“It’s important to avoid conversations on intention.”
The Impact at Home and Work
Toxicity at home and the workplace, when left unchecked, significantly disrupts our sense of connection and safety with others. It often leaves us uneasy, even confused, about the dynamics at play within a closed social system such as immediate family or colleagues. In its extreme form, dealing with individuals who engage in toxic behaviour with others leads to social isolation, even changes in employment.
Three Types of Toxic Behaviour
It is important to make a distinction between, “toxic behaviour,” and, “toxic individuals”. For the purposes of this article, we will talk specifically about the behaviours people engage in, rather than labeling individuals as toxic or non-toxic. While toxic behaviour does tend to be an enduring approach by some individuals as indicated below, it is important to understand the root of the behaviour first.
There are three clear categories of toxic behaviour. These are:
- Overt Toxic Behaviour (OTB): The Overt type is the most obvious form as the approach is easily identifiable at home and the workplace. Individuals who engage in OTBs are adept at publicly taking advantage of dissension in groups. They look for power-in-numbers when confronting family members or authority on teams.
- Covert Toxic Behaviour (CTB): The covert type operates behind the scenes to create discord. CTBs are seen in private conversations about others and are typically at play in the center of gossip circles. Individuals who use CTBs are also quick to dissociate from anyone who attempts to leave their private, “circle of trust”. While OTBs focus on the short game, the CTB works towards the long game of dissention.
- Passive-Aggressive Toxic Behaviour (PTB): The passive-aggressive approach is similar to the covert type. Both operate behind the curtain. However, while CTB impacts group dynamics, PTB targets individuals. Passive-aggressive behaviours are designed to be emotionally harmful, leaving the target off kilter, not directly knowing the source.
Motivation Behind Toxic Behaviour
It is confusing why anyone would choose a toxic approach with those they are most in contact with. Therefore, it is important to understand what motivates toxicity. We have identified the following reasons people engage in OTB, CTB or PTB:
- The power to influence others is energizing, even intoxicating. The more people influenced, the more powerful the individual feels.
- Individuals using a toxic approach lack awareness. While this is difficult to believe, it is clear that the energy gained far outweighs an awareness of their impact on others. They might even see themselves as protectors of the group.
- Negativity is a powerful reinforcer. Pointing out the faults of others or undermining authority elicits negative commentary by the, “in-group”. This is the greatest source of attention, and an easy place to return.
There is no clear reason why some people pick toxicity as an approach compared to others. While we can speculate that at root the individual has experienced some form of trauma in their past, this is nothing more than anecdote. In short, once on the path, it is very difficult to step off due to the reinforcing nature toxic behaviour possesses. Encouraging a more adaptive approach would only be met with rebuttal.
Four Strategies For Managing Toxicity
As tempting as it might be, in the end, we cannot change people. Making an attempt will only result in frustration. It is also imperative that we avoid questioning the intentions of the other person. Instead, approach the problem by addressing behaviour while managing our own response.
We have identified four clear strategies for addressing toxic behaviour. While the approach does tend to be pervasive in nature, it is important to manage strategically, especially in structured social systems such as a family unit or in the workplace.
- Do Not Engage In Groups: It is never effective to address toxic behaviour in groups. Always pull the individual aside and ask for a time that works for them to discuss concerns.
- Approach With Curiosity: Our approach with others is driven by what motivates us. In a one-to-one conversation, explore current challenges and pressure points to demonstrate that you care about their concerns.
- Provide Concrete Feedback: Use the above one-to-one conversation to address your concerns. Identify a specific problematic behaviour, describe the impact, and provide a behavioural expectation moving forward.
- Accept Behind The Scenes Conversations: You will not be able to manage the conversations others have about you or others. Address people individually and accept that some form of discord is always at play.