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The Black Swan: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Image by janko-ferlic @ unsplash

This series of articles explores the toxic behavior profiles that persistently generate workplace conflict and provides tips on how to respond.

In Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, I discussed one of the key features that distinguishes toxic conflict from creative conflict.

Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.

Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.

Think of these “Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile” articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.

Code Name: The Black Swan

Favorite Movie: Every single one of these movies.

Behavior: Sooner or later in your career, a colleague will do something so outrageous, hurtful, strange, criminal, or over-the-top, that it will make you question everything you think you know about people and relationships.

Eventually, you’ll meet a black swan.

The black swan is unlike all of the previous Toxic Workplace Behavior Profiles due to one simple fact. The precise manifestation of the black swan cannot be predicted. This person is by their very nature, a complete outlier.

Typically, the term “black swan” is used to explain exceptionally rare and disruptive events that have an unusually high impact on our lives and sometimes the course of history. Financial risk analyst and statistician, Nassim Taleb, asserts that these events are usually distinguished by three simple characteristics:

  1. The event is a surprise to those involved.

  2. The event has a major impact.

  3. After the first known occurrence of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been predicted. (see The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable)

The stock market crash of 1929, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and Fukushima meltdown were all black swans. These events were surprises and are still having a massive lasting impact on people, systems, and society.

In the immediate wake of each event and ongoing until this day, there have been those who claim to have seen them coming, or more accurately, that we could have seen them coming if we had only paid attention to x, y, or z factors.

Though there is often much that we can learn in analyzing these types of events, there is one big, hairy, uncomfortable fact that is common to black swans. Claims to predictability typically only work in retrospect.

As I covered in Stay in the Problem, humans loath uncertainty. Uncertainty involves risk. Risk involves danger. And we hardwired to avoid and minimize danger. This is why these events are so unsettling.

Black swan events remind us of the ever-present possibility of unexpected radical disruption, and our own fragility in their presence. Black swans are the ultimate loss of control.

In retrospective analysis, we are capable of great leaps of magical thinking to convince ourselves that we could have seen “it” coming, and thus can predict the next specific event.

Economic crashes, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and tsunamis are terrifying prospects. Each of those events will impact the world for years to come. But statistically, we’re unlikely to experience one of those events directly as individuals.

You are far more likely to experience a black swan when it comes in the form of a person.

I once helped a mid-sized international company process and recover from the impact of a senior leader who had been systematically defrauding the company for many years. The scope of the fraud, the meticulousness in how the leader covered her tracks, and the failure of organizational safeguards were all gravely concerning. But none of these things were the most important issue for those involved.

The most difficult aspect of what this leader did to the company and to her colleagues, was that her behavior was the complete and utter opposite of her public persona and reputation.

They just couldn’t believe that this person did it and that it happened in their company.

This disconnect threatened to tear apart relationships in the organization. After all, if this most trusted colleague could do something so terrible, then anyone could. The difficult thing this team eventually had to face was that this was, on some level, actually true.

Yes, in retrospect there were aspects of this person’s past behavior that were viewed in a more concerning light once all of the facts were on the table. Yes, the company might have had insufficient controls in place to deter and flag suspicious behavior. These environmental factors certainly contributed to the likelihood of the fraud, but none of those factors were predictive of how and through whom that fraud would manifest.

While most people expressed utter shock at what transpired, there were a few who claimed to see this coming; just as Nassim Taleb predicted.

However, the hard reality was that this person was so disproportionately and uniquely skilled in hiding their behavior and projecting an opposite image, no reasonable person could have been expected to see it coming.
The organization had met a black swan.

Sooner or later you’ll meet one too. Perhaps you already have. The specifics of a black swan’s behavior can vary greatly. The most destructive behavior in the workplace, as in other areas of life, most commonly involves sex, drugs, or money; and frequently a dastardly mix of all three.

I have also seen, what Edgar Allan Poe referred to as the “imp of the perverse”. Poe used this metaphor to describe how an otherwise normal and well-adjusted person can suddenly do something harmful and irrational simply and precisely because it is the wrong thing to do. It’s rare, but it happens.

However, potential black swan behavior is by its very nature, unpredictable. I’ve seen unknown or undiagnosed psychological issues, destructive dualistic lives and personas, or simply a burst of bizarre and unpredictable Poe-like behavior, play out in ways that are extremely difficult to forecast.

Do Not: It’s largely futile to attempt to accurately forecast the precise who and how of this type of behavior. It is also typically a very poor use of organizational resources and psychological energy. Unless you are in the CIA, NSA, NCIS, or otherwise in the professional deception detection or crises response business, you probably won’t be very good at this anyway.

In processing the aftermath of the story above, the staff and leadership realized that the only way to truly prevent all future events like this, would be to treat every single person in the company as a potential black swan. That is exactly what some organizations do after such events. This always destroys the culture of the organization.

There is also an opposite temptation to believe that black swans are so rare, such an aberration, that nothing like this could ever happen again. Such responses to black swans are doubly dangerous. In these scenarios, staff are often pressured to move on without adequately processing the event emotionally and relationally, while also failing to rectify environmental factors that they can actually control.

Leadership in particular needs to be careful not to give absolute promises that something like this will never happen again. Given enough time, it will. Instead, see below.

Do: As the organization above did, focus on the following...

Be utterly and completely transparent with staff to fullest extent possible. Notice that I didn’t say to be transparent “to the extent you are comfortable”. Be so transparent that it hurts and pains you. Don’t break confidentiality laws, reasonable personal privacy, or violate separation agreements. However, share as much information as possible about what happened with internal stakeholders, and sometimes in a more limited way with key external clients and customers. Withholding or otherwise obfuscating information always makes things worse, breeds rumors, and exacerbates fears. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can contain the information. If more than one person knows, everyone knows. Lead the aftermath by making sure that everyone has an accurate account of what happened. If you are prevented by law/agreement or other discretionary considerations from sharing certain pieces of information, say so and why.

Allow staff to fully process what happened, how they were impacted personally, their feelings, and fears. In the case above, many people shared that they felt personally responsible. Though they did not bear direct responsibility, many felt shame. Senior leaders were ashamed that such a thing happened in their company. Staff who were close to the black swan were afraid that others would suspect them as well. Others were struggling with unrealistic expectations that they personally could have prevented all of this from happening. And a lot of people were simply sitting with a big ball of anger, sadness, and disappointment, that they didn’t know how to handle. Making generous amounts of time available for these conversations to play out didn’t fix everything or take away the pain. However, it did allow people to reality test their thinking and share the emotional and psychological burden.

Admit that while you can’t make absolute promises that something traumatic will never happen again, you can fully process and address some of the factors that contributed to it. The company above revamped its financial procedures and safeguards, changed aspects of the chain of command and supervision, and instituted a range of new norms and expectations regarding how to handle and communicate red flags in behavior and processes. All of those improvements were worth implementing in their own right; even if the black swan had never appeared. In this way, the company became stronger not weaker in the wake of the trauma.

Be willing to revisit these conversations over time, while progressively moving forward. It can be a mistake to stay stuck in processing the same trauma over and over again. Regardless of what happened, everyone has a job to do and people that depend on them to do it. Don’t let your team become paralyzed. However, people process difficult events in different ways and on diverse timelines. The person who seemed stoic and unperturbed at the first meeting, might be crying in your office two weeks later. The unit that was cool and collected handling the crisis at the outset, might start falling apart in two months. You must make it ok to not be ok, embrace the suck, and give people permission to talk about what happened as needed.

Black swans happen. You cannot predict exactly when and where they will appear. However, using the habits above, you can build a team culture that is resilient, realistic, and ready to handle whatever flies into your little pond.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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