Lessons learnt… from toxic people

Lessons learnt from toxic people

I've thought many times at this subject but I haven’t found till now the pause to turn it into an article about toxic people, more specifically about toxic employees, colleagues, bosses or toxic workplaces. I have met them frequently in my professional life. Maybe, you too. I was like a magnet for such people or places. It took me some time to find the reasons for being such a magnet and it was very difficult to accept and overcome the situation.

Eventually I was lucky enough to find the suitable ways to deal with these contexts and to create out of these experiences some valuable lessons which I’m finally ready to share with you.   

How do we recognize toxic people in organizations or in relationships?

It is important to learn this, because if you get to know the main features of a toxic person, whether it is a relative, a colleague, a boss, a neighbor, a leader or a politician, it will sharpen your radar, making their manipulations easier to unmask and minimize their power over you.

Toxic people are building around them an unpleasant ambience, draining your vitality.  They are just hard to spend time with. You get quickly very tired as they are consuming your energy without you realize that.

Toxic people always manipulate people and situations to their advantage. They are able to convince you that you were born to please them or worse, to worship them. They make you believe you are responsible for their feelings and moods and that you must be always guilty of something. Their beloved phrase is: “it is only your fault”. Even if someone else sets fire somewhere, in a distant spot on the planet, you might be guilty of that too.

Then slowly, you start feeling guilty for every natural or artificial catastrophe, for everything is not working properly in this world. And a side effect is that you start being afraid of making mistakes and trying new things because the smallest error is being put under the magnifying glasses of your colleague who will instantly report you in a more or less aggressive manner or keep a tracking file of your flaws. 

What to do?STOP feeling guilty or afraid of making mistakes.  Easy to say, harder to do. I’m still working on this so I will detail it at a later time;)

Maybe you still wonder why your colleague with whom you are sharing a small spot in the private or open office is completely lovely one day with you, sharing with you even too many details from his or her personal life, keeping you therefore up to date with the number of teeth the eldest son is having now in the mouth, the length of the poems the youngest kid is able to recite out of the short term memory in front of a small audience or how many beers the husband drank last evening, alone in the balcony. Suddenly the next day you will spend some time of your morning coffee break wondering what you’ve done to upset the same colleague who was telling you just a day before so many secrets.

There often isn’t anything obvious that will explain the change of attitude – but in the next second you are asking yourself: “what did I do or say wrong?” and start apologizing clumsily (for nothing) or doing everything you can to make your colleague happy and talkative… again.

As you are thinking that it might be better for the sake of your daily tasks to intensively practice your active listening skills in order to get the updates about your colleague’s plans for the exotic summer holidays  and develop your peripheral vision while throwing from time to time a diplomatic yet forced smile towards your colleague, smile which should speak out the truth “hey I’m not interested in this shit” but instead of that is encouraging your colleague to continue the relentless chatter … than to waste your day finding excuses for your colleague’s bad mood.

Why? Because we prefer to go the safer and easier way. Counting the teeth of your colleague’s kid is safer than going on moving sands in the middle of nowhere.

The irony is that this bad mood of your colleague is turning against you. At the end of the day, he or she will ask you “what is the matter with you?You’ve been in a bad mood all day.’” The bad mood is suddenly yours not his or hers because your toxic colleague is never ready to owe his or her feelings. So… he or she gives with generosity those feelings to you… The psychological word for that is “projection”.

And it is so simple to project! We learn it from our childhood, when our parents or others around us get angry but do not take responsibility for their state accusing you of being angry with them. How could parents ever admit that they can get angry? After all, they are not humans… they are perfect creatures who were never kids and never made mistakes…

In this educational pattern, unfortunately, we are thinking too much at ourselves… and we are feeling too less about the others…

Anyway, in the worst case, you believe them. But there is still hope for you, to recover yourself. It is never too late in the learning process which makes learning one of the most beautiful things in life. So if you find yourself justifying and defending yourself all day long running inside a circle, 

STOP for one moment and put a line between what is yours and what is theirs.

Remember also that it’s not about you. With a little imagination you can even put yourself in his or her shoes to feel and understand the other’s state or you can turn into a neutral observer who looks silently at both of you: the projector and the projected.

Remember also when you encounter a toxic person: alongside their unpredictability, they are gifted with rigidity. Flexibility is for them a sign of weakness. Toxic people are incapable of accepting different opinions or beliefs, always fighting for their point of view until the situation becomes embarrassing. They are incapable to adapt to people or contexts. And with that comes a high set of expectations from the toxic person: they expect people, places, even laws and rules adjust to them. Their motto: “Do this because I say so and I know better.”

How about working with toxic bosses?

I have rarely had the "pleasure" to work with toxic bosses, but I have close friends who had suffered a lot from such experiences and I’ve got some insights to complete the picture.

They make you feel, you owe them something. They have a tricky way to use you or to hurt you, then immediately claiming they were doing it all for you and your benefit. In order for you to learn or to get stronger or to have more success.   

The truth is... You don’t owe anybody anything. Only to life. You owe your life, your own death. That’s all. I met this metaphor at school at a Romanian poet in one of his poems and it became one of my constant beliefs in life.

Toxic bosses are also talented in using non-toxic word in a toxic tone, like “What did you do today?” which can hide the accusation “you did nothing, didn’t you?” And they love to judge you and to remind you of your past errors exaggerating and generalizing your contextual actions, by using adverbs like “you always”, “you never” etc.

What to do?DO NOT PAY ATTENTION. It is time for you to learn how to lose a battle. But your self-esteem eventually will remain intact.

Some other habits that toxic bosses have that you may have already noticed so far:  they do not have time for you, as they are always on the run, a bundle of nerves that imprint a stressful and unpleasant working environment.  And unfortunately, sad but true, they do not take annual reviews seriously, even if the most used concept in organizational management is… performance management.

And if you think that drama or other theatrical representations are to find only on the podium, you are wrong. As long as you feel obliged to choose him or her instead of something else – toxic persons will often put you in this situation to choose between them and something else – you are inside the drama, playing the stupid role of one of the main characters. 

In personal life you will hear much too often: “If you really cared about me you’d skip your personal development training and spend time with me.”

While in the office: “‘If you really cared about having results in your job, you would have continued working on this as long as necessary, eventually spend the night in the office.”

What to do in these crazy situations?  Get instant divorce at home and find another job in your professional life. No... I'm joking. These are too extreme solutions for extreme situations which I both experienced in my life and from which I learnt a lot, really a lot. That is why I do not recommend anybody, unless it is really necessary  or until you have exhausted all other options...

which are...

“Let go of the people who dull your shine, poison your spirit and bring you drama. Cancel your subscription to their issues” Dr. Steve Maraboli

which for me means...

Stay away from toxic people, limit your time with such people as much as possible. Set boundaries. And stop feeling guilty about that. After all, they are like a poison, as they do nothing to enrich your life and career, or make it any easier or more successful. So why to feel guilty about giving up poison?

What else? Do not share confidence with them as anything you say to a toxic person will turn against you and will be repeated in a negative or apocalyptic way.

And avoid being a shoulder to cry on. As it is useless. Nothing you can say will cheer up a toxic person – they enjoy being a victim. It is their mission in life.  Save your energies for those who genuinely deserve them, or who make you feel better, not worse.

What else can you do?

Do not even think or try to change a toxic person. It is impossible. Eventually tell them clearly what you expect and ask them if they have any questions or objections to it.  Ask what solution they would suggest if they were in your place. Be positive but realistic, acknowledge any complaints they make but don’t agree with them. Maintain normal eye contact to show you’re not intimidated. Use firm body language – plant your feet firmly on the floor a little way apart, stand tall and straight and avoid defensive gestures by keeping your arms relaxed by your sides.  Stand firm and don’t let them get their own way if they’re being unreasonable.

If possible, leave tactfully the theatrical scene, or at least invite others in the discussion as soon as possible. This helps deflect the negative energy off you and can help get you a chance to break free without appearing to reject the toxic person, as they are very sensitive to rejection and could react aggressively. 

Or if you are the superior of a toxic employee which is too valuable for the company (in terms of his or her technical skills) to get rid of him or her, take some money from the training budget  and send him or her to a good therapy program.

Most toxic people have traits of narcissisticantisocial or borderline personality disorders which could be treated by mental health professionals. 

Oh, almost forgot: do this small exercise called "check the ecology". Ecology is the study of consequences in NLP which keeps a balance of elements in any system. It reflects the overall relationship between a person and their thoughts, behaviors, values and beliefs as well as the positive impact of our decisions, behaviors, and feelings on others.  Ecology is important in considering our goals in order to ensure that the impact of achieving the outcome is positive for us and those around us and that achieving it is congruent with our goals and desired code of conduct.

Therefore, doing an ecology check is checking the consequences of our current and future actions and plans on us and on the others. Some helpful questions to do this exercise are:

What are the wider consequences of my action? What will I lose if I make this action or change ? What will I gain if I make this? How will my action affect others? Does it go against any of their values? How will they react?  Does this matter? Is it worth it?... 

You will be surprised discovering that you also were long time ago or still are toxic for people around you or for yourself. But the good news is that once you acknowledge and accept this, you are making the first step in healing and turning into a normal person...back to life, back to normality.

From human resources to... human relationships at work

Shifting from human resources towards a human relationship approach in the organisational management...

well, it may sound a little bit weird, especially for those who are familiar with the traditional human resources concept for many years.

Abbreviated it is still  HR... But in essence, it is a different view upon the workforce of a company in the technological era. And those companies who have understood this and have already adopted this new perspective are turning gradually into magnets for the best talents in the world.

How come?  

Because the world of work has changed dramatically fast in the last years, due to the young workforce –the so called Millennials - who started to change the rules on the labor market...

Millennials or Y Generation (those born between 1982-2000), are the kids of the Baby Boomers generation who is preparing to retire.

They grew up in an information era which favored an open and sharing environment. That is why they prefer to work together in a cohesive group, to share information, to collaborate, to have a common goal. The key word is sharing.

They have plenty of confidence both in the future and in themselves – some critics say they are too narcissistic, which might derive from a “helicopter-type” parenting, with highly involved parents vehemently encouraging the importance of self-esteem. And they are masters in building relationships or ad hoc partnerships to accomplish what it is to be done, in both an effective and efficient way.

Baby Boomers generation of workers have focused merely on efficiency, while Millennials are directed more towards effectiveness. And being effective is about doing the right things, while being efficient is about doing various things in the right manner.

Millennials are doing the right things which means they are directed towards accomplishing goals, although they do not like to talk about achieving goals. As they are not “talkers”… but rather “doers”.

We all know what human resources means in the traditional view. Human resources concept was linked with productivity and competitive advantage. With hierarchies. With top down structures which required approval from several levels of management and implied lot of time and nerves consumed on the corridors of the business towers. It was all about numbers, transactions and results.

But Millennials and their appetite for technology and connectivity brought gradually the shift from a transaction-based working environment towards a relationship-based workplace.  From „what’s in it for me” towards „what’s the next right thing to do together –as a team”. From „me” towards „we”. This „we” are sharing information, the same social media network, the same values, principles, beliefs and holidays destinations.

They do not accept to be regarded as just another part of the mechanics of production, as resources or as robots designed to work for unethical and unrealistic productivity expectations but as individuals with individual needs, motivation, interests and attitudes.

90% of the employees of our company are young Millennials. Implicitly, the average age of our company is about 25. I meet them regularly at the interview sessions, on the halls of the office, in the kitchen at a morning chat, in the sales room, at the improvisation exercises, at the morning meetings where they discuss the volatility of the crude oil price, at a friendly talk, exit interview, or at a one-on-one coaching session... I meet Millennials every day and in various contexts so that I have a clear portrait of them in my mind.

They like to take on personal challenges. They are highly educated, committed and although very good team players, they are also very ambitious, seeking constant appraisal and fast promotions up the corporate ladder.

When given the right tools and flexible working conditions, they are straightforward, passionate and dynamic people, able to drive changes and surpass obstacles. They are not willing to sacrifice their life for a job and are not workaholic like their Baby Boomers parents. They are dreaming to gain money or build a career in an easy, fast and smart way. Therefore their moto at the work place is: “work smarter, not harder”.

It is a dreamers’ generation. They have their own battles and habits, their own interests and perspectives. Being themselves is not at all scaring them. They are aware of their skills and they know they can do more. Although their values are still traditional, like family, peace, loyalty, volunteering, social justice, tolerance, ecology, work life balance, what differentiates them from their parents are their dedication to these values, their desire to live by them not to preach about them.

In this way they are authentic, striving to live a genuine life.

That is why they are so hard to retain and motivate at the workplace and that is why so many companies are not getting the expected results when applying sophisticated and expensive ben&comp schemas. Millennials are not attracted in the first place by employee benefits, programs, cool offices and practices but by the possibility to build a successful career at a fast pace and develop high quality relationships at work where they spend so much time.

They prefer to work in organizations that are able to build a true culture, a culture of caring and respect, that draws attention on daily behavior and which allows them to really care about each other on both a professional and personal level. A culture which reaches far deeper into people than corporate benefits and cool offices, giving insights into their values, needs and motivation, a culture that respects and value human beings.

And why do they prefer this?

Because they are a generation sensitive to the thoughts and feeling of others and who excel at human relationships.

The truth is Millennials’ intuitive use of technology is quickly changing how teachers teach and workplaces work. Actually the world they grew up was so steeped in communication gadgets and software that they don't even see these tools as technology. It is in their blood.  They "speak the language" of technology fluently and spontaneously, while the previous generations speak it with “accent”, even though they use e-mail on a daily basis, they Google for everything and are buying tickets online. I admit, I’m speaking this language “with accent” and I’m belonging to X Generation.

They are seeking to lead a purposeful life, congruent with their values and so do they when choosing to work somewhere. That is why they love to work in purposeful organizations that I wrote about some time ago. They actually do not choose a certain job, they choose an employer that is why it has been put a lot of emphasis on employer branding lately.

This is the main reason for which Google is for the last 6 years the most wanted employer in the world. It is a purposeful organization.  And this explains everything. 

Millennials hate beaurocracy and spending too much in handling paper work.  They avoid rigid environments with strict rules that apply only for a majority while there is always a minority favored and excused from these rules. Their highest need is to communicate, their biggest obsession, to connect with the whole world and receive validation. For them communication means text messaging, instant messaging and e-mailing. Their favorite hobby is “talking” by texting, collaborating and engaging. Forbid them to use social media and you lost them at the competition.

Employers need to let Millennials know they care about them, by simply asking them about their hobbies or personal lives. They have to give them lots of space and freedom to work wherever and whenever they want, to feed them feedback regularly, listen attentively to their creative ideas, and let them make important decisions early in their careers.

 What involves then the human relationship approach?

It might be the new perspective in dealing with the persons engaged in your organization. It might be the key to motivate and retain employees, especially those Millennials described in the above lines.

Lately, companies put emphasis more and more on cross functional collaborative teams and teamwork. Sharing and collaboration are now embraced and become part of everyday life in an organization, competition is discouraged and even given as negative example.

Such companies are seizing the huge potential that lies in encouraging and boosting human relationships.

In the end, employers who take Millennials seriously will be more attractive to the best and brightest employees. This means that they are ready to employ them in ways that get the most out of their interpersonal skills, they treat them like human beings not like numbers, they offer an open communication framework at all levels and respect from fellow employees.

Evolving from human resources to human relationships is not something risky, expensive or science-fiction. It is a natural and simple way in which organizations should mark their success in a global and digital working place. And it is never too late to start going on this path, isn't it? What do you think?

I would be glad to complete this perspective on HR with your own view or experience so waiting for your feedback...

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