No seriously, who the hell thought this was OK?
October 12, 2016

Leave the horse outside!


Toxic personalities at work are interesting conundrum for me. They sit neatly into that Venn diagram intersection of “things that can greatly impact business efficiency” and “issues of workplace psychology”, the two things I am most focused on as a professional and yet, they aren’t really things I get to deal with on a regular basis. For some reason employees seem to be on their best behavior when the efficiency guy is around.

No one really believes I’m not the hatchet man.

For that reason I will occasionally be using this space to talk about certain common toxic employees that you almost certainly will cross paths with in your professional life, some thoughts on how to minimize their manifestation and influence and how to deal with them when they do show up. Now, a lot of these are simply a product of human nature and you can’t control when someone is just an ass, but you can at least make an effort to keep their toxicity to a minimum.  So first on our journey of dysfunction…

Office Cassandras

And now the title makes sense to some of you. For those of you who need a quick catch up, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy who was gifted with the power of prophecy and cursed so that no one would ever believe her predictions. The Greek gods did not mess around when it came to being jerks. Among her many unheeded warnings was the fact that Greek’s peace offering of a giant wooden horse was, in fact, full of soldiers who would later open the gates of Troy and lead to its downfall.

Office Cassandras see themselves in a similar role. They believe that only they have the vision to see the company’s flaws and only they know how to fix them. The bosses don’t know because they aren’t down in the trenches with the rest of the employees. The fact that they themselves frequently lack the big picture overview of those bosses never seems to occur to them. The thing is, it’s a very compelling mindset to fall into for two reasons. The first is simply that it’s true that their bosses frequently don’t know a lot of the specific work that their employees do and the larger the company the more true this is.  The second is that being a Cassandra comes with an implied “Smartest Person in the Room” tag. After all, they’re the people with the answers and the company is only doing as poorly as it is because no one listens to them. For all their complaining that’s an addictive mindset to have. I should know, I’m basically hired to be that guy.

I’m more professional about it though, of course.

So, how are Cassandra’s bad for your organization? Well, it depends on the individual and the people they work with on a regular basis. Many are basically harmless, they are just smug grumblers, the office equivalent of that guy at the bar who, “totally knows what we need to do to fix the economy” followed by a drunken semi-coherent rant that swerves into conspiracy theory and casual racism. No one really takes that person seriously and as long as their job is getting done it’s probably fine.  Others, however, can be a problem. The ones who know enough to be compelling and who work with people who genuinely listen, those are the ones who can foster resentment in the ranks and undermine the company’s authority. They can create a culture of demotivation, especially in areas of limited high end oversight, like warehouses.

How do I do stop them?

Depending on how you run your company you may already have taken the best and biggest step towards minimizing the Cassandra. Those who know my work know I talk a lot about Results Oriented Companies vs Process Oriented Companies (The 2Pac vs Biggie of business model designers). While both models have their distinct upsides and nurture different kinds of employees to different degrees, the west coast has the advantage here. The more open nature of a results oriented company offers greater personal freedom to individual employees and a greater level of free upwards communication. Potential Cassandras are likely to see the stricter hierarchy and obsessive focus on, well, process found in a Process Oriented Company as more evidence of how out of touch the leadership is and how little they trust their employees.

The Cassandra mentality thrives on their ‘vision’ being ignored so being put in an environment where their opinions are listened to and given weight, even if they are never implemented, makes it less likely that the individual will fester into a full blown Cassandra. Of course, as companies grow larger it becomes increasingly possible to feel alienated and isolated even in the most open company, and some individuals simply won’t take the opportunities presented to them. Complaining is far easier. So you’re never fully safe from a potential doomsayer in the ranks.

So, you’ve failed to head off this problem. You’ve got a Cassandra and it has turned toxic. What do you do? Your best bet is actually the fairly common sense one. No, not fire them, not unless it’s gotten irredeemable. In which case, what have you been doing all this time? Now is the time to have your Cassandra speak to someone in authority. I like to advise my clients to keep an open dialog with all levels of their company anyway, but if you haven’t been doing that now is the time. If you have a small company, do it yourself. If you have a very large company, thank you for reading my blog, also have them speak to someone with some clout, not HR. This isn’t an HR issue. HR makes people think they are about to be fired, or at least reprimanded, and that makes them defensive. Toxic people only get more toxic when they’re defensive.

Give them plenty of time to express what they see as failings in the company and make sure that they know that this is safe time to be candid. Be visible in taking notes and address each issue seriously and if they offer suggestions treat them respectfully. The fact is, the guys in the trenches do know things about your company that you don’t and while they may not have a million dollar solution for you they might just have something that could grow into one. Or they could be talking nonsense, either way don’t be dismissive. “We’ll take it under advisement,” is the business equivalent of telling the five year old who is currently wrecking your kitchen that he’s ‘helping’ and employees know this. Be dismissive like that to one employee and your reputation in the ranks is going to suffer. I’m not saying that you have to run with every ill-conceived idea your Cassandra throws at you, but, if you can, explain why some ideas may not be feasible. They may not be aware that you just can’t budget for that, or the technology doesn’t exist in an affordable state yet, or that’s against half a dozen federal, and one natural, law. The important thing is that you listen, and who knows, maybe this vision does come from a visionary.