There has been no shortage of advice on dealing with "the toxic employee": how to identify them, tips on managing them, why you should avoid them.

But there's a problem with this type of thinking. When we start labeling co-workers, friends, or even family members as toxic, we do them a huge disservice. We freeze them in time, denying them the opportunity to change or improve. Often, we judge them too quickly, without taking context and extenuating circumstances into account.

What if, instead of viewing people as toxic, we focused on behavior?

Arrogance, complaining attitudes, constant negativity...All of this can destroy your organization's culture. They shouldn't be tolerated, and must be addressed immediately.

But resist the urge to dismiss the people earlier than you should.

Just think: If someone caught you on a bad week, might they label you as toxic?

My Story

Years ago, while working for a large corporation, I took over as head of a department with some major problems. Management brought me in because a number of members on the current team were displaying "toxic" behaviors.

I was especially concerned about Brian, the assistant supervisor whom I had leapfrogged to take the position. Among other things, Brian had a temper problem. He never yelled at or berated others, but at times he would get visibly frustrated to the point that made others feel uncomfortable. Brian had received plenty of good, constructive criticism, but progress was slow.

Having previously worked with Brian on a project, I knew he could be difficult. How could I make this work?

The first few months weren't easy. Brian's temper continued to flare, especially when I wasn't around. We often clashed with ideas of how to move the department forward. At times, I felt like Brian was indeed "toxic" and couldn't be fixed. 

At some point, though, I remembered a piece of advice a mentor once gave me:

There's good in everyone. If you can't list 10 good things about a person, you don't know them well enough. Try inviting them for a meal or find another way to get to know them on a deeper level, and you'll begin to see them from a different perspective.

So, that's what I did. Brian and I started having lunch together, once a week. There was only one rule: We couldn't speak about work. We learned a lot about each other in those weekly lunches--about our backgrounds, our challenges and fears...even about our shared love of chess. (That led to some fierce battles--the good kind, though.)

At the same time, we began to recognize each other's strengths. I realized Brian was actually extremely humble: Considering the high level of knowledge and experience he had, few would have reacted as well as he did to being passed up for the supervisor position. 

And although it took Brian time to get a hold on his temper, he did get a hold on it. Conquering that problem allowed him to relate to and help other colleagues dealing with similar issues.

Where some may have seen toxic, Brian turned out to be a team-first, high-performing contributor--who led by example. He became the manager that team members loved and sang praises about. 

Along the way, we developed a work relationship--and friendship--that was among the best I've ever experienced.

The Moral

Are there truly toxic people out there who will destroy your culture and ruin your business? Yes--but perhaps fewer than you think.

Instead of being quick to label people as "toxic", take time to get to know them. When you identify their good points and reinforce these by delivering needed praise, you increase the likelihood of these individuals accepting constructive criticism and making efforts to improve.

Above all, remember: View behaviors as toxic, not people.

By doing so, you help keep the benefit of the doubt from becoming an endangered species.