One of the most fascinating thought experiments I've ever found is called the Johari window. I've mentioned it before in this column, but it's worth repeating. The basic idea is that you can analyze yourself using four distinct quadrants.
Here's an explanation of how it works.
The first quadrant involves the things you know about yourself and everyone else knows as well. This might be the fact that you're an introvert or good at sales. It's the easiest quadrant to analyze because it's the most obvious. Most people can easily identify their well-known traits; they are amplified in our personality on a daily basis.
The second quadrant involves the things you know about yourself but other people don't. Again, it's easy to list these out (and well worth the effort). You will come up with a list of things that are private and confidential, e.g., the secrets you tell yourself. I'm an introvert, and this quadrant is an easy one because I don't like to share private thoughts too easily. Even the fact that I don't like to share private thoughts is not widely known.
The third quadrant is a little harder to uncover. It's this: the things other people know about you but you don't know. In this quadrant, you could ask other people for help, because they see you from a different vantage point. It's amazing to go through this exercise with other people because the findings usually surprise us. Other people know all about anger issues or whether you are difficult and moody. We like to shield ourselves from knowing these traits and we like to deny them because they are not the most endearing.
The fourth quadrant is: the things you don't know about yourself and no one else knows, at least not yet. This is by far the most interesting quadrant because it is basically an undiscovered country of deep, inner traits you and no one else knows about.
I was in early middle age before I became a writer, and all through my formative years of college and raising young kids, I had no idea I could process information quickly and write about experiences and ideas so effortlessly. No one else knew I was a writer, either. My parents were surprised when I switched to a writing career in 2001.
Curiously, these last two quadrants require some deep self-analysis--and this is where things get a little cloudy for most of us. Sadly, there are quite a few people working in office settings who do not realize that they have become toxic employees. They don't realize it but everyone else does, or no one has actually ever figured it out.
Yet, they see a dark cloud around you.
How do you know if it's you?
One easy first step is to start asking people. Thinking about that third quadrant might reveal some uncomfortable truths. If everyone starts talking about your difficult demeanor, you may have a problem. Now, to go even deeper than that, it's possible that you're spreading toxicity without knowing it and it's a mystery to everyone else. In that case, you have to look for the damage. Do people react oddly when you speak up at meetings? Do they not look you in the eye? Are they a little afraid of you and you don't really know why?
It might be time to make some radical changes. I'll use myself as an example. I've written about this before, but I know I was a bit of a jerk in my early corporate days. It took having three daughters to make me sit up and take notice: I had an empathy problem. My kids were like a mirror for my bad moods, angry disposition, and lack of understanding.
The good news, however, is that there is hope. About 15 years ago, I started identifying toxic traits in myself. I started to listen to people more closely, and understand their motives and feelings. It worked, for the most part. (I'm far from perfect, but at least I know I need to avoid plowing over people emotionally and leaving them like a pancake on the floor).
If you have some initial inkling about being toxic, and you are ready to talk about, feel free to drop me an email. I'm here to help, especially if you are willing to walk through the quadrants, open yourself up to some feedback, and intend to make some changes.