Detoxing Your Team

Most of us can recall working with someone that had such a strong, negative impact on the work environment that you could t literally feel the emotional mood swing when this person walked into a meeting.

For some unknown reason, perhaps a karmic-imbalance in the universe, these toxic characters have the unnerving and disconcerting tendency to be great survivors.  They rule their teams like Tony Soprano and they manage the higher-ups with diplomatic skills that would make a great politician proud.  And they do all of this in broad daylight, while the people that work for and with them roll their eyes and hope not to fall into the toxic character’s line of sight.

While it is easy to intuit that toxic employees are value destroyers, we’ve been short on hard data about the true impact that these individuals have on the work environment.  Until now.

The April 2009 Harvard Business Review summarizes a study by Christine Porath  and Christina Pearson that offers insights into “How Toxic Colleagues Corrode Performance.”  Porath and Pearson polled several thousand managers and employees from a variety of U.S. companies about the impact of toxic people at work, and the results affirm what we’ve long suspected.  These people extract a costly toll on the rest of the employees and on overall performance.

Selected highlights when faced with toxic or rude co-workers:

  • 48% decreased their work effort
  • 47% decreased their time at work
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined.

And so on.

Art’s Observations:

The best advice that I ever learned the hard way took was “fire the politicians.”  In one case earlier in my career, I was the enabler for this toxic individual, preferring to see only his strengths and talents and ignoring the havoc he created in the working environment.

Ultimately, I learned to fire toxic characters fast.  The individuals that did not share and exhibit the values that we espoused or that ruled through intimidation were the first ones out the door, regardless of their capabilities. 

I’ve never regretted firing a toxic employee.

Fair warning.  Toxic employees don’t make it easy for you to fire them.  The best of the worst actually frighten their bosses into inaction, not through overt intimidation or threats, but through more subtle approaches.  Remember, these are skillful politicians with the hearts and minds of gangsters, and they’ve convinced a lot of people about how valuable they are to the organization.  A conscientious manager may find herself swimming against the tide of popular opinion from her peers or higher ups on this issue.

Brace yourself for a fight, don’t be intimidated and stick to your guns.  It’s easier to back down and the toxic employee is betting on this outcome.  Like most thugs and bullies, they don’t expect people to stand-up to them and fight back. 

I’m certain that I read “fire the politicians” somewhere, and I wish that I could provide attribution.  Regardless, it’s good advice, especially in these tough times when teams are shrinking and those left behind must be capable of performing at a high level. 

If you’re on the edge about who should go, you will be well served to get the toxicity out.


By | 2016-10-22T17:12:11+00:00 April 7th, 2009|Decision-Making, Leadership|10 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. David Locke April 7, 2009 at 9:43 am - Reply

    So how do you sort out the the road rager trigger from the road rage? The explosion isn’t they dynamite.

  2. Michael Ray Hopkin April 7, 2009 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Art, I agree with the HBR study; the statistics speak for themselves. Your observations are most enlightening and much appreciated.

    It’s obvious to me you have deep experience in the area of “detoxing” organizations of poisonous people. This is incredibly important in today’s world where every organization requires the best of its employees to succeed. -Michael

  3. Shawn Rogers April 7, 2009 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    Great piece, I agree about the act fast strategy. I’ve learned my lessons there as well. At the first sign of a tumor – operate!

  4. Art Petty April 7, 2009 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks, all for the comments. I truly appreciate the dialogue!

    David, in many cases, these individuals hide their “road rage” and operate with the precision of assassins.

    Michael and Shawn, I do agree with the speed issues. Many managers fail to act out of some irrational fear or in the naive hope that they can help the person change. While I am tremendously optimistic, I’ve not yet seen a toxic employee change for the better.


  5. Matt McKenzie April 7, 2009 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    I completely agree with your approach. I was curious to see what you thought about trying to correct behavior before firing this personality type… is this possible? Have you ever been able to coach someone into improvement with success?


  6. Art Petty April 7, 2009 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    Matt, thanks for the comment. While it pains me to sound a bit cynical, my biggest career mistakes have actually been trying too hard and for too long to coach toxic characters on improving. In every case, I spent too much time with them and didn’t appreciate how adverse their presence and behaviors were to the rest of the team.

    A little anecdote. When writing Practical Lessons in Leadership, my co-author and I debated this same point. In our combined 45 years of leading, we could not come up with one solid example.

    In spite of my eternal optimism, I have no qualms about firing fast when it comes to toxic employees.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting! -Art

  7. Allison O'Neill April 15, 2009 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    I recon toxic employees are the same as AH’s Bob Sutton speaks of. His book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ is essential reading for EVERYONE with a job. ‘Asshole lovers’ are those that continue to allow AH’s in the workplace. They should be booted out not nurtured!

  8. Hayli @ Rise Smart April 16, 2009 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    It bears mentioning that “thugs and bullies” are not the only toxic characters in the workplace. There are also underperformers, who take a halfway approach to practically everything and refuse to pull their own weight. Sometimes these individuals are also the office bullies, but sometimes they are very passive (perhaps passive aggressive in a sense?). Either way, without raising their voice or uttering one single cutting remark, these underperformers are still toxic and sure to breed hostility in the workplace.

  9. Hayli @ Rise Smart April 17, 2009 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Quick note: You are featured in RiseSmart’s Weekly Roundup alongside Rowan Manahan, Dan McCarthy, etc. The idea of assessment and development seems to be popular lately, so we went with that theme and felt your post was certainly relevant. Thanks for your work!

  10. […] managers to assess their teams and even “detox” the team, if necessary. Art Petty at Management Excellence dissects the why and how of this […]

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