Toxic Employees: Resistance to Positive Organizational Change

Context
This article covers the situation of a typical, well-meaning company owner whose organization is harmed by the presence of one or more negatively motivated toxic employees.  The arguments offered here do not respond to the situation in which the owner is the bully. 

Terminology
Here are some helpful terms to break toxic dynamics into their component parts.

Change-agents—usually consultants, supervisors or company executives formally identified and brought in to make changes or fellow employees who have openly challenged toxic employee ringleaders.

Ringleaders—toxic employees who typically have long service and who initiate strategies to acquire and use informal power for negative goals. Typical techniques include intimidation, manipulation and neutralization of others for self-centered goals

Informal power—this type of power is different from the power relationships articulated by the organization chart.  On the chart, the supervisor has some oversight and evaluation responsibilities over those who report to them.  Informal power interrupts or neutralizes this power when toxic employees control co-workers and even their supervisors through the treat of isolation, silent treatment and other forms of retaliation. 

Informal workplace dynamics
Today’s workplace dynamic consists of unwritten “agreements.” Status quo power structures and informal processes develop over time and become well-entrenched unless directly challenged. In a healthy workplace, informal power structure mirrors the formal structure. When the workplace involves toxic employees, the informal structure can be very different from that of the organization chart. In this situation orderly work flow and respectful relations between co-workers suffers. Toxic employees collect informal power over time using rumors, intimidation and retaliation against those they perceive as threats.These tactics can even intimidate supervisors who actually have the authority to change procedures. Those with informal power steer their co-worker “friends” away from employees who they see as challenging their power.  Employees who fail to heed subtle and not-so-subtle directives by those with informal power are often punished with silent treatment, isolation and rumors. Eventually, coworkers “get the message” and learn to go along with Toxic employee desires.

Positive change initiatives
During a human resource program change or major employee relations initiative, toxic employee resistance increases and negative dynamics temporarily worsen before they begin to shift. Toxic employees want and need for the patterns to stay as they are.  This preserves their power and keeps them in control of office activities. When the pattern is challenged, those who stand to lose power try tactics that worked before. When those tactics don’t achieve the desired result, negative behaviors worsen.

Those initiating the change (change agents) often become the specific target of toxic employee activities.  The more determined and strategic the toxic employee, the more challenging and sometimes personal this negative campaign will get. Change agents with thick skin and the ability to see these as social dynamics rather than personal attacks, will have an easier time maintaining the will to follow through with desired changes and improvements. 

Planning
Human resource professionals and company owners who know and understand these dynamics develop a comprehensive and well-thought-out plan that anticipates resistance.  Knowing what to expect is essential to maintain forward momentum.  When negative tactics escalate, you know you are on the right track.  This is a key decision point where the faint of heart may abandon the change initiative. With courage and good planning, you can re-enforce the desired change, hold saboteurs accountable and demonstrate that you have the will to overcome informal power structures.  The chances of successful change implementation are greatly enhanced when owners have the overall intention to create a positive work culture built around business goals, respectful employee conduct and accountability for those who 1.work against company goals, and 2.abuse and intimidate co-workers.

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