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How To Spot Toxic Behavior—Be It By You, Or By A Colleague—In The Workplace The use of these behaviors has an enormous negative impact on targeted individuals, and it is deleterious to productivity, effectiveness, and creativity- all of which are vital for successful entrepreneurship.

By Anna Eliatamby

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Being an entrepreneur includes working on the edge of creativity, developing something that you may not yet envisage. You need to be driven to create, and then to generate your product or service. And be brave, prepared to be on the edge of that cliff of ingenuity that few venture nearby. Your business will reflect these qualities. All this can mean you may sometimes veer into using negative shadow actions, perhaps because of the stress involved.

Such behaviors are more commonplace than we are often prepared to admit. And they can be normalized. Some executive creative kitchens (including Michelin starred ones) permit "extreme suffering" because of the overuse of negative behaviors. Surviving these cultures is viewed as increasing creativity, employability, strengthening character, and worth.

But the use of these behaviors has an enormous negative impact on targeted individuals, and it is deleterious to productivity, effectiveness, and creativity- all of which are vital for successful entrepreneurship.

So, here's a question for you: are you being toxic in the workplace?

Each of us can use positive and negative behaviors. Sometimes, we revert to these for many reasons.

Many behaviors are toxic. They can be small from sneakiness, lying, ignoring others, arrogance, and misusing banter to larger ones such as fraud, aggression, and plagiarism. There are also a group of characteristics that include psychopathy, sociopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and hubris.

If you choose to use these behaviors, then it is likely that you have your own combination of those described above, and you are convinced that they work and are effective.

You find it difficult to admit fault and apologize. You will deny using these actions, and you rarely think of their psychological impact on the receivers, even though you may be emotionally intelligent. Often, you focus on yourself, not other people. Your sense of ethics and morals is individual, and you often function outside accepted social norms and rules. You are unlikely to change, and you could be immune to the effects of stress.

People who use toxic behaviors have a range of reasons for using them. Some say that this is how they have been taught- and they think that they work. Some want to win at all costs, liking the power and fear associated with them. Mostly, people continue, because they have not had meaningful feedback. Insecurity, lack of knowledge of alternative actions, tiredness, stress, and fear can be the triggers.

What of the above applies to you? Would your closest colleague or partner agree with you?

Now, if you find yourself sporting toxic behaviors, the question then becomes: can you change?

Yes, but you need to acknowledge your repertoire, and be willing to bring in more positives, and diminish the use of negative shadow actions. This can be scary, especially if no one has given you any meaningful feedback. But if you decide to change, you will see you can be creative in a much more positive way. Colleagues and subordinates will be more willing to go that extra mile, which is what we need for innovation.

First, get some meaningful feedback from trusted people about what is golden and healthy about you as an entrepreneur, and what is shadow and negative. Give yourself some time to absorb and accept what is being said. If this is all a surprise to you, denial may be your first reaction. Work through it, please, to acceptance, as well as a willingness to change.

Remember that you have some positive qualities. Write them down, and focus on them. Think about what and who will help you change. Now, think about what you want to keep, and what you want to diminish. Look at your self-care- and this includes physical health, mental health, finance, beneficial relationships, praise, work habits, and use of values. Learn about emotions, emotional intelligence, and how to interact with compassion.

What changes are needed? Choose one or two key areas to prioritize- too many means that you could self-sabotage. It may help to talk to a coach or clinical psychologist.

If you choose to read about this issue, then please ignore what is used to describe people with toxic behaviors, i.e. "snakes in suits," jerks, etc. While you may have been using negative shadow behaviors, you still deserve to be treated with respect.

Create a plan that includes having supporters, and enact it. Remember, we need three months to embed new habits. Wishing you all the best.

Related: A Guide To Mindfulness: Why You Need To Start Training Your Mind (And How You Can Begin)

How to spot toxic behavior in the workplace

When someone or a group shows (overtly or covertly) shadow and negative toxic behaviors, the culture of the organization soaks them up, and it reflects the negativity. People will also subtly and overtly show verbal and non-verbal behaviors that reinforce this culture.

It is very easy to sense these factors as soon as you enter the organization, either in real time and space, or virtually. We can sense it, but we don't always acknowledge the cues and signs in front of us. This is very true regardless of the age of an organization- a brand new firm can be toxic from the start.

You are likely to see cliques of people, sometimes an in-crowd, and those who are ignored. In extremes, the in-crowd will wear matching clothes, always go to lunch together, etc. There will probably be negative banter and gossip, as well as an atmosphere of intimidation. Here, you might see people focused on their work, or staring at their desk, avoiding eye gazes. If the work is remote, you may see only a few people prepared to speak in Zoom meetings, with very little evidence of camaraderie. There is likely to be little loyalty and motivation- people do what is required, and little else. Staff may not be looking after themselves. And there will be very little compassion, care, respect, or decency. Favoritism and nepotism may be present.

From an HR perspective, there is likely to be high turnover and sick leave. Toxicity was a key factor in "The Great Resignation" post the COVID-19 crisis, and even now. The HR and internal justice systems probably will not be trusted or used, or is simply ineffectual. If the business is new, these systems may not have been established or prioritized.

At the same time, leaders and managers do not tackle or help those individuals or groups who use shadow and negative behaviors. And some may hire staff, because they are "edgy" and driven, which are qualities often seen as necessary in a startup. However, they may ignore the abrasive and shadow behaviors that are indicated.

Those who are the targets will choose one of the following options. They will endure in silence, hoping for a quiet life, or speak up, but risk retaliation, or leave if they can. Working in toxicity is deleterious to a person's psychological well-being, and it negatively affects the organization's productivity.

So, what can we do? First, leadership needs to agree that they will focus on ethical collective accountability. Where there is permission to praise, allowing human creativity and error in a blame fair way. Where the negative is named, reported, and addressed without repercussions. People who use toxic behaviors also should get help to change. And those who have been the targets also need to be supported to recover.

For a new business, there could be crucial discussions on how to incorporate collective accountability into the form and structures, as well as the culture and expected behaviors. For example, include it in the policies, and perhaps have regular discussions about collective accountability, and how that can be honored and made alive in the organization.

All this can only happen if leadership will acknowledge and accept that they need to address negativity, which may have been present for some years, or is likely to emerge. They also need to act with courage, and do so consistently, so that the culture and signs change from negativity to a more positive, democratic, and supportive culture and organization.

Being an entrepreneur is a fine opportunity to look at yourself to see what is negative (which we all have to some extent), and then to grow and change. And an entrepreneurial organization can recognize toxicity, and then make that shift to golden and positive. Amazing and new things will then happen.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Can Foster An Inclusive Culture In Their Startups (From Day One)

Anna Eliatamby

Director, Healthy Leadership Community Interest Company

Anna Eliatamby is the Director of Healthy Leadership Community Interest Company, a collective whose aim is to encourage ourselves and others to be more decent by looking at our positives and negatives and then work to make positive changes to ourselves and our organizations. She is also the co-author of the Decency Journey series of seven pocketbooks aimed to help people flourish in their careers and workplaces.

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