Just as a flickering lightbulb signals it’s about to quit, employees often signal they are on the verge of burning out.
A recent report from the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) on employee burnout found that one out of four employees around the globe experiences toxic behavior in the workplace.1 Some suffer through it in silence. Some lash out. Some just leave.
Tessa West, author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them (Portfolio, January 2022), has conducted extensive research on toxic behaviors in the workplace, how to identify and recognize those behaviors, and how best to respond. West is also a professor of psychology at New York University, where she leads the West Interpersonal Perception Lab. Through her research, West seeks to deeply understand what causes some people to act out in ways that contribute to a toxic work environment and the effect of those behaviors on the perpetrators, recipients, and overall work culture.
West recently sat down for a conversation with Jacqueline Brassey, a leader within MHI and McKinsey’s chief scientist and director of research for the firm’s People & Organizational Performance Practice. They discussed the MHI study on burnout, which Brassey coauthored; the cognitive, emotional, and physiological effects that workplace toxicity can have on individuals and their coworkers; and how stress can “cascade” through the organizational levels. They also talked about strategies for identifying and tackling toxic behaviors and related stress on personal and systemic levels.
Condensed and edited excerpts from their online and offline conversations follow.
Exploring the core of toxic behavior
Jacqueline Brassey: There’s more to explore in relation to toxic behavior than knowing it’s a bad thing. Much of the research out there focuses on eliminating bad intent on the part of the person exhibiting toxic behavior, but it’s also important to look at various factors that may be in play for the “sender” and “receiver” of toxic vibes and gibes. Both groups can benefit from learning and employing adaptability skills that empower them to make the right choices in difficult situations.2 As an expert and researcher, Tessa, does the extent of the problem as reported in our study surprise you?
Tessa West: No. The hard truth is that most of us will experience toxicity at some point in our career, either from a boss or a coworker. Whether we realize it or not, we might also be part of the problem. My research found the dominant response by those witnessing toxic behavior at work is, “I’m not part of the problem; I don’t want to be part of the solution.” It’s important to note they often have good reasons for not stepping in. There’s fear of retribution, they don’t know how to have the conversation, or they feel burned out and overworked themselves.
We end up with this vicious cycle of toxic behaviors, engaged in by few but put up with by many. And now we’re at the point where people are just tired of it. The MHI report on burnout is reflective of that, showing people are now disengaged and leaving the workplace rather than staying in an environment where they feel they have a very low locus of control. That’s an interesting trend.
When work pressures rise, tolerance goes down
Jacqueline Brassey: A Financial Times article about the rise of “work intensification” indicates a growing number of people are working harder on tighter deadlines.3 That may feed into toxic behavior. I note in my book Authentic Confidence that the more pressure we’re under—but also the less rested and recovered we are—the harder it is to regulate emotions. What does your research tell you in this context?
Tessa West: When you’re feeling overworked and overwhelmed, your tolerance for dealing with difficulties at work really goes down. You can experience only so many daily stressors, spikes in blood pressure, and spikes in cortisol. Eventually you get what’s called a dampened response. You shut down. You don’t have the cognitive, emotional, and physiological resources required to engage with someone who’s being difficult at work. There’s research that shows that when people are too stressed, it throws off their ability to accurately read situations and regulate their behaviors. They may underperceive or overperceive a threat. If you’re a boss and you’re stressed, you might not pick up on cues that a toxic team member is wreaking havoc on your team.
Imagine you have a direct report who’s very high-maintenance. They’re always complaining and don’t like to troubleshoot on their own. Normally, you have strategies that require you to override or regulate your knee-jerk response of, “Ugh, again? Can you please get out of here and figure this out?” That might be your automatic response, but you can override it with a more controlled response when you have the resources to do so. Stress affects your ability to regulate your behaviors. You may become more toxic and are less able to perceive it in others. When work is really demanding and you’re always putting out fires, those time resources to deal with low-level interpersonal conflict are the first thing to go.
So it’s this kind of trifecta that puts people at work in this really negative position. And I think we have to tackle all three if we want to move the needle on this problem.
Finding room for compassion and change
Jacqueline Brassey: Exactly. This ability to become more aware, read the situation better, and respond in a more controlled way is something that can be learned, which is what we describe in our upcoming book, Deliberate Calm.4 Going back to your example: if we understand the situation just described—the stressful context, no time for recovery, and biology impacting how we respond—then we can also look at this topic from a compassionate angle, understanding that not everybody is a bad person, but there is bad behavior, and we can change that behavior.
Stress affects your ability to regulate your behaviors. You may become more toxic and are less able to perceive it in others.
Tessa West: I think all leaders know what it feels like to have missed warning signs that something is up in their own behavior or in their team’s. The lessons here are twofold: you really have to communicate frequently with everyone, and you have to ask the right questions. Leaders often come to me and say, “Look, I have ten minutes a day for each of my direct reports. There’s no way I can scale up communication.” It’s not how much you’re doing it—it’s how you’re doing it. Don’t say things like, “How is everything?” Ask very specific questions meant to probe behaviors that might be early red flags that something is up. Those questions could be about yourself as well. Instead of saying, “Am I doing OK?” ask, “How did you like the amount of feedback I gave you on that last report you wrote? Was it too detailed or not detailed enough? Did I give you enough turnaround time?” Even if you’re good at communication, you always have to remember that when there’s a power difference, people are not likely to give you negative information about yourself or anyone else. Power will always serve as a barrier. You need to be vigilant about that. Directness and constant communication is important, too—don’t hand over the reins to other team members.
‘We can’t control what people do, but we can control how we respond’
Jacqueline Brassey: In our burnout study, we saw that people who had higher levels of affective adaptability were less negatively impacted by toxic workplace behavior, potentially because of better stress-coping skills. At the same time, they were 60 percent more likely to report intent to leave their organization if they experienced high levels of toxic workplace behavior. When we are at the receiving end of toxic behavior, we are not responsible for the bad behavior of the leader or colleague, but we can empower ourselves to choose how we deal with it. Of course, not everyone is able to just leave their organization, but people [at all levels] tend to underestimate how much power they have, for example, to influence situations. They also overestimate how much other people are aware of what they’re doing. That is a very important realization. What are some small steps individuals can take to make the situation more bearable? And what is one more courageous step they can take?
Tessa West: We can’t control what people do, but we can control how we respond to what people do. And there are some strategies that you can take to control your own emotional or behavioral response but also lift up the hood a bit so other people are aware of what’s going on.
Most people think that if they’re being targeted by someone who’s toxic at work, other people know and don’t care. In fact, most people will tell me, “My boss knows. They’re just too busy to care.” Chances are, your boss doesn’t know—at least not to the extent that it’s happening. You need to let people know. One step people can take is to learn how to have these conversations with their managers in a way that’s going to be productive and not put your manager on the defensive. Relationship science has spent 50 years figuring out how to have effective conflict conversations, mostly in the context of marriage and family relationships. The same basic principles apply to workplace relationships.
One mistake we often make is we push down the problem or excuse it away. We don’t bring up issues early. We wait until they stew—and they’ve been marinating so long, we’re super bitter and disengaged. You have to bring them up immediately and stop telling yourself, “It wasn’t a big deal. I don’t want to say anything.” Stress at work is death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s a hundred different little deals that feel like one giant big deal. So if you start early and bring up specific behaviors, these conversations are pretty painless. Bosses tend to feel they have the resources to put out little fires but not big ones. Have the conversations early and often; you’ll feel like you have much more agency, and your locus of control will go up.
If you’re going to stick around [the job] for a while, definitely invest some time in figuring out how to broaden your social network.
Invest in broadening your social network, and be prepared to take ‘big, courageous steps’
Tessa West: Big, courageous steps involve rethinking your social network at work and how you define an ally. A lot of us have an instinct to keep it small and talk to the same two or three people at work all the time, not really expanding our network. We’re not very broad, but we’re deep. Big steps involve learning how to have connections with people outside your immediate network. Those connections are critical to getting the lay of the land at work, learning the status hierarchy, and figuring out the past trajectory of someone who is difficult at work. Were they fired? Were they just put into a different team? All these rich contextual clues require you to have a broad knowledge of a social network. That takes time. It takes resources. And I think people are intimidated by doing that. If you’re going to stick around for a while, definitely invest some time in figuring out how to broaden your social network. A lot of the magic can happen at the team level.
And as leaders, developing adaptability, resilience, and emotional-flexibility skills will help bring awareness of your own behavior in a situation.5 It will also give you the skills and courage you need to support health, well-being, and sustainable performance.