Business Leadership & Entrepreneurship

What is a Toxic Personality and how to identify them?

Apr 11, 2021
Reading Time: 7minutes

In a perfect world, every one of our colleagues would be perfect and happy to do everything expected of them. But what if they develop a toxic personality that can damage your business? And how do you identify toxic personalities?

Post Summary:

  • What is a toxic personality?
  • 5 toxic personalities and how to spot them

What is a toxic personality?

What is a toxic personality?

Do they really exist in the workplace?

You would assume that people would only complain if they had a legitimate concern. Unfortunately, this is not so, the world is not perfect. When your team is small, you can easily pick out who does not fit, who is not pulling their weight, and who is a negative influence on group morale. Although as a company expands, identifying these individuals becomes increasingly difficult.

However, these toxic personalities cannot be ignored. If left to fester, company morale would plummet, and you have not reached the point where your business can handle the loss of productivity that would result from letting such personalities run free. This guide will help you identify those toxic personalities that are ruining your business, and how you can deal with them.

5 toxic personality traits

The Chronic Complainer

Identifying Traits: The Chronic Complainer is somebody who always has a problem. “I cannot get all of my work done in 40 hours per week!” “My chair is uncomfortable!” “The coffee tastes bad!” This toxic personality is prevalent every day, with the chronic complainer stating what he/she does not like and tells everybody within earshot about it. Every word that comes out of their mouth is about how horrible something is. Although many of the chronic complainers’ issues sound legitimate, they are often the only ones complaining about it.

Why they are a Problem: Whilst most employees are willing to work around problems, the Chronic Complainer expects others to figure it out for them. This will frustrate surrounding employees and create resentment directed either at the complainer or the company. Neither of these scenarios are beneficial and will ultimately sap morale.

How to Respond: Remember that not every complaint is illegitimate, sometimes there are deeper issues that cause your employees to appear to be this type of individual. To help distinguish the Chronic Complainer from somebody who has a legitimate concern, probe the reasons for the complaint. Why can you not finish all of your work in 40 hours? Why is your chair uncomfortable? What brand of coffee would you prefer?

Foster a solution-oriented culture. The mantra of your workforce, when things appear to be going wrong, ought to be “Find the problem. Fix the problem.” The Chronic Complainer cannot find the problem, and cannot fix it. By challenging them to develop a plan of action, you will either silence them or find the conversation moving in a productive direction if the complaint is legitimate.

The Office Gossip

Identifying Traits: Every other sentence out of the Office Gossip’s mouth starts with “Did you hear about <blank>?” The Office Gossip is a toxic personality that will spread every dirty rumour and every secret, whether or not it is true. They are not above spicing up the rumours and secrets to pulling in their audience. While they are captivating the office with stories about Ed in accounting (who naturally is not there to defend himself), computers sit idle and unused.

Why they are a Problem: The Office Gossip is a living productivity sink. They are like a black hole from which no work can escape. They also make other employees feel insecure and are damaging to morale. These rumours being spread about an individual can cause the target of the gossip to feel like an outcast, and can hamper the morale of an otherwise productive employee.

How to Respond: Taking a hardline approach to slander is a good first step. People will talk, and the office rumour mill will churn, but that does not mean you should tolerate discussions about colleagues. You may be tempted to use the Office Gossip as a means to feel out employee reactions to company initiatives. Resist this temptation as much as possible. Do nothing to justify the existence of the Office Gossip. Even feeding them false information to hamper credibility should be avoided (however tempting this might be) because doing so hurts your reputation as a manager and severely compromises your authority.

The Schmoozer

Identifying Traits: If there is one thing you can count on the Schmoozer for, it is stroking your ego. They always have time for you and assure you they will always have your back. However, when the time comes to determine what exactly they do with their 40 hours per week, there is little evidence of their work to be found. What little evidence you do find of “their” work, closely resembles those of other employees. However, unlike other toxic traits, this toxic personality appears nice to all. Surely that gold watch they just gave you was not some crass attempt at buttering up to you in place of doing actual work right?

Why they are a Problem: Few people are hated more in the office than the Schmoozer. His brown-nosing being done in place of actual work frustrates those who dedicate their time to making sure tasks are completed on time. Should the Schmoozer be promoted, that frustration increases three-fold as hard-working employees start to believe that their efforts will earn them nothing. In response, your best employees will start to defect from the company entirely, or slack off in favour of some brown-nosing of their own. Either way, morale tanks.

How to Respond: Foster a reputation for being a results-driven employer. Accept the praise and kudos from the Schmoozer if it pleases you, but do not let it influence you. When performance review time rolls around, however, make sure that the Schmoozer understands how much he has contributed. If he has genuinely put in hard work and is an asset to the firm, great! However, make sure that your employees understand that rewards are given for results, not gratification.

This means you should have a system in place that documents every action taken by your employees and all of the work they put in. Specialized software that lists what employees are spending their time doing is a good way to defeat the Schmoozer.

The Wally

Identifying Traits: Fans of Dilbert comics will recognise the character who does nothing except punch a clock day in, day out. The Wally is a toxic personality that contributes nothing and spends more time figuring out ways to get out of doing their job than doing their job. In fact, the ingenuity they display in not doing their job while bringing home a salary would be commendable if it did not cost your company money. You can identify a Wally by their lack of any verifiable contribution while claiming to your face that they are one of the hardest workers in your employ.

Why they are a Problem: In addition to being a slot on the payroll that would be better filled by a more motivated individual, the Wally also breeds resentment in other workers. Most employees work hard every day of every week and having to work harder so another can slack off breeds resentment. This will sink morale as the hard workers begin to question why they should work hard at all.

How to Respond: First, verify the person you are dealing with falls under this category. Everybody has days where the letters on the screen appear nonsensical, and ability to concentrate is shot. The Wally will reveal himself only through weeks of nothing and excuses for every hour he was not working. Requiring as a rule that employees document their time working will give you cause for disciplinary action when the Wally fails to produce evidence of his supposed work.

Giving this toxic personality type specific tasks to accomplish and deadlines (that are always well in advance of when you actually need the job done) is also a good way to deal with this person. This forces them into a corner where they have no choice but to do the job they were hired to do or find another one.

What is a Toxic Personality and how to identify them? 1

The Narcissist

Identifying Traits: According to the Narcissist, they are the most important person in your company. Without them, everything would collapse under its weight. In spite of their obvious value that everybody must recognise, they go under appreciated like Vincent Van Gogh was in his time. Woe be to the Narcissist, to be so grand and yet so unrecognised. It would be a tragedy if anybody could figure out what these contributes the Narcissist boasts of actually were.

Why they are a Problem: A Narcissist will actively demand the attention of others. All must bow to and recognise their greatness. If one does not acknowledge the “obvious” superiority of the Narcissist, there will be trouble. When this personality type manifests in your management team, the problem it poses is multiplied even further. Not only do they demand attention, but they also have the authority to enforce that demand. The damage a Narcissist can do to the office is bad enough on its own, when the personality manifests in management it can be a disaster.

How to Respond: As with any other toxic personality type where belief does not match reality, the best way to disarm the Narcissist is with data. Do not engage them in a childish public shaming session, no matter how tempting. If somebody is this level of a nuisance, pull them aside privately and make sure they understand that their demands for attention are both unprofessional and unappreciated. If they insist on claiming their value to you, while still in confidence pull out the data that shows they are wrong and where they need to improve before their claims start to have any merit.

Just as a note, sometimes what appears to be narcissism may be a genuinely valuable employee who feels unappreciated. If, during your research, you discover this to be the case then pull the individual aside and find out what they need to feel valued.

In Conclusion

Any of these toxic personality types, left unchecked, can cause havoc with morale, and thus your business. You do not need to play a game of whack-a-mole and try to crush every toxic personality on discovery, but you do need to try to isolate the hostility from the rest of your team. Should your employees be infected by the hostility, it will cause a catastrophic loss of morale, which could spell the downfall of your business.

Most of the damage these toxic personality types can cause can be mitigated through effective monitoring. By keeping track of what every employee is doing on a day to day basis, you will know who your performers are, and who is all talk. For the rest, simply talking to your employees on a regular basis will help you identify the troublemakers and separate them from your hardest workers.