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The spectrum of toxicity

Understanding and managing toxicity in the workplace

There is a significant interest in corporate wellness. In 2019 alone 418 000 000 wellness-related articles were published on Google and 34 700 scholarly articles were published in academic journals. This interest is further illustrated in the number of conferences, consulting solutions, and assessment measures focussed on measuring, managing, and optimising wellness. This focus in corporate environments is of critical importance.

The principle is that employees, often the largest stakeholders in businesses can have a significant impact on the growth, reputation, and competitive edge of the company. This is why leadership has to care so much about the workplace conditions, processes, and opportunities available to employees. The motivation, engagement, innovation, client- and service orientation, happiness, loyalty, and commitment of employees are related to their wellness and well-being at work. It can significantly impact on clients as a major stakeholder group and on the earnings of the company which impact on shareholders. Where leadership can drive a wellness and well-being culture, employees have the opportunity to flourish even when the going gets tough.

It is, therefore, such an irony that many employees still have experiences of toxicity in the workplace. Toxicity, in contrast to wellness, includes behaviours, actions, and communication from managers, leaders, or fellow employees that can be so destructive that it creates emotional turmoil, interpersonal conflict, disillusionment, and even physical harm/disease.

Negative emotional responses such as frustration, anxiety, despair, or anger are prevalent in toxic contexts. The viral and contagious impact of these emotions impact colleagues very quickly and soon the workplace becomes like a war zone. Conflict, rumours, and blaming could become “the way we do business”. Interpersonal relationships are affected and the cohesion of teams starts to fragment. The workplace becomes a place where there is an “in-group” and an “out-group”.

Toxicity, like corruption, is always an issue related to people. The origins of the toxic behaviour can most often be found in the personality structure of a specific person, and the group around him/her, the value system, and the integrity of the individual(s).

The toxicity that exists in work contexts cannot be afforded, particularly in economically difficult times. Those who bring toxicity to the workplace should be identified and taken out of the system as soon as possible. All types of toxicity are however not the same. It may be useful to think of it in the following way – as a spectrum of different kinds of toxicity:

  • Slight levels of toxicity: This may include people who are lazy, who blame others, who never do what they promise, or are always gossiping. The irritation caused by these people can cause toxicity but is somewhat easier to contain than the moderate and severe forms. It could be managed by asking for or offering opportunities for self-development and self-insight through possible assessment or 360 feedback. It could also involve a possible transfer to a position that is more suitable, or the manager could intervene with feedback, ultimatums, and clear consequences of such toxic behaviour.
  • Moderate levels of toxicity: In contexts where high pressure and stress levels prevail, toxicity could come from those who continuously derail and overreact. Derailment presents as the overuse of some innate personality traits. A person who tends to always be critical, may, when they derail become so critical that it becomes analysis paralysis and destructively impacts on relationships and the workplace. Another example could be a person who always works hard and diligently but when he/she derails they never stop working and may blame others who do not do the same. Behaviours such as passive-aggressiveness, micromanagement, being overly sceptical or paranoid, dramatic, emotionally explosive, or aggressive could all be illustrations of basic personality traits used in a derailed manner. This can cause emotional- and interpersonal pain and make the workplace so toxic that it becomes very difficult to survive. Management of this form of toxicity may require honest feedback and the opportunity for self-insight and development through, for instance, coaching. Workshops on stress-management, work structuring to distinguish between working on-task or off-task, scheduling, home-work-life boundaries could all be very useful.
  • Severe levels of toxicity: This form of toxicity includes what is known as dark personalities. The dark personalities are those who can be labelled as Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Machiavellian types. Central characteristics of all three include the ego-centric need to look after themselves and not care about others. They will do whatever is needed to stay in power whether it involves lying, cheating, or manipulating. These personalities are very dangerous in the workplace, particularly also because first impressions of them are that they are charming and capable. Their behaviour may look very “leader-like”. It is only when they move into powerful positions that the toxicity will start showing. Bullying, intimidation, and lies are often how they maintain power. Management of this kind of toxic behaviour in the workplace is extremely difficult. The best advice is to try not to employ such people. Once they are in positions of power it is only the principles of governance and severe consequences that would force them out.

In general, the basic guidelines for managing toxicity always include:

  • Identify and isolate the source and level of toxicity as fast as possible to limit the impact on others
  • Make sure that those on the receiving end of the toxic behaviour are supported and provided the opportunity for self-care
  • Make sure that whistle-blowers are protected, particularly in cases of severe toxicity
  • Use your HR policies and governance principles to make sure that there are fair, yet consistent actions taken against those whose behaviour puts the whole organisation at risk.

The best strategy by far is, however, to make sure that you do not employ people who show the risk of becoming destructively toxic. Make sure you use more than just interviews or references when appointing people, as many toxic people are deceptively charming. Make use of the best assessments possible to screen out those who, although they may have skills and potential, also carry with them such destructive tendencies that it will harm others and eventually even destroy the company.


If you would like to identify the potential for toxic behaviour in your current and prospective employees, contact JvR Psychometrics on 011 781 3705, or email

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