Think you aren’t the ‘toxic’ one in the office? Think again…

As I scan through my Linkedin feed each morning or browse any other number of interesting articles on leadership, organisational culture and teamwork, I’m bombarded with stories about ‘toxicity’.

‘Four signs of a toxic leader’, ‘How a toxic employee impacts on a team’, ‘Does your company have a ‘toxic’ culture?’

There are undoubtedly themes across this type of article – they tend to chronicle the exploits of the stereotypically overbearing autocrat with narcissistic tendencies. A lack of self-awareness and self-control is a common trend and, when it comes to culture, many outline an environment in which those characteristics are not only accepted but rewarded.

It seems, to me, an overly simplistic depiction. Almost villain-esque. It’s easy to despise the character described and we are all very quick to assert (in all likelihood, correctly) that we are nothing like that. We breathe a sigh of relief and go back about our day, safe in the knowledge that our own behaviours are impeccable by comparison.

Well, yes, maybe they are. Few of us would be able to sustain such a poisonous persona on a day-to-day basis but that doesn’t mean that we don’t carry with us some pretty ‘toxic’ behaviours which also cause damage when they bubble to the surface.

Devil You KnowThe truth is that we all have some ‘toxic’ or perhaps less dramatically-termed ‘shadow-driven’ behaviours. Quite simply, they are us at our worst. From more than fifty years of research of how we behave and communicate with others in groups, Dr David Kantor defined a number of ‘hero’ types – the behaviours we are most likely to exhibit when we are at our best. Not surprisingly each of these ‘hero’ types are aligned with an ‘anti-hero’ – our most villain-esque behavior. We describe these as ‘shadow’ behaviours and they come in a range of shades from grey to black.

The bad news is that there isn’t a person out there who doesn’t have a range of ‘shadow’ behaviour which emerges when the conditions are ‘just right’.

Take for example the individual who, in their best moments, exudes confidence, an indomitable will to succeed and irrepressible optimism. At their worst, those characteristics can morph into a tendency to be grandiose and unreal with a strong desire to overcome whatever stands between them and their goal, regardless of the cost.

Yet another hero type which, in their best light, is compassionate and humble, with a strong sense of moral conscience is more likely, in shadow, to feel pessimistic and overwhelmed, at their worst becoming accusatory and vengeful.

The range of ‘hero’ types are not for us to pigeonhole ourselves or others – we can, as individuals, exhibit a mixture of their attributes – but the typologies shine an interesting light on articles about the ‘toxic employee’ and the ‘toxic leader’ because, using this framework, they are quite clearly aligned with just one set of shadow behaviours to the exclusion of the others. The articles may say more about an author’s own behavioural preferences or their desire to describe a character that will resonate with an audience, than they do about the true complexity and variety of shadow behaviours in a workplace.

It would be a mistake to believe that toxicity takes just one form or that we don’t all have the capacity for shadow-driven behaviour when certain triggers or conditions present themselves.

Focusing on one set of ‘toxic’ behaviours you perceive in another is a fairly futile exercise given the chance of changing them are slim. Instead, great leaders and team players, spend time reflecting on their own most regrettable behaviours, and what triggers them to bubble to the surface. Doing this work, allows you to catch and re-frame your own shadow behaviour in a way which guards against damage to both yourself and others.

Are you familiar with your worst ‘shadow-driven’ behaviour? What triggers it and how do you work with it when it bubbles to the surface?

Check out our programmes helping leaders, coaches and consultants work with shadow behaviour in themselves and with others.