“What you allow is what will continue”.  – Tony Robbins

I’ve been contacted by a company this week who is having issues with one of their team members.  He’s a high flyer and in their words “vital to the business”.  But has been described as “toxic”.  He impacts everyone around him and is creating problems with suppliers too; the proverbial ‘bad apple’ that spoils the load.  The company want to know what action to take with the employee – should they get rid of him or put up with his behaviour – or can they actually successfully modify it?

Traditionally companies face this all the time … and it is very easy to quickly jump on the diagnosis that “it must be the employee”, and implement remedial action to change his or her behaviour – indeed that’s what they have tried (unsuccessfully) in the past.  But what about looking at the big picture?  What would change if we first looked at the “behaviour” of the company that has lead to this employee thinking their behaviour is acceptable and allowed this to happen?

What if the thought that it’s the employee’s fault didn’t exist? What else would we consider?

When looking at this type of question, an exceptionally useful tool is the critical alignment model: the Meta Dynamics™ lens of E, S, I and P – Environment, Structure, Implementation and People.


As the companies that have already worked with me know, I always start at the top – with the environment and culture. Starting with the environment means we start with us – and take responsibility and ownership:

  • What is it about the environment and the culture that makes the “toxic” employee believe that their behaviour is acceptable and that it is meeting the values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, standards and expectations that the company [says it] stands for?
  • Have we created an environment of trust or do team members compete with each other?

What you allow will persist and the ground rules (what you want to happen) can be very different to the unwritten ground rules (what actually happens) unless everyone is very vigilant. What you are focusing on and tolerating vs what you say you want to happen is what will actually create the culture – and that will allow “toxic” employees to exist.  


What you allow will persist and the ground rules (what you want to happen) can be very different to the unwritten ground rules (what actually happens) unless everyone is very vigilant. What you are focusing on and tolerating vs what you say you want to happen is what will actually create the culture – and that will allow “toxic” employees to exist.  


Questions to ask of yourself and your team:  

Q1:  Have we been clear about what outstanding behaviours, the standards and expectations are the benchmark?

Q2:  Have we been firm in our commitment to making sure they are demonstrated every day, so our implementation is flawed?



Is there a very clear structure with benchmarks and KPIs to be followed that support the vision, values and the mission? KPIs and benchmarks can’t exist in isolation, they need to be aligned. Zappos couldn’t deliver such incredible customer service if they measured success by how quickly they could get customers off the phone for example. Are targets set in such a way that it encourages the toxic behaviour?  Are they disconnected from the Big Why of the organisation – the purpose beyond making money? 



Or is it the implementation that is perhaps flawed with people becoming frustrated or bending rules to get things done because they are disconnected from the vision/values or results are prioritised over everything else? Or is how they are being asked to do the work is compromised?  



Or is it indeed the employee, who with the right environment, standards, and implementation is still showing toxic behaviour? If it is, then work with the employee to realign their mindset and behaviours with the business and get your environment back in order.

And if their values and attitudes are a mismatch, do not hesitate to get them out. Allowing anyone who is culturally toxic to remain in your workplace whether a “top performer” or not is cultural suicide.  Even those who are culturally neutral have a bigger impact on your company than those who are culturally positive. Because they will “infect” everyone else, and that will negatively impact all of your results.



PS – Remember, if you have this situation you also need to look at your communication, hiring and feedback processes to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

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