HR Pros – Toxic Employees: Resistance to Positive Change

This article covers the situation of a well-meaning company owner whose organization is harmed by the presence of one or more negatively motivated employees. The arguments offered here do not respond to the situation in which the owner is the bully. 

Here are helpful terms to examine toxic dynamics.

Change-agents—usually consultants, supervisors or company executives formally identified and brought in to make changes or fellow employees who have openly challenged toxic employee ringleaders.

Ringleaders—toxic employees who typically have long service and who initiate strategies to acquire and use informal power for negative goals. Typical techniques include intimidation, manipulation and neutralization of others for self-centered goals

Informal power—this type of power is different from the power relationships articulated by the organization chart.  On the chart, the supervisor has oversight and evaluation responsibilities over those who report to them. Informal power interrupts or neutralizes this power when toxic employees control co-workers and even their supervisors through the threat of isolation, silent treatment and other forms of retaliation. 

Informal workplace dynamics
Today’s workplace dynamic consists of unwritten “agreements.” Status quo power structures and informal processes develop over time and become well-entrenched unless directly challenged. In a healthy workplace, informal power structure mirrors the formal structure. When the workplace involves toxic employees, the informal structure can be quite different from that of the organization chart. In this situation orderly work flow and respectful relations between co-workers, suffers. Toxic employees collect informal power over time using rumors, intimidation and retaliation against those they perceive as threats. These tactics can even intimidate supervisors who actually have the authority to change procedures. Those with informal power steer their co-worker “friends” away from employees who they see as challenging their power. Employees who fail to heed subtle and not-so-subtle directives by those with informal power are often punished with silent treatment, isolation and rumors. Eventually, coworkers “get the message” and learn to go along with Toxic employee desires.

Positive change initiatives
During an HR program change or major employee relations initiative, toxic employee resistance increases and negative dynamics temporarily worsen before they begin to shift. Toxic employees want and need the patterns to stay as they are. This preserves their power and keeps them in control of office activities. When the pattern is challenged, those who stand to lose power try tactics that worked before. When those tactics don’t achieve the desired result, negative behaviors worsen.

Those initiating the change (change agents) often become the specific target of toxic employee activities. The more determined and strategic the toxic employee, the more challenging and sometimes personal this negative campaign will get. Change agents with thick skin and the ability to see these as social dynamics rather than personal attacks, can effectively maintain the will to follow through with desired changes and improvements. 

Human resource professionals and company owners who know and understand these dynamics develop a comprehensive and organized plan to anticipates resistance. Knowing what to expect is essential to maintain forward momentum. When negative tactics escalate, you know you are on the right track. This is a key decision point where the faint of heart may abandon the change. With courage and good planning, you can re-enforce the desired change, hold saboteurs accountable and demonstrate that you have the will to move forward with positive change. The chances of successful change implementation are greatly enhanced when owners have a strong intention to create a positive work culture built around business goals, respectful employee conduct and accountability for those who 1.) work against company goals, and 2.) abuse and intimidate co-workers.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2011 updated 2023

Contact the author with questions or comments.
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