All schools have at least one person who sucks the positive energy out of the entire faculty. Whether we call them energy vampires, poisonous peers, or cancerous colleagues, the briefest interactions with these individuals leave us physically and mentally drained.
Repetitive dealings with toxic colleagues can have disastrous effects. Constantly being exposed to negative co-workers can lead to an increase in anxiety and depression and a decrease in motivation and engagement.
Consider your current colleagues: Can you think of a notoriously pessimistic person who puts your stomach in knots whenever you’re in their presence? Unfortunately, these employees single-handedly destroy school culture.
Early in my administrative career, I supervised a pair of teachers who worked closely together.
One teacher was positive, creative, and full of energy. She was loved by colleagues, and students enjoyed being in her classroom. In addition to being an incredible teacher, she was always looking to improve and welcomed coaching.
The other teacher was negative, prickly, and lazy. She isolated herself from peers, and students hated going to her class. In addition to being a subpar teacher, she believed she had everything figured out and resisted coaching.
One afternoon, the “positive” teacher asked for a few minutes of my time. During that conversation, she revealed how uncomfortable she felt working with her "negative" teammate.
She described the intimidation she felt working with this individual; moreover, she indicated new ideas were quickly shut down by her veteran colleague. She also shared that her co-worker spoke poorly of her to others.
Nearing the end of the conversation, the positive teacher indicated she “dreaded coming to work," and was contemplating leaving at the end of the year.
As the meeting ended, I promised the teacher I would address the situation right away.
The following day, I visited the negative teacher’s classroom but noticed she’d already left to go home. I also went to her classroom the next day, only to realize she was home sick. And the next week was busy, with school events and activities. I kept finding reasons (okay, excuses) why we couldn’t meet.
The more time that passed, the more I chose to avoid the conversation. To be honest, I was afraid how the negative teacher would respond to my feedback. The positive teacher wasn’t lying when she said her colleague was intimidating … we were all intimidated by her!
In short, the conversation never happened.
Two months later, I heard devastating news: The positive teacher accepted a job in a nearby district.
Shortly after hearing this information, I went to her room to offer my congratulations. Furthermore, I needed to know one thing: Did my failure to address a toxic employee lead to a rockstar employee’s resignation?
Sure enough, her primary reason for leaving was the personality conflict with her co-worker. The situation had not gotten any better – only worse – since we talked.
My heart sunk. I had completely failed one of our staff members. As a leader, this should have never happened.
If toxic employees are so awful for the work environment, why do they persist in our schools? Put simply, leaders aren't doing their job.
Whereas many school leaders feel comfortable addressing employees with objective performance data (such as poor test scores and attendance issues), they struggle addressing employees with subjective behavior data (such as workplace perception and employee attitude).
Leaders must overcome their insecurities and realize behavioral accountability is more important than results-based accountability. Why? Because behavioral problems almost always cause poor results.
Think about your current co-workers. Are your pessimistic colleagues producing substandard outcomes? While there are always outliers, in most cases personal conduct drives professional results.
Unfortunately, some leaders believe the best way to address toxic staff is by asking teammates to address a coworker. "Your team just needs to stand up to them,” is a common phrase use by school leaders.
While in theory this approach sounds reasonable, in practice this approach is unfair. What employee wants to challenge a toxic teammate when they have to sit beside this individual on a daily basis? Leaders – not peers – must have the courage to address negative employees.
What employee wants to challenge a toxic teammate when they have to beside this individual on a daily basis? Leaders – not peers – must have the courage to address negative employees.
What does a coaching conversation with a toxic employee look like? Here are six steps to consider:
Evidence: Too many bosses go into meetings with toxic employees with little to no specific evidence outlining the problematic behaviors. Remember, toxic employees thrive on confrontation and are skilled at defending themselves in the face of criticism. Prepared bosses have several data points ready to defend their position when the bullets start flying.
Delivery: Telling someone their attitude needs an adjustment is no fun. The more we anticipate the employee's angry reaction, the more we want to avoid the conversation. If the thought of sharing hurtful (yet vital) information gives you the shakes, consider the following: The intense discomfort in difficult conversations lasts an average of only eight seconds.
Expectations: Once the message has been delivered and tempers have started to cool, the leader must develop clear expectations for the employee's interactions with others. Even if the toxic employee is in denial (which very well could happen), the boss must be very specific about the behavior concerns the employee needs to resolve moving forward.
Document: Delivering the message verbally to the employee is not enough. Leaders must document difficult conversations for the purpose of evidence when similar issues arise in the future. A simple email to the offender summarizing the conversation should do the trick. Unfortunately, too many educational leaders lack the discipline to document these conversations.
Line in the Sand: Do you ever leave a corrective conversation with a toxic employee feeling uneasy because you’re unsure if the recipient truly absorbed the message? Don’t worry. As long as the message is delivered and documented, you have sent a shot across the bow that their harmful behavior will not be tolerated and any future misconduct will result in greater consequences.
Removal: If coaching and intervention do not result in transforming the employee's negativity, the boss may need to consider removing the employee. While not the easiest task to complete in the complex and bureaucratic world of education, savvy leaders realize eliminating a toxic employee is time well spent.
A couple years later, I spoke with the principal at the neighboring school where the positive teacher had landed. By every indication, she was thriving. Not only had she assumed leadership roles within the staff, she was perceived as a top teacher in the building. Talk about pouring salt in the wound.
Failing to address this unresolved conflict was one of the biggest mistakes of my leadership career. I learned that you will lose good people when you don’t immediately confront toxic behavior.
Do not make my same mistake.
Rather than dodge difficult conversations, you have a responsibility address toxic employees with clarity and resolve.