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October 02, 2002
Workplace Poison - the Silent Killer of Success
by Rick Grandinetti, Consultant

If you want to kill someone and not get caught, how would you do it? Guns are too loud and easily traced. Knives mean close contact with your victim and danger to you. However, what about arsenic? Because it is tasteless, you can mix it in mashed potatoes, stir it into martinis, and slowly but surely poison someone to death. Only very sophisticated testing and extremely observant diagnosticians can detect arsenic poisoning. It is an almost flawless way to commit murder.

If someone wanted to kill your company and not get caught, how would they do it? Recruit your employees? Industrial espionage? Sabotage a product line? Probably not, they have all been tried before.

If they were clever, they would infect your company with Workplace Poison. It is the workplace arsenic, hard to detect, easily disguised, and an insidious threat to the health of your organization. A terminal condition, if not caught in time, workplace poison silently kills success for you and your employees.

How do you detect Workplace Poison?
That bottle of arsenic our fictional criminal uses will have a skull and crossbones label, the universal warning that a substance is toxic. Wouldn't it be nice if poisonous coworkers had warning labels stamped on them? Well, they do. Here is how to identify and deal with "Workplace Poison."

How do you recognize poisonous employees?
Early poison detection keeps a company competitive. Elite organizations separate themselves from the competition when they acknowledge employees are their most appreciable asset. As they develop and protect the "Human Capital", they must build a defense against the invisible poisonous force that erodes a company’s soul.

Consider this: organizations are like trees; they die from the top down and the inside out. When organizations fail, they blame the economy or the competition. What really places a company in desperate financial imbalance is a slow death from employee poison. This gradual demise initiates loss of customer loyalty, indifference, low productivity, political in-fighting and ultimately bankruptcy.

Just what is poison?
To detect poison you need to discern what poison is not. Poison is not low morale. Low morale is defined as frustration and anger caused through a break down in communication. Low morale indicates that there is fire and passion among employees. Employees with low morale are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They passionately want to choose excellence and just as passionately refute mediocrity.

Do not confuse low morale with negativity. For example, in a meeting two people may disagree professionally with what is being said. It is okay to disagree. In fact, when two people in business always agree, one is not needed. That is not poison. It is making a difference.

Think about this—the opposite of love is not hate. A fine line exists between love and hate—just ask any married couple. The opposite of love is indifference; when you stop caring.

Similarly, the opposite of low morale is not high morale. It is indifference. When employees cease to care and do not try to improve their department or their company, the skull and crossbones should be stamped on their foreheads. Indifference transforms into a poison that is difficult to identify.

The Workplace Poison Control Center
Since there is not a poison control center for you to call, let us look at some of the symptoms poison employees exhibit. First, poison employees find disappointment in the future. The epitaph on their headstone should read, "I expected this!" The poison employee lives by this credo:

  • Don’t look—you might see
  • Don’t listen—you might hear
  • Don’t think—you might learn
  • Don’t make a decision—you might be wrong
  • Don’t walk—you might fall
  • Don’t run—you might stumble
  • Don’t change—you might grow
  • Don’t live—you might die
Such a negative covenant permeates a company's culture and destroys any hope that an employee who wants to make a difference might have. When you remove hope from a human being, you remove the possibility of promise.

Poison employees are arrogant—they don't know what they don't know
A great leader Dale Phillips, Vice Chairman of the Cocopah Indian Tribe, enlightened me on destructive people. Mr. Phillips believes "a major obstacle of progress is the illusion of knowledge…not uneducated people, but people who don’t know what they don’t know."

Partial success has blinded them; therefore, they believe their own press. In other words, poison people have stopped learning and do not listen well. They say things like "if you’re right, fight." No, if you’re right you listen, and you might learn something. Unfortunately, as poison employees enjoy any success it quickly leads to arrogance and arrogance leads to failure.

Ironically, we protect these toxic employees by making statements like, "Well that is just the way John is. We know he makes people uncomfortable and unproductive around him, but there is not much out there to choose from." These types of statements justify poisonous behavior and you allow it to permeate your company.

If a company does not remove poisonous people, the attrition rate will stay the same, if not increase, and you will lose valuable employees. Because of arrogance, poison employees resist learning anything new. They constantly look for the exception versus desiring to be exceptional.

Poison employees are excuse driven
"Our prices are too high"; "I didn’t have enough time"; "It was the customer’s fault"; "I didn’t know I was to do that"; "The alarm clock didn’t go off"; "I'm busy so that is why I didn’t call you back"; "I don’t have clear direction"; "That’s not my job"; "It’s shipping’s fault why we lost that account."

Sound familiar? To toxic employees, the list of excuses is virtually endless. They have mastered the art of doing as little as possible. Quick to jump on the bandwagon if a project works, they are, however, even quicker to point the finger if something goes wrong. As poison employees rifle through their arsenal of excuses, they should recognize that excuses only benefit them. Ultimately, excuse driven employees do not contribute to your organization—they contaminate it.

Poison employees do not trust and should not be trusted Many companies try to restructure, implement a new strategy or introduce a new compensation program to bolster profits. Sadly, if your company lacks a foundation of trust, your work is undone. Poison employees are a non-trusting group. Ever hear an employee say, "I do not trust her" or "Jack should not be trusted?"

As soon as these statements are uttered, I quickly think of the old Chinese proverb: "Ye not trust, ye not be trusted." If poisonous people do not trust, then how can you trust them? Half your productivity is lost because you will always second-guess this poisonous person. If there is a piercing dart to the soul and killer of a company, it is mistrust. Non-trusting people are the worst kind of poison. There is no exception to this rule. Trust is like the soul. Once it is gone, it can never be replaced.

Poisonous people constantly criticize and negativity is their benchmark
They are like a two-headed snake delighting in bursting your positive bubbles and eager to explain why your ideas will not work. As passionate pessimists, they see the preverbal glass of water not only as half empty but draining away by the droplets. They talk behind others’ backs, saying one thing at a meeting and then gossiping nonstop once out of earshot. When asked how they are doing, poisonous people usually respond they are disappointed they lived through the night.

What is the antidote for poisonous people?
Rid your organization of poisonous people—conduct an internal audit to identify them. The percentage of poison people outlined in this article is less than 5%. This 5% can destroy your organization.

Usually poison employees have a façade of being high performers. Realistically they are bullies. They make threats, sometimes make good on threats, and often make the people around them feel inadequate about their work.

Once you have identified these bullies, act immediately. Usually, the victims of bullies are the people you most want to retain. The process starts with absenteeism, then lack of productivity and eventually the victim's resignation. They will cite money, but in fact, money is the sixth reason people leave. The number one reason for leaving a job is feeling unappreciated as the result of a toxic environment in the work place.

If an employee displays more than half the characteristics outlined in this article, act at once. Most poison people do not know they are poison. They have to be told. Once poisonous bullies, regardless of performance, are removed, you will marvel at how quickly productivity rises. When you work on the poison in your company, within the first month you will realize up to a 10% increase in productivity. More importantly, your employees will thank you for removing a huge albatross from around their necks.

Are you sure about removing the poison?
To test our theory, apply two laws of business: addition by subtraction and less is more. The main purpose, other than consistency of purpose, of a company's culture is sustaining profitability. You cannot sustain excellence with an undercurrent of poison assaulting the internal fiber of your business. Subtraction of poisonous people equals addition of value, profits and customer loyalty. Less poison means more employee loyalty and retention.

Right now you are probably thinking, " I know some people like this." However, are you like this? Remember, most poisonous people do not know they are poisonous.

Granted we all have days when we behave like poisonous people. That is why you need positive internal customers to lift your spirits. Some people are consistently poisonous and do not realize it. If you have a coworker who you have known for years who always complains and is poisonous about his/her job, then should you turn around and walk away from this person?

No, run. The constant negativity will drain the life out of you. You will become a non-productive person. Life is too short. Move forward.

Companies that have rejected their poisonous employees are consistently successful no matter the economic situation and dominate their market. They have bolstered innovation and creativity by ridding their environment of poisonous people. You possess the same ability to make a difference and to succeed.

It is your choice - will work place poison silently kill your success?


  About the Author
Rick Grandinetti, Consultant of Vision Planning Inc
Mr. Rick Grandinetti is a celebrated educator, consultant, and professional contract speaker to organizations nationwide.

Mr. Grandinetti has designed, produced, coordinated and conducted over 4,500 seminars and key-note speeches throughout North America. He has authored more than 50 various educational programs, currently utilized by several organizations. He has consulted and educated over 750 companies worldwide. And he addresses audiences totaling over 50,000 people a year. Skilled at reforming company cultures, Mr. Grandinetti analyzes and develops effective measures that result in improved performance and increased productivity, leading to an increase in bottom-line profits.

Rick can be reached at Phone: 919-468-0431 Fax: 919-468-8966


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