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Defusing toxic behavior (even remotely)

The urgent need for social distancing and virtual relationships are added problems for managers already under pressure. What’s more, there has been a hike in conflicts in remote relationships. Who’s to blame? Toxic individuals who undermine other people’s morale? Should you simply identify and neutralize them? In reality, the problem is much more complex than that…

Eighty-four percent of people in France1 firmly believe that interpersonal relationships are the foundation of well-being when working in teams. At the same time, Cy Wakeman notes that we spend an average of over two hours a day putting up with or managing conflict and tension.2 This phenomenon seems to have worsened with the introduction of social distancing and remote working. In addition to the waste of time and energy, such tensions have other indirect costs: diminished commitment, absenteeism, turnover, damage to the company’s reputation, brain drain, stalled decision-making processes, and so on. What is the solution? It starts with understanding that the true origin of conflicts is rarely the toxic nature of employees, but rather behaviors that are fostered by organizational dysfunctions, which are aggravated by working remotely. 

Based on

The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work 
 Jody Foster et Michelle Joy (St. Martin’s Press, april 2017) 

Is hell other people? 

An expert in leadership, Cy Wakeman conducted in 2015 an 18 month-long survey in the United States of several companies that had reported situations of conflict. Almost 100% of the individuals that he interviewed believed that the primary cause of tension resided within the individuals themselves. Some were afflicted with irreparable psychological issues (narcissism, passive-aggression, paranoia, manipulativeness, and other problems). The conventional wisdom is that such individuals should be identified and neutralized (or eliminated) from the company.  

This ultra-simplistic approach has become very popular among observers within the world of business and has fed the development of an abundance of literature on the toxicity of certain individuals. Yet, this hyper-presence of “the toxic individual” in the media overlooks the fact that interpersonal conflicts, for the most part, have multiple causes and that individual behaviors tend to be merely symptoms of bigger problems. 

Understanding the true origins of interpersonal tensions is a far more delicate task than simply identifying a few bad apples. 

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Caroline Schuurman
Published by Caroline Schuurman