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The Kommissar: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile

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 Kommissar

Favorite Song: Der Kommissar by After the Fire, and also by Falco for some German funktastic-ness…

Favorite Movie: The Lives of Others

Behavior: The Kommissar is similar to the behavior profile of the Puritan. They are both marked by inflexible commitment to some form of dogma. However, there’s a key difference. The Puritan is a “true believer” and cool-aid drinker par excellence. The toxicity of the Puritan’s behavior is rooted in their blind and inflexible, though truly sincere, commitment to a narrow range of ideas or opinions. This might be beliefs about a business process, a view of the marketplace, a worldview beyond your particular organizational mission, or any other area of concern that inspires deeply held beliefs. Puritanistic behavior is marked less by what particular ideas they hold dear, and more by the rigid way in which they attempt to promote and protect those ideas from examination and debate.

Deeply held beliefs should inform the work of individuals as they engage a diverse range of colleagues who might see things differently. However, the Puritan's behavior becomes toxic in the extent to which they believe they have the one true way of viewing a critical organizational issue. This leads to black and white, with-me-or-against-me, zero-sum thinking, and explains why they tend to stifle debate and attack non-conformity as an existential threat.

The behavior of the Kommissar is related to that of the Puritan, but different. The Kommissar exercises power and influence by operating as a functionary in the service of some inflexible dogma, belief system, person or group of people.

The Kommissar need not be, and often isn’t, a true believer. The Puritan is a risk-taker and willing to go out on a limb to pursue big ideas – however toxically they may do so. The Kommissar, conversely, is not a risk-taker. Instead, they are excellent at gauging which way the wind is blowing and then setting their sails accordingly once the coast is clear. Where the Puritan is reckless and zealous, the Kommissar is cautious and opportunistic.

The Puritan promotes a narrow band of “right-think”. The Kommissar observes, investigates, and polices non-conformity and “wrong-think”.

This behavior typically emerges only after a Puritan has made significant cultural headway in an institution – lowering the adoption/risk threshold for others and creating incentives for those willing to promote the coalescing dogma.

We can all fall prey to this behavior in one form or another. Here are some other sure signs that we or others might be behaving like a Kommissar:

Habitually speaking for others. A Kommissar’s influence is often derived from their role as self-appointed representative of some idea or group of people other than themselves. They habitually speak in the amorphous “we” especially when challenging others or attempting to influence the organization beyond their actual scope of responsibility. This serves to insulate them from debate by portraying themselves as a spokesperson for others who are not present. In doing so, the Kommissar implies that they are virtuously speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.

In reality, the Kommissar purposely positions themselves in this “speaker-for” role because it is advantageous to them personally, and not necessarily for the group they claim to represent.

Prioritizing compliance over relationships. A Kommissar’s value and power is rooted in their ability to produce conformity in behavior and expression. As such, they are often willing to sacrifice trust and hard-earned social capitol in an organization by applying informal group pressure tactics and the threat of social ostracization. This increases compliance and conformity, while degrading relational cohesion.

Pathologizing disagreement. Since compliance is the predetermined goal, and the rightness of the dogma is assumed to be unassailable, those who disagree must either be evil or crazy. Those who disagree are not treated as equals who simply see things differently – they are cast as being dangerous or in some way inherently defective. This provides an excuse as to why debate and free exchange of ideas are not required or even to be desired.

Ends justify the means. Here, the Kommissar is most similar to the Puritan. However, while the Puritan is driven by passion and dreams of utopia, the Kommissar is driven by results and the accumulation of social influence über alles.

Often the goal is not only to censor others, but to create an environment where people will censor themselves for fear of running afoul of the dogma or its adherents. This conformity is paid for with social capital. As such, it’s never sustainable as it erodes the relational architecture of an organization.

These stultifying cultures strangle freedom of thought and expression – and thus creativity, innovation, and mission-critical self-reflection.

Do Not: Do not enable the Kommissar’s assumption of unearned influence and unofficial authority. While a Puritan might need time to come down from their lofty and emotionally addictive ideological perch, a Kommissar often responds best to being pushed. Do not allow them influence in the name of others and beyond the role for which they were hired – at least until they learn to exercise leadership with more honesty, grace, and relational skill.

Do: Insist that the Kommissar speak for themselves and not for others. Instead of “We think…”, “people are saying…”, “there are many who want…”, insist on I-centered statements such as “I think…”, “I would like to propose…”, “I want/need…”.

This will help the Kommissar find their own authentic voice and allow others to speak on their own behalf. Often, those voices have been suppressed (unintentionally or not) by the Kommissar’s effort to protect their role as unofficial “spokesperson”.

Actively seek and give space for the voices of those for whom the Kommissar has been presuming to speak. Often, leadership created the opportunity for the Kommissar by legitimately failing to recognize, engage, and listen to key ideas, people, or groups within the organization. In other words, the Kommissar simply took advantage of a deficit that leaders themselves created.

Reverse that dynamic through direct engagement and listening – not communicating through intermediaries and proxies about people who are not in the room.

As with most truly toxic behavior, one of the most important responsibilities of formal leadership, even in very horizontal and participatory organizations, is to protect the rights of individuals and the fundamental values of the organization’s culture against abuse. This can be very challenging when the pressure to cast individual rights and collective values aside is coming from within the organization – perhaps even from a significant number of staff.

Oppressive organizational cultures develop from below as often as from above – especially when leaders abdicate their responsibilities by failing to show courage in the face of toxic internal behavior.

The hardest job for any leader is to defend an organization from itself. However, moving toward fear, radical transparency, and willingness to engage, will ensure that you'll be ready when the bell rings.

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1 Comment

Now this has been brought to my attention, I can see now the number of times I have listened to oracles speak FOR others rather than to join their voices and speak WITH others.

Thanks John, another great article. Vic

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