. Also, they value short-term objects instead of solving the problem. So when it comes down to it, if there is a problem in the organization, they're just cleaning it up and making it neat and putting a fresh coat of paint on instead of getting to the root of the issue. And that certainly doesn't help anyone in the future for any plans. 

They completely ignore turnovers. So if we're talking about someone that is toxic and they're leading a team in your organization, and the people that are on their team keep leaving, pay attention.

We need to pay attention to those turnovers because there is a reason. And good leaders, we have the root of the problem, we have to figure out what's wrong there. 

And then the last characteristic really is that they're opinionated, but they don't provide any real constructive coaching, or leadership for the person. So it's easy to say, Beth, everything you do is wrong, but if I don't give you any frame of reference for that, if I don't tell you how you can do it better, or how I like it as a leader, how will you ever succeed? And how can I ever find someone, right? To be a good member of my team in that construct? 

So I think, for me, I found that you can never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement and praise in an organization as a leader, as part of a team, you have to build that core. And the only way to do that is through positive reinforcement. I'm a firm believer.

Beth Almes:                        

Mm-hmm. And there's so much here, I think to dive into that you've mentioned. And one of the ones that really stuck out to me, especially right now, is the issues with boundaries that you mentioned, expecting people to be available at all times. 

And I do wonder if some bosses, leaders right now are struggling with this a little bit more, even in the remote workplace. As people start to work a little longer, there'll be working in the evenings and the work in life are blending so much. I wonder if we're starting to, do you feel like there's probably an uptake in some of these toxic relationships as people are trying to work from afar?

Lynn Catalano:                  

I do. I do. I completely agree with you, because I think that when organizations said we have to work remotely, we're not going to all come into the office because of the pandemic, I think that the consequence is both that people feel like they're working all the time, right? They're home. They have their computer, they have their phone. 

They have all these different platforms now that they're getting pinged, and buzzed and dinged for messages. Right? But I think it's so important for both leadership in the organization and the employees, you have to set these boundaries because otherwise for employees, we're going to burn out. You can't work 24 hours a day, and you can't be available to everyone. And there has to be a work-life balance.

So what we've done then is taken away the balance, because leadership can say, well, you're home, but you're always on call. So what? Are you walking around with earbuds in all the time, listening to people, or on a Zoom call and you're muted? It's ridiculous. You have to have a balance. So I think that you're absolutely right. Boundaries are more important today than ever before.

Beth Almes:                        

So one of the things that stuck out to me too that you talked about was the micromanagement and the lack of trust. And as I've been watching and reading articles right now, as people return to work, or they are in the hybrid workplace, and they're saying, leaders have to learn to let go, and you can't be worried so much about time sheets and how long people are actually working. Things like that. People have gotten used to that autonomy. It struck me that who was doing this before. And you talked about how this can actually be a sign of a toxic relationship if you're really holding onto those little things.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yes. And I did feel, Beth, in some industries, in some areas, it is important to know that the person worked a certain amount of time a day, right? In those data entry positions, and things of that level. It's important to know that someone worked eight hours, or seven and a half hours, whatever the professional level is of your organization.

And so for that, they have platforms where their people check in on a computer, even if they are remote and then they check out. So there are systems for that. But when I look at people on my team who are at a certain level, I want to surround myself with people who are intelligent and skilled. I want to hire a good quality adult professional. I'm not hiring children. I don't think they need to be babysat. I think that building trust is crucial for the success of your organization, and for the success of your team.

If you look at it that way, first your team, and then your organization, but how can you build trust if I'm going to stand behind you and make sure that you send the email, or make the phone call, or complete your task? I think that's ridiculous. And I think that sometimes, first of all, those people that you're trusting to do their job are going to go farther and do more for you if you trust them. That's the weird result, right?

That doesn't match any algorithm. It's that if you tell them, you have to sit in your chair for eight hours and produce, they're probably not going to be as productive as if you just say, here's your task and then they do it. They're probably going to work more than eight hours on the task, because they want to do it, they want to make you proud. They want you to be more than satisfied with their job. So it works in that counterintuitive way, and that when we micromanage and hold too tight, we don't get the best results.

Beth Almes:                        

So I love your description of how these toxic relationships, you can start to recognize them. And my guess is our listeners are listening to this and thinking, yeah, I worked with that guy who never took responsibility, nothing was ever his fault, or I worked for that boss who was always worried about how does this look to everybody instead of how do we actually fix this problem? 

But as you look at these signs and you start to recognize them in the workplace, if you're a leader and maybe you're experiencing this for yourself like, yes, you're a manager, but your own boss has problems with this, or another senior leader, or maybe even a colleague in the workplace, and you're starting to say, hey, I have some relationships like this. What do you do to start changing the nature of those toxic relationships?

Lynn Catalano:                  

So this is a hard question, this is challenging. For most people, I give a caveat about whether to stay in the organization. And I think that's certainly a personal decision. How bad is it? How much has it affected you? And can you make an effort to strategize yourself and cope in that environment? And so for some people, we can't always leave the position, whether it's because of the commute, or the benefits, or the childcare issues, whatever it is, maybe we have to stay. 

And so if we have to stay and we have to make it work, we want to minimize the stress on ourselves and the stress to our health for us, right? We want to invest in us. So how can we do that? How can we approach this person differently? First of all, you need to change your perspective. So what do I mean by that?

Well, we can't change other people, however, we can change ourselves. Gandhi was famous for saying, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him." So certainly, perhaps we all aspire to be a little bit of Gandhi every day, but a good way to change your perspective is to show our high levels of emotional intelligence, right? 

By being the change we want to see in the organization. So become empowered by our knowledge that, look, this person, this person that we've identified as toxic, whether it's our boss, our leader, the team leader, our colleague, whomever, their behavior is rooted in deep, deep insecurity. So you have to look at them differently. You need to try not to take their words and actions personally. When they micromanage you, just focus on the task, focus on accomplishing the job, because at the end of the day, you have to do the job, right? If you're going to stay, you have to do the job.

And then this one's hard, try and avoid interactions with the person. So sometimes that's not the easiest thing, but if you don't have to see them, if you don't have to work with them on a project, it makes it better for you, right? Because they cause you some kind of stress. So it's better to avoid. Obviously I'm not telling you to call in sick and stay home and avoid the whole situation. No, but if you don't have to work directly with this person, then please do so. 

Another way is really to change your approach to this situation. And what I mean by that is, so we know that toxic individuals don't communicate well, but they each have their own communication style. And we have enough intellect to realize what that is, and what they like, but stop challenging them.

They don't like to be challenged. They don't like to be criticized, just figure out how they want you to communicate and embrace it and move on. Right? Focus on your task. The more you learn about their communication preferences, the better you'll be able to adapt and have more effective, efficient conversations with them. 

And then, the stuff we were talking about before, you have to try and establish boundaries with them. If they text you on Saturday night, or during your child's birthday party, or at the dance recital, or the baseball game, you choose when to answer them. Just know it probably makes them upset when you don't answer them right away. But you have to keep the relationship professional, right? And respond in a respectful, positive, professional manner, but just do it in a reasonable time.

Beth Almes:                        

I love your point on, understanding how it's making them feel as you adjust your communication style. One of the things we've often talked about was we, in our communication courses and things for leaders, is acknowledging both the facts and the feelings. So in that situation of, I imagine it was frustrating for you when I didn't answer your texts on Saturday, I was here. 

And it's funny how they often don't realize how they came across, or they say, oh, I'm not frustrated. I didn't expect an answer, or maybe they said it was frustrating because of this additional thing that you didn't realize because somebody else was pinging me, or whatever it is, you often get to such a deeper root of that. But I love your approach to acknowledging those feelings that they're probably going through too, to get to that root of where they are.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Now, it's not always true that that person is as deep and reflective as you're pointing out. I worked for someone who just wanted you to know he was the most important person in the world. And when he texted you, he wanted your response right away. And it made him very angry if I did not respond right away. And he didn't care if I was at my child's birthday party, or baseball game.

Beth Almes:                        

Okay. What could be more important than my texts right now? Right?

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yes. 

Beth Almes:                        

Now, do you still work for him, or did you leave?

Lynn Catalano:                  

I do not, I do not.

Beth Almes:                        

Exactly.

Lynn Catalano:                  

... big surprise.

Beth Almes:                        

There goes that turnover one you talked about as well.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yes.

Beth Almes:                        

Now, as a leader again, in some cases the issue might not involve you, but a member of your team maybe comes to you and says, I'm struggling with a difficult relationship, maybe with someone else on their own team, they're coming across this way, or someone on another team. 

How do you, as a leader, start to advise your own team on how to manage these toxic relationships, because sometimes it is a little bit outside of your control and it's one of the challenging things they're coming to you for help on. How do you advise them?

Lynn Catalano:                  

Well, so I think that part of being a good leader, and perhaps even one of the most important parts of being a good leader, is your ability to listen. It's interesting, Epictetus is a Greek philosopher. And he said, "We have two ears and one mouth, we can listen twice as much as we speak." And I don't think that we always employ that tactic. I think it's so important to listen. So, okay, you're a team leader, you have someone on your team that has been identified somehow through a conflict as toxic. Correct?

Beth Almes:                        

Mm-hmm.

Lynn Catalano:                  

So what you need to do as a leader is be present, see all your employees. And that sounds ridiculous, and I'm sure if people are literal, they're going to say, what do you mean, see the employees? Of course, I see the employees. No, you need to see them and hear them. All people want in life, but definitely in the workplace, is dignity and respect. And if we don't see people, or hear them, we can't give them that dignity and respect. 

So I think that as a leader, it's so important that we sit down and listen. I once took a quiz to see what kind of listener you were. And it said, how many times do you interrupt someone when they're speaking? That was a, you got a downgrade for that. And the other thing was, how much time do you spend looking at your telephone when people are talking to you?

And so I worked for a person, a leader, a CEO, who in every meeting we were in he was on his phone. And I thought, he's worse than a teenager, I don't even know what he did before cellphones. I've been around long enough to have been a professional before people had cellphones in the boardroom. And I thought, he's literally conveying to everyone around this table that he doesn't have any respect for us, or what we're doing. And he's not listening to what people are saying. And so I feel like as a leader, he was missing out on so many opportunities, so many. 

And so if it's someone on your team, you have to do your due diligence and investigate what the issues are, listens to everyone involved, and you need to be your team's captain. I think that's so important. I have been responsible for teams before. And if people, if members of your team don't trust you as a leader, your team's just not going to succeed, you're not, because they need to believe in you and that you believe in them.

And so, again, comes right down to dignity and respect, you have to listen to the whole situation and figure out how to resolve the conflict together. Perhaps if you identify a toxic person on your team and the company's willing to invest in this person, then you need some one-on-one coaching with this person. You need to figure out what's the problem, and how can they resolve conflicts better with colleagues, with team members, with leaders, et cetera. It's just going to come down to figuring out what the problem is, assessing it and solving it.

Beth Almes:                        

Yeah. I love that approach too, because sometimes it may be actively resolving the conflict and helping them do the sit down, or do what you need to do. And sometimes it may be the listening side if their saying, I can handle this toxic relationship on my own, but I need you to know that this is happening and acknowledge it and recognize that this is here causing me some issues and holding me back.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Right. Right. Absolutely.

Beth Almes:                        

I love that. So you started to go into this territory a little bit. And as you flip the scenario of what do you do when that toxic person is on your own team? So somebody comes to you and says, listen, I'm really struggling with somebody who's on your team, and they've done this, or they've done that. And I'm having a hard time. How do you coach that person who is, and I even hate the phrase to label them as toxic, because it's their behavior, it's not the person, but when they are exhibiting some of these horrible behaviors, how do you coach them through some of that?

Lynn Catalano:                  

So, first of all, some of the characteristics that I used in the beginning of a toxic individual, I think that as a leader of your team, you need to exhibit the opposite of those things. So you need to embrace the conflict head on, dig into the problem. You can't bury it. You can't ignore it, because it's only going to get worse. And you as a leader, need to exhibit great communication skills, right? So that's both listening, speaking, building trust with these individuals and figuring out ways to resolve the conflict. 

So I'm working on something else right now, I'd love to talk to you about that later, another time, which has to do with conflict resolution. And it goes back to tribal practices and how they resolve conflicts in a circle. And it's so basic, and it's something that companies and organizations and leaders can embrace, because it's something they can do. They don't have to bring in specialists to resolve these conflicts, and they can resolve them before they escalate into a bigger problem.           

So I think it's so important to attack it head-on and communicate and listen and see people for who they are. And again, maybe we don't want to call them toxic when they're on our team, right? Maybe we want to identify them as a little more difficult personalities, and that we want to figure out a way, we got to figure out a way for us to get along like we're all on the same team. How are we going to accomplish that? And again, if it's some kind of intervention for that one person, and maybe it's one-on-one coaching that will really help them, then that's how you get there, but you get there together.

Beth Almes:                        

Right. And helping them see how their behavior is stopping them from being more successful than they probably could be.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Beth Almes:                        

So, Lynn, one of the things that you said that stuck with me was about, is around self-awareness, and what if you're actually the person who might be guilty of doing this of others? So you talked about a lot of it is rooted in insecurity and you're thinking, oh, well, I'm not a micromanager. 

I was just checking on that because I'm so worried this project's not going to get done, or that's not me because I'm just so worried about this or that. How do you develop self-awareness, or maybe recognize that, again, not that you're a toxic person, but that you might be exhibiting some of these behaviors? How can you develop that and start to see some of these signs in yourself, maybe?

Lynn Catalano:                  

So, it's hard, right? That's very difficult, especially for leaders I think to see, I think at some point it's like symptomatic of leadership. They're focused on so many things that they become myopic about themselves, right? So first of all, I think that emotional intelligence plays a big role in this. I think that leaders who have high emotional intelligence are less likely to exhibit these behaviors, because they understand that it's the ability to do both, to regulate their own emotions and to understand that they're not the only person on the planet, right? That there's lots of other people. And I think that it's become a really important part of leadership. 

And I'm sure you've done other interviews on emotional intelligence. Certainly, leadership experts are now focusing on the importance of emotional intelligence and what it brings to an organization. So exhibiting empathy, building relationships, building trust, more efficient teamwork, right? It all leads to the top, to success.

So I think that's a big part of it, but look, how do you recognize it in yourself? So you got to flip those 10 characteristics from the beginning and say, well, I need to take responsibility for everything. Right? A good leader. You look at a CEO, or a president of a company, or a coach of a team. Look, if something goes wrong, everyone's a Monday morning quarterback.

Beth Almes:                        

Right.

Lynn Catalano:                  

... but the coach on Sunday night says, we didn't do our best, or we tried and we didn't accomplish it. It's a "we." He's not blaming anyone on the team. So I think that as a leader, we need to take responsibility. I'm sure most of the time, it's not the leader's fault for something that goes wrong in the organization, but you're the leader. So you need to take responsibility. Embrace conflict, be a good communicator, respect personal time, respect boundaries, right? 

Delegate, stop micromanaging, but again, that's about building trust. Strategic plans and you stick to them, stop reacting to situations, attack the root cause of the problem, don't just go for short-term optics. Band-aids don't fix things. Pay attention to turnovers, they mean something. And then everyone needs coaching because positive reinforcement is so important, but obviously sometimes that's not easily identifiable to a leader, right? I can tell you all those things, but sometimes a leader still isn't self-aware.

So I think it's so important to do blind, anonymous employee surveys and put yourself out there. Now, it takes high emotional intelligence to do that. Not everybody's going to want to do that, because if you're a toxic individual, you don't like criticism, but you've got to, the only way you're going to figure it out is to put yourself out there and say, how can I improve? How can I get better? What am I doing good? What am I doing wrong? Ask both questions, ask all of it. 

If you've had a conflict in this organization in the last six months, did you feel it was resolved? Ask the hard questions of these employees, the employees need to know that there's no retribution. So they need to know that it's anonymous and it's blind. And again, it's another way to build trust, because you're putting it out there, right? I'm not perfect. None of us are perfect. We can all improve. We can all learn things every day. It's only going to improve your whole organization, but you got to be willing to put yourself out there.

Beth Almes:                        

I love that. It takes a lot of courage to seek feedback, because it might not always be what you're thinking, but it's so helpful in developing self-awareness. And at the very least you can start to question yourself, I think, on those 10 behaviors you talked about and say [crosstalk 00:32:50].

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yes.

Beth Almes:                        

... I don't have to tell anyone about this, but let's really run through this list and say, am I doing any of these things? And again, maybe you have your reasons on, well, I'm just worried about the deadline, but does that mean you're doing something you shouldn't be doing, or you're opinionated, but am I really providing constructive coaching to somebody, helping them see what to be better instead of just saying, you did it wrong again. I like these 10 behaviors as a little bit of a self test too. And you're only going to gain if you're honest with yourself.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Right. Right. And I guess the other way, if you're not willing to put yourself out there, not willing to have all your employees review your behaviors, then perhaps you need some one-on-one coaching as a leader, and that you can have that conversation with one person, and it doesn't have to go anywhere, and you can learn something about yourself.

Beth Almes:                        

Yeah. Trusted colleague, someone you trust seeking some of that feedback, that can be so powerful. So one of the questions I ask everyone on the show, and I'm particularly curious for you as you've gotten into this line of work, and focus here, but can you tell me about a moment of leadership that really changed your life? Either inspiring you for the good, or even shaping your path in the direction that you're thinking this moment showed me where I did not want to be in life.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yeah. It's hard for me to pick a moment. But when I look back, I worked for a CEO, an organizational CEO, who had hired me to develop a certain plan and a certain program. I hired experts to do that, because that's what we do. Right? We bring in people that are smarter than us in their arenas to help us achieve the goal. This person was great. They had improved. It happened, this was the area of marketing. 

They had taken the organization from a level where they were ridiculously underweighted in marketing and raised their image digitally, and within social media, and videos, and emails, and website presence, and so many things, reviews and so much good. It was an incredible turnaround in less than a calendar year.

And for whatever reason, and I don't know to this day why, but the CEO proceeded to gaslight this person on what the reality was, and for your listeners, gaslighting is a tactic typically employed by narcissists, where they take the reality that both of you shared and turn it so that they're the victim, and it's a different reality than what occurred. It's their perception. And they're telling you that you're wrong and you might be going crazy, because you don't remember how it actually happened and they know better. 

So he proceeded to gaslight her on her results and bullied this person enough so that they resigned after that meeting. And so that meeting for me, it was a watershed moment because I knew that I had no respect for the CEO any longer. And that I would never be that kind of leader, that I would never treat people in that way. And not once did he point out any of the positives of which there were so many. So it was odd. It was odd behavior on his part. He was an odd CEO.

Beth Almes:                        

That's such a powerful story as we think about these toxic relationships. And as you see them in the workplace, because when I'm listening to you tell that story, that CEO gained nothing in the end, he didn't look better. He didn't get more done. Nobody was heaping praise on him at the other person's expense, or anything like that. He just lost a really, a person who could have really helped make him and the organization look so much better. 

And that's such a powerful, I think, takeaway from your story of how these relationships can, it's not just about trying to get through your day or, of course, you're not going to always like everybody. It's not about that. It's about really what you lose when you're involved in, you're exhibiting some of those behaviors, or that you see others who are being treated this way, not changing that is such a loss for you and the organization.

Lynn Catalano:                  

Yes.

Beth Almes:                        

So thank you so much for all your great insights today, Lynn. Thank you for joining us. And to all of our listeners, thank you for taking the time out of your 480 to be with us today. And remember to make every moment of leadership count.


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