The Submarine: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

This new series of articles will explore some of the most common behavior profiles that persistently generate toxic conflict and provide tips on how to respond to each.

In the article 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.

Toxic conflict is hard on a team. Thankfully, most of the behavior that generates toxic conflict is common and predictable.

This means that you can plan ahead for behaviors that are certain to recur. 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 Submarine

Motto: Run silent, run deep.

Favorite Song: Every Breath You Take – The Police (Feel free to play in the background while reading.)

Favorite Movie: Das Boot

Behavior: In naval warfare, the role of the submarine is to stay hidden and silently stalk those in the sunlight above from the black depths below. It is the same with the office submarine.

The submarine smiles and nods politely in meetings. They say hello every morning, maybe even pausing to compliment your fetching sweater.

But then, the submarine submerges…

The submarine is the one who says nothing during the brainstorming session, but then criticizes ideas, plans, coworkers and leaders through gossip and innuendo. They target other impressionable coworkers to influence, but never openly. Their undermining and critical conversations take place at the water-cooler, in the parking lot, and during the after-hours social gathering.

The submarine isn’t toxic because of its criticisms. It’s toxic because it never shares those criticisms openly, in the appropriate forum, or with the person who can actually do something about it.

Also, the submarine draws otherwise healthy colleagues into its dark and watery lair by ensnaring them in frequent negative conversations – often marked by gossip and personal attacks on other coworkers. Consciously or not, the submarine uses these conversations to manipulate others into colluding with them, even if others do so with hesitation. Without assistance from leaders, it is very difficult for co-workers to break away from the submarine’s secretive pattern of behavior.