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Toxic Workplaces

written by Amanda Horne 3 July 2009

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Lord Richard Layard

Lord Richard Layard

At last month’s IPPA Congress in Philadelphia, I was inspired by Lord Richard Layard’s comment “the highest thing in life is to uplift the spirit.”

Unfortunately, not everyone we work with uplifts our spirits. Harvard Business Review recently featured a short article, “How toxic colleagues corrode performance.” Authors Porath and Pearson have been researching incivility for more than ten years and have found that “common (and generally tolerated) antisocial behavior at work is far more toxic than managers imagine.” They report that in response to incivility, people:

  • 48% decreased their work effort
  • 47% decreased their time at work
  • 38% decreased their work quality
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 63% lost time avoiding the offender
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined

Loss of Control?

Loss of Control?


Professor Robert Sutton’s “No Asshole Rule” caught my eye in Harvard Business Review’s 2004 article  “More Trouble Than They’re Worth.” Sutton received such immense support for his ideas that he published a book on the subject in 2007. He also has a popular blog.

Sutton’s work, as well as Peter Frost’s on toxic emotions at work, is particularly appropriate in a business world increasingly interested in creating more positive, humane organizations — where people are treated well and with respect, and where a positive workplace culture abounds.

What Is Incivility?

Incivility includes glaring, rolling eyes and other unpleasant expressions, teasing, putting people down, treating people like they’re invisible, back stabbing, micromanaging, insulting, belittling, deflating, disrespecting, de-energizing, rudely interrupting, being mean-spirited, nasty, and tyrannical.

Bob Sutton’s ideas are about eliminating the behaviors which bring others down. “The difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.”

Sutton has two tests for spotting whether a person is acting like a jerk:

  • Test One: After talking to the alleged jerk, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
  • Test Two: Does the alleged jerk aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

Implementing the Rule

Sutton suggests a range of ways to deal with such people:

  • don’t hire them
  • do not tolerate them just because they are the extraordinarily talented or difficult to replace
  • deal with them immediately
  • fire them if they don’t change
  • teach people to learn how to have constructive positive confrontations
  • “resist the temptation to apply the label to anyone who annoys you or has a bad moment” or are temporary jerks
  • “say the rule, write it down and act on it,” make it part of the rules of engagement

Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces

Sometimes fighting back is not successful, and can be high risk. If you have to work with jerks, Sutton suggests these tactics:

  • create a personal coping strategy
  • reframe, change your mindset: avoid self-blame, hope for the best but expect the worst, develop indifference and emotional detachment, do not allow their behavior to touch your soul
  • limit your exposure
  • build pockets of safety support and sanity: ‘a secret social network’
  • seek and fight the small battles that you have a good chance of winning’

See also “Neutralize Your Toxic Boss,” Annie McKee’s May 3rd blog post at http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/

Positive Psychology in Action

While reading Sutton’s work, I am heartened by fields such as Positive Psychology and Positive Organizational Scholarship. These fields teach us how to neutralize toxicity and build strong cultures which minimize the possibility of ‘jerk-like’ behaviors.  Focused attention on  human decency and uplifting and energizing others are ways in which we can, in Lord Layard’s words, “uplift the spirit” of workers and organizations.



Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Includes a chapter on strategies for dealing with corrosive connections.

Frost, P.J. (2003) Toxic Emotions at Work: How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict. Harvard Business School Press.

Frost, P. J. (2007). Toxic Emotions at Work and What You Can Do About Them. Harvard Business School Press.

McKee, A. (2009) Neutralize Your Toxic Boss, 3 May 2009 (http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/).

Porath, C. and Pearson, C. (2009). How Toxic Colleagues Corrode Performance. Harvard Business Review.

Porath, C., & Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (1), 29-44.

Sutton, R. I. (2004) More Trouble Than They’re Worth, Harvard Business Review, February 2004.

Sutton, R. I. (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus.

Robert Sutton’s blog.

Sutton, R. I. (2007) Building the Civilized Workplace, The McKinsey Quarterly.

Lord Richard Layard courtesy of Amanda Horne at IPPA conference
No controle (In control) by renatotarga

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Sean Glass 3 July 2009 - 8:39 am

Hi Amanda,
Great Article…. I wonder if there is an alternative approach here. Rather than just thinking about eliminating these behaviors, or not having these types of people in your organization, I wonder if one could look at the opposite behaviors. Being empathetic, empowering, providing autonomy, managing in an authoritative manner, providing care, sharing positive subjective experiences, etc. Neutralizing toxicity is one thing, but that doesn’t necessarily get us through the 0 point to help an organization and it’s individuals reach optimal functioning!

Amanda Levy 3 July 2009 - 8:59 am

Another nice one Amanda – goodon’ya!

And Sean — agree entirely with your comments. Though I wonder if there is something else that might help.

In my experience toxicity often occurs when there is a lack of clarity in how we can make a meaningful contribution — ie. in the vision, values, goals and where we can apply our uniqueness to the mix (roles and responsibilities).

Lack of ‘safety’ (knowing which end is [truly] up) and loss of hope seem to be the ultimate instigators of declining morale and ethic (an unfortunate culture).

And given that I honestly believe that few of us go to work simply wanting to give others a hard time….might, as you suggest, the quality of the organizational leadership be the real place to try and make that positive difference?

Monica Worline 3 July 2009 - 12:14 pm

I agree with the idea about cultivating other things in the workplace that can counteract toxicity — and Peter Frost did too. He started writing about compassion at work as one of the “antidotes” to toxic emotions. You can learn more about our research on compassion in workplaces by visiting compassionlab.com

Senia 3 July 2009 - 2:02 pm


What was your favorite section in the Bob Sutton book?


WJ 3 July 2009 - 3:23 pm

Amanda, In my seminars I often refer to a piece of research that shows that people with high levels of personal wellbeing are less likely to leave when confronted by a bullying boss. Those with low levels of PWB have to resort to ingratiation in order to survive.

Marie-Josee Salvas 3 July 2009 - 4:00 pm

Great article on an important issue, Amanda!

As an added thought, incivility can come from work peers, and it can also come from clients. “Difficult” clients can be a reflection of poor service, or it can be a reflection of their individual personality. While a leader can manage jerk peers or improve on poor service, managing individual client characteristics is usually trickier.

In all these cases, I think Sean’s suggestion is the most appropriate and practical recommendation. As Amanda pointed out, people don’t just wake up in the morning thinking “I’m going to be a jerk today!” They end up acting like jerks because they are under pressure, are dissatisfied or defensive. Either way, they’re in a bad place and compassion is probably the best way to turn a difficult situation into something better.

As Margaret likes to say “it’s the soft skills that’s the hard stuff!” because in the moment, it doesn’t always come naturally and in business, compassion is not the go-to reaction. Monica, there’s work for you!


Jeff 4 July 2009 - 9:46 am


My current workplace is light-years better than the one I just left. The people are great, the pay is higher, there is a sense of camraderie that was sorely lacking at the old place.

The big question is why? What are the fewest factors that separate a healthy, abundant workplace from a miserable depressogenic one? Once that is well established, how can individuals shape their coworkers in a positive ways?

Your piece was timely and practical. There is no higher praise.


Amanda 4 July 2009 - 5:11 pm

Sean: I definitely agree! Helping people to learn how to behave ‘positively’, in the broadest sense of the word, means they will be doing those things which energise and uplift, build, enhance. I should have added Appreciative Inquiry in there as a process, which not just neutralises, but goes far beyond.

Thanks for responding; I followed your link and love what you do.

MarieJ – Sutton has a chapter on what happens when we slowly become infected by jerks and become a jerk ourselves, sometimes without realising it.


Amanda 4 July 2009 - 5:20 pm


If I had time, I would have added in the article the impact Peter Frost had on me. I read his book in 2003 and attended a workshop he ran in Australia in 2004. This opened up the world of Positive Organizational Scholarship and Appreciative Inquiry. It was only after following more links that I discovered Pos Psych. It’s such a shame he died not long after his visit. I’ll ask the editors if we can include the link to Compassionlab – it’s a great site. I also loved your article which i commented on the PPND article 22 Sept ’08.

MarieJ – agree! there is more work there for Monica 🙂


Amanda Horne 4 July 2009 - 11:19 pm

Wayne – that’s a very helpful piece of advice which could translate to what people can do for themselves to manage toxic environments.

Senia – an interesting question. Chapters 3 and 5 provided practical ‘how to’ advice. Chapter 6 is an interesting one “The Virtues of Assholes”.

Jeff – glad this is timely for you. Regarding your current workplace, you could have a lot of fun analysing what’s going well in your organisation, and why it’s going well, and what can be done to build on this.


Amanda 6 July 2009 - 2:56 am

Amanda L – thank you for your additional thoughts 🙂

You wrote “might the quality of the organizational leadership be the real place to try and make that positive difference”. Reminds me of Zimbardo’s comment at the IPPA Congress: “Most evil exists because there is passive tolerance”. Leaders have a role in not allowing passive tolerance to occur, and indeed to be more proactive in creating a positive workplace.

Amanda H

Margaret Greenberg 6 July 2009 - 8:08 pm

Amanda – I’m catching up on email after the long holiday weekend here in the US and I came across your insightful article and the lively discussion that followed. Another great tool is Tom Rath’s How Full is Your Bucket book. There’s a quick on-line assessment you can take periodically to gauge how well you are filling or depleting people’s buckets. Margaret
P.S. – I so enjoyed getting to know you at the IPPA conference!

Stephanie Kiser 19 November 2009 - 12:08 am

I really enjoyed your article because I think more people need to speak up about the negativity that some co-workers bring to the workforce. I have seen how much it brings down people that I love, who come home in tears after feeling invisible after working at the same company for 2 years and being backstabbed, talked about, whispered about and ignored.
There have been times when I was at work, when a co-worker would be so rude, it seemed she was made of vile and had not one ounce of kindness in her, that I would cry all the time at the front desk. This clearly would not work for me, yet she would never get reprimanded because she was higher on the business chain than I was. I would most likely get in trouble for showing emotions than she would for being nasty.
Your tips on how to defeat these conditions and people are helpful, but what do you do when you are too shy or too quiet to speak up about any of it? My partner is going through this problem right now, but will not stand up for herself or speak up, for fear of it getting worse, people treating her worse, and no change, just her co-workers now looking at her and talking about her behind her back in a more negative way than before.
Again, thank you for writing about this problem because it goes on in so many organizations and businesses and I don’t think a lot of people, managers or owners are made aware of it or they just don’t care to bring it to light and change the way they work. Even though, if they do change the way these people acted, and the workplace became a more positive environment, then work would most likely get done faster, smoother, with less friction. There would be less turnover, more smiles, and a real energy and motivation to do the work for personal satisfaction.


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