Like a disease silently spreading through the body, the impact that toxic people can have on an organisation is generally only noticed when it is too late.
However, Renate Scherrer, MD of JvR Consulting, warns that although toxicity is contagious, it is not as visible as incidents of fraud or physical and verbal abuse.
Snakes in suits
Scherrer also refers to the “snakes in suits” as “corporate psychopaths”. Statistics show that as many as 4% of people in more senior positions in business display the characteristics which is associated with these workplace psychopaths.
“They will undeniably be in the higher leadership positions. That is what they aim for and they are good at manipulating people to get there,” she says, adding that they are friendly with those who they consider to be part of their bigger plan, but will isolate and destroy those who stand in their way.
Getting rid of the toxic leader
Scherrer’s advice is not to appoint them in the first instance. “It is easier to ensure you have the right person, than to try and change them afterwards when they have already done a lot of damage.”
However, once a toxic leader senses that the “tide is turning” against them, and they are to be exposed many tend to leave the company on their own accord. She says if complaints are stacking up, it is better to engage with the human resource department to follow due process in assisting the toxic leader to exit the organisation.
Remaining impact on the team
Scherrer says the new leader taking responsibility for the team that is left behind will have to distance him/her from the way things were done in the past. It is vital to set up new terms of engagement. “One cannot ignore what has happened,” she adds. People need to have time to talk about it, and explain how certain actions or behaviour made them feel.
“Employees also need to be honest about their role in what happened and how their actions may inadvertently have contributed to it.”
She adds that they need to critically evaluate what behaviour they are perpetuating in the wake of the toxic leader. Remaining symptoms of toxicity, ie disengagement, hopelessness, burnout, distrust, low morale and decreased learning must be addressed constructively.
How to rebuild the team?
Scherrer says the new leader must be astute to the impact of his predecessor. “He will have to deal with the emotional content and contain it to prevent the toxicity from lingering.”
Take a strong stand against any behaviour that is regarded as ‘the old way’.
“The new way of doing things must be positioned at executive level and translated into a behavioural charter that everyone aligns to. It must be positively reinforced throughout the organisation. Empower people to become ambassadors of the new terms of engagement,” says Scherrer.
Depending of the level of harm, there has to be a detailed “recovery plan” with formal sessions conducted by either internal or external experts to assist with enhancing individual and team resilience.
It may require therapy for some team members or coaching and mentoring for others.
Managers who were sandwiched between the toxic leader and resentful employees may be particularly vulnerable and susceptible to psychological harm.
“We will always cross paths with toxic people. You need to enamour and protect yourself against them. Speak out when there is an opportunity to do so. In some instances, the toxicity is not intentional, and creating awareness may go a long way in addressing the issues proactively,” says Scherrer.