Toxic, Tough, or Feeling Threatened? (Guest blogger of the month – February 2011)

Image source – by Dreamstime

This word ‘toxic’ is being bandied around a lot and used to describe people or systems that are challenging for various reasons. It appears to be almost commonplace in the academic, health, and local government sectors, where psychological harassment (or ‘bullying’) is more prevalent. The University of Auckland Business School is even offering a short course on ‘Toxic People’ in March. Nevertheless, using the word ‘toxic’ is sensationalist, it demonises individuals, and does nothing to help address the harm caused by the behaviour, or the system that allowed it to flourish.

We may also describe these individuals as ‘tough’ – they will fight their way to the top – or as ‘sociopaths’ who just want to make everyone’s life hell. A friend of mine, Laura Crawshaw, who has spent the last fifteen years working with what she calls ‘abrasive managers’ in the States refuted this approach in a recent email: After having coached over 400 abrasive bosses, I would say that only one might possibly have fit the criteria of sociopath. And I’m clinically trained to recognize these things.”

So, if these people are not truly ‘toxic’, ‘tough’, or ‘sociopaths’, what are they? And why are they behaving like this? Well, firstly, we need to make the distinction between the individual and their behaviour: focus on the problem, not the person. You may have seen this illustrated by the ALAC adverts on TV – “We’re mates right, but you just gotta ease up on the drinking”. These ads also demonstrate that we need to be specific about the actual behaviours which cause the harm, not just ‘He/She rubs everyone up the wrong way’.

Image source – by Dreamstime

There may be all manner of reasons why these people choose to behave in such an upsetting or aggressive way, but Laura Crawshaw’s research points to a common theme – they feel threatened. Now this may be a surprise to some of you, who are thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, this person is threatening and upsetting me, and now you want me to feel sorry for them!?’ Let me just quickly say that no-one is asking you to feel sorry for them; what we are needing is a little empathy. This will not only help us to address the behaviour, but it will also help you to regain your own power in choosing how to react. If you think about how you would normally react when you perceive, for example, that your safety is threatened – it triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response (tend and befriend are additional options for women). Somewhere along the line, these people have learned that to come out fighting gets the best results. They may have seen it work for someone in their previous workplace, or their parents may have modelled it during their childhood. No matter where they learned this behaviour, they sincerely believe that it is the only way to achieve the desired results.

Since these people are also usually blind to the harm they are causing, I hear you ask ‘What can be done, and by whom?’ Firstly, you can communicate your own discomfort directly to the person, either at the moment of the behaviour, or when you have had a chance to gather your thoughts; and secondly, you can engage the support of your boss, or of the Human Resources team in dealing with this. However you decide to proceed, there is a process to follow to assist the other person to evolve their behaviour:

  • What?: The specific negative behaviour needs to be highlighted;
  • Why?: Clear reasons must be given for change; and
  • How?: Behavioural expectations need to be discussed.

Image source – by Dreamstime

If you are unsure of how to do this in a way that will not trigger the ‘threatened’ defensive reactions in the other person (and escalate the situation), you may wish to call on help from inside your organisation, or from outside – someone who specialises in constructive communication. Furthermore, raising your awareness of exactly what it is that triggers your own defensive reactions will assist you to manage conflict situations more competently.

Remember, choosing to ignore negative behaviour is to condone it; shining a light on it transforms it into a learning experience.

With special thanks to Ken Cloke – mediator extraordinaire, and Laura Crawshaw – The Boss Whisperer – for their inspirational work.

Useful links

Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

NVC Practice Groups in New Zealand

Fiona White

Fiona White has the ideal manner for a conflict resolution practitioner – calm, patient, and a very good listener. She asks just the right questions to empower her clients to find their own solutions.

With over 20 years professional experience in education, management, commerce, industry, recruitment and customer care in the UK, France and New Zealand, Fiona has a great understanding of the costs and benefits of conflict. Her mission is to share her conflict resolution knowledge and skills as widely as possible. Fiona is based in East Auckland, where she has her own Mediation and Conflict Coaching practice – Mediation Matters – and holds a clinic one day a week at the local Citizens Advice Bureau.

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ ( I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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