Toxic Workplace with Mitch Kusy

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TSP 101 | Toxic WorkplaceEpisode Summary

TSP 101 | Toxic Workplace

Welcome to The Successful Pitch. Today’s guest is Mitch Kusy, who’s the author of the Toxic Workplace. He said, “Toxic people only thrive in a toxic system.” He has a great way of identifying who’s toxic. He said they tend to be people who kiss up or kick down and that there’s three different ways of being a toxic person without even knowing it.

One is you humiliate or shame somebody. The other is you sabotage them through passive – aggressive behavior. The third way is you just are a mean person, who doesn’t seem to care. It’s all about, is your intent to prove the person right or is it your intent to get that person to improve? It’s really a fascinating look at how important it is as a startup to make sure you don’t have a toxic person in your workplace because it spreads, also that you don’t take on an investor who is toxic.


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Toxic Workplace with Mitch Kusy


Hello and welcome to The Successful Pitch. Today’s guest is Dr. Mitch Kusy, who is the co-author of a book called Toxic Workplace. I am very excited to have him share his expertise because he’s had over 25 years’ experience in organization development. He’s a 2005 Fulbright scholar in International Organization Development and a registered Organization Development Consultant, a full professor in a PhD program at Antioch. A distinguish visiting professor down in New Zealand. He consults literally around the world. Mitch, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much, John. It’s really a pleasure to be here.

I’m thrilled to have you. One of the key things that investors look for when they’re deciding which startup they’re going to fund is, who’s on the team? How well does the team get along? Does the team handle stress well? Who better than you, to talk about the dangers and ways to avoid creating a toxic workplace. That’s why I’m so excited to have you here. Before we get into all your years of experience, can you tell me how you got to be an expert in organization development?

Like many people in their career, in a circuitous route, I was a psychotherapist for about eight or nine years doing individual, family and group therapy. As I was doing that, I started discovering I actually liked much more helping organizations and teams figure out problems. Helping them resolve those issues. I started applying the strategies that I’ve learned in individual and group therapy to organizations. Then, went back to graduate school and got a few more degrees and here I am.

I love it. That really gives you the expertise, doesn’t it? Because, sure the dynamics are just bigger in companies, but especially small startups. It’s almost like a small family dynamic, where somebody’s got the favorite and somebody always has a hot button that gets pushed, I’m imagining.

TSP 101 | Toxic Workplace

A toxic person is anyone who demonstrates counter-productive work behavior that influences the organization.

You’re absolutely right, John. Interestingly, it is no different from a small organization to a large organization. In the research study that Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, my co-research and co-author, we found with over 400 participants in our study that 94% of people said they work with a toxic individual.

We defined a toxic person as anyone who demonstrates counter-productive work behavior that influences the individual, the team or the organization. Bottom line here, three categories. People who shame people. The second is people who sabotage the team. Third is passive hostility. Any one, two, or three of those will classify you as a toxic person.

Let’s take a deep dive into that. With the shame, that’s the same, as you mentioned in the book as humiliating someone, correct?

Yes. Actually, interesting about that, what we’ve discovered is that shaming or humiliation could be one-on-one. Only one person experiences it with no one witnessing it, to teams or the entire organization. It doesn’t matter really what the context is, one-on-one or team shaming, is shaming is humiliation.

Interesting. A lot of people say, “I don’t mind if you say something to me or have negative feedback, but don’t do it in front of other people.” What I hear you saying is you still have to be really careful even if it isn’t in front of their peers, to not humiliate somebody. Just say, “Look this was a mistake and it can’t happen again without humiliating them.” Is that accurate?

That’s absolutely true. What’s interesting is, shaming is not negative feedback. We all need at times negative constructive feedback. But what I say to people when I’m coaching them is, “What’s the intent of your feedback? Is the intent to help them improve or is the intent to prove you are right? If you are proving you are right. There’s a high probability you are engaging in shaming behavior.”

That’s fantastic. We’re going to tweet that out, “Is your intent to prove you’re right or is your intent to prove that you want this person to improve?” For example, I could see somebody totally losing it on a small thing. A big no-no, obviously, is when you have a pitch deck that has a typo in it. I’m imagining a scenario where somebody gets up in front of an investor, pitches and the investor says, “Hey, you have a good idea, but we’re really sticklers for details. If you can’t get your pitch deck accurate, we’re not going to fund you.” That founder is humiliated by the investor. Then, they take it out on the person who created the deck, even though they were supposed to proof it themselves.

Interesting about that scenario. If I were an investor and an individual made a mistake like that and that person said, “I take total responsibility for that.” In our book, we talked about The Four Step Apology. Framing your mistake in the past, “Yes, I made that mistake.” Two, how it impacted the other individual, saying, “You might have less trust in me as your consultant in this situation.” Third, to apologize. “I apologize.” Fourth, “In the future I’m going to do a better job of proofing this before giving it to you.” People are very forgiving with that four-step apology.

The first thing is the apology. Second is, to be toxic, it needs to be a pattern of these behaviors. John, we’re all a little uncivil at times. I might get rattled. I’m also a professor and I’m working with a doctoral student. I might treat him or her at times, maybe be a little short because I am rushed. If you acknowledge that, you know how to apologize appropriately for that. Third, if it’s not a pattern.

One of the key things to look for is if it becomes a pattern. If you’re working with an investor and you have a pattern of not being prepared like that then your investor is probably asking very good questions and will probably leave. If it’s not a pattern and you do something like that then an effective apology, there’s a high probability you’re going to rectify the situation.

Let’s just go over that because it’s really gold here, everybody. The Four Step Apology. The first step is the past?

First of all, frame it in the past. I’ve been running late for meetings. I’ve been running late for meetings for the past two months. Second, how that behavior affected the other individual?

Impact. I love what you said there Mitch, that it could impact that you’re going to trust me less. That’s really so important because when I coach people on what’s important to an investor is their credibility. The minute they don’t trust you, the minute they catch you in a lie about something in due diligence, the deal is off. I would love to have you give your insights on how can people improve their trust factor with people they’re just meeting? Any ideas on that?

First of all, the way you improve your trust factor is to empathize with the situation that they’re in. The best way to empathize is to talk about how you might have a similar experience. “The last time, when I was in your shoes, this is the way I felt.” A sense of empathy is extremely powerful.

TSP 101 | Toxic Workplace

If people no longer have trust in you, there’s a high probability you are not going to recover that.

What’s also interesting about trust, I did a research study with another colleague, Dr. Louellen Essex, some time ago that lead to our book, Breaking the Code of Silence. The subtitle is Prominent Leaders Reveal How They Rebounded from Seven Critical Mistakes. I’m not going to go over the seven mistakes here that are recoverable, but we found two mistakes that are likely not to be recovered. One is, a corroboration of trust. If people no longer have trust in you, there’s a high probability you are not going to recover that.

Now, if you make a mistake like the one that you were saying, something was wrong with one part of the document, I don’t really know if that’s trust. People might be saying, “I don’t know. Would he or she handle my portfolio properly?” If there’s a continuation of those errors, then there’s a high probability that trust is going to be an issue. The second thing we discovered is once someone doesn’t trust you, it is very difficult to regain that trust.

Absolutely. This is something that’s happened in the past. There’s an impact. You apologized. Then in the future, you’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Let’s do a deep dive here, if we can, on how do you determine, because a founder creates a culture for his or her startup. They decide what kind of people they want to have working for them. They have an offer, or two if they’re fortunate and strategic, to get two different investors who want to give them the same amount of money. Everything else seems equal. Then they have to decide, who’s going to fit in to our culture better? Maybe they’ve talked to other people that that particular investor has given money too. What are the warning signs that they should be looking for or asking to see if that investor is suddenly going to turn toxic on them, maybe a year into the relationship or the first sign of a problem?

One of the ways to do this is to, first of all understand the four aspects of a culture since that’s what we’re talking about here. There are four basic aspects. One is the values, in terms of what I regard as important. With that, one of the first thing the individual is looking for, “Does this person value the same kinds of things that I do?”

First is values. Second, beliefs. Why are these values important? Third, norms. What are the unwritten rules the way we do things around here? Maybe one of the unwritten rules is, “In order to get what I want, I’m going to kick the table leg and I’m going to run people ragged.” With those norms, you have to decide, “Do I want to do business with the person like that?” Norms is the third. The fourth is underlying assumptions. What are the assumptions that people operate? I operate by treating people with respect. I operate when I make a mistake. I own it and share that with others. Subsequently, in terms of the culture, since that’s what you brought up John, those are the first pieces.

That’s great. Let’s just recap that really quick. Your value, your beliefs, your unwritten rules and your underlying assumptions. All of those four things, as someone who’s starting a company, you should think about because it’s so important to define the culture. It doesn’t just haphazardly happen and you can create a team to fit that culture you want. I love that.

This whole concept of unwritten rules. I remember working with a startup. Their unwritten rule was nobody picks up the phone. Everyone sends each other messages via Skype not text, not a phone call. That’s how they all communicated. Until you figured that out you’re like, “What’s going on? Why is nobody talking to each other? Why is nobody is answering my emails?” It’s like, “We don’t communicate that way.” “What a weird culture but okay. How is someone supposed to figure that out?” “They just do.” I’m like, “Jeez.”

One of the things, when I’m working with a client first time around and they’re looking at, “How do I introduce people to the organization,” I asked individuals, “What are the norms?” They fend for themselves. I’ll take two hours with them or I’ll put them through a one day program, at the end of that day, they still don’t know where they hang their hats at the end of the day. They’ve been riddled with one human resource form after another. I say, “Be sensitive. Help people become adjusted to the norms in your organization.” You can change norms. That’s the good news. If you have some norms that are not particularly welcoming those are easy to change.

One of my favorite quotes from your book, Toxic Workplace is that, “Toxic people only thrive in a toxic system.” We’re going to tweet that out, as well, which I think really goes to what we’re just talking about. It’s the culture.

Absolutely. It’s the culture. Interesting, when we are working with organizations to help them change their culture to be a culture of everyday civility. What we help them understand is it is, first of all, very difficult without a systems approach to give feedback to a toxic individual.

Let me give you classic example. You’re trying to give feedback to an individual who’s shaming other people in public. You give them this feedback. The first thing that we discovered is most toxic people are clueless about the impact of their behavior on others.

Subsequently, if they’re clueless, they’re not going to accept your feedback very well. You try giving feedback in the most respectful way and they come back with, “I’m the only individual who has the guts to say something. All the rest of you individuals, you’re just sitting there doing nothing. I’m the one who’s carrying this team.” Highly narcissistic behavior, by the way.

TSP 101 | Toxic Workplace

Without the organization sanctioning that you, as a leader, can do this, you’re going to be talking to the wind because they know you’re going to do nothing.

Here’s where the system comes into place. You give this person the same feedback and now you say, “I understand you don’t agree with this feedback. However, I’m not asking you to agree with it. If you don’t agree with it and if you’re behavior doesn’t change, here’s the first thing that’s going to happen. Here’s the second. Ultimately, you could be fired.” Now, without a systems approach for this and without the organization sanctioning that you, as a leader, can do this, you’re going to be talking to the wind because he or she knows you’re going to do nothing.

Subsequently, we say to individuals, you really have to have systems in place. Let me give you an example from health care. Health care is the one industry John, that has done more than any other industry in changing the face of respectful engagement. Here’s some statistics that are going to astound you and astound your listeners. This is one study after another. Essentially, 60 to 80% of the medical errors are due to disruptive individuals. People not communicating with each other. 60% to 80%.

I was doing a keynote address one time to a large non-health care group. I reported this, 500 people in the room. A gentleman raised his hand and says, “Mitch, this is unbelievable. Just last night, my wife, who is a nurse, reported that she could not read the medication order. Rather than go to a physician who she knew was going to shame her, she went to four to five other individuals to interpret that order.”

What a waste of time? Someone’s waiting for the medicine. It’s just shocking, isn’t it?

Absolutely. Here’s a follow-up. I related the story to a group of health care leaders. There was a surgeon in the room. The surgeon said, “Mitch, I don’t agree with you. I need to do this because I need to have perfection.” The surgeon, she said to me that, “Mitch, do you want to go to a non-perfect surgeon?” I said, “Doctor, I want to go to a surgeon. When he or she is about to make a mistake, someone is calling them on that.”

Because it’s safe enough to raise their hand without getting their head chopped off.

Exactly. You’ve got it.

You talked about in your book, this toxic workplace typically, just the tip of the iceberg. What’s below the ice? What’s below the surface usually?

What’s below the surface are number of things. One that’s below the surface is the impact this has on others. Health care gave you an example. Another impact, we found that 51% of people who are targets of instability, reported that they are likely to quit the organization. Turnover is something you typically don’t see. Secondly, the reason we don’t see it, is many toxic individuals are chameleons. They’re very capable of kissing up to their boss and kicking down to people below them.

What happens is, the boss says, “I know she’s a little bit hard on individuals as the leader of her team, but man, is she bringing the money into the organization. She’s highly productive.” Underneath the iceberg, that leader, the boss, is not aware of the individuals who are leaving, the individuals who are not doing as effective job as they could because they’re not committed to the organization and to that team.

You just mentioned something really key there, which is the cost of turnover, especially in a startup with someone who has so much valuable experience and intellectual property in their head. They will go someplace else that’s not so toxic. To start all over again and have to find somebody who is expensive and a waste of productivity, over and above whether it’s a small or big company. I think that’s something that people really don’t typically measure as the cause of having a toxic workplace.

They typically don’t, a few studies have. First, of all we’ve measured this and we found that 51% reported to us are likely to leave. Other human resource metrics have found that the cost of replacing an individual depending upon their level in the organization and their level of expertise is anywhere from 150% to 400% times their salary. You have some highly sophisticated, wise individuals in that organization, and they leave because of this. They may not tell you why they’re leaving. The cost of replacing them, retraining them, the cost of recruiting 150% to 400% of their salary.

Now, you also talked about in your book, Toxic Workplace, that if you let this go, it literally spreads like that whole analogy of one bad apple. Can you talk a little about warning signs that it’s spreading?

First of all, the warning signs it’s spreading is look at turnover on your team. That’s one of the high pieces. Secondly, if people won’t tell you what’s going on in the organization, you can’t get to the bottom of it. Those are two critical dimensions to figure out what’s going on. The other strategy that we talked about in our book is called the Skip Level Discussion. If most of your listeners are familiar with 360 degree feedback, where you get anonymous feedback from everybody around you, that’s in some kind of a survey. What we’re talking about with the Skip Level Discussion is a way to keep your ear to the ground as the leader.

I learned these years and years ago in an organization that I was head of leadership development. It goes something like this. The leader says, “I really want to hear what’s going on positively and negatively in my group.” Let’s just say you’re a vice-president. I’m going to go two levels down, to people who are reporting to the person reporting to me or the people reporting to me. Twice a year, I’m going to spend 15 to 30 minutes asking you, “What’s going right? What’s going wrong? Are you getting the kind of leadership you need?”

Now, the first response when I teach this to organizations, “People aren’t going to tell the truth.” However, if people are really dissatisfied, they may. The other thing that I say to individuals is the leaders saying this to the organization, “I want you to come and tell me what’s going on. If you feel threatened, feel free to come with two or three individuals together.” A leader is not going to fire three people for having problems with his or her boss. That’s another strategy that we talk about in our book, the Skip Level Discussion.

Fascinating. I’m also interested to see, with your experience, do you get feedback from someone saying, “I don’t know if they’re humiliating me or shaming me, but they’re always condescending.” Is that part of being in a toxic environment?

TSP 101 | Toxic Workplace

The condescending comes under the second and passive hostility. You get your anger out in crooked ways.

The condescending comes under the second and passive hostility. You get your anger out in crooked ways. It comes out in a condescending way. If that’s how an individual is giving feedback, there’s a high probability that individual is toxic. I bet they’ve heard this before, too. They may be clueless about the impact of that behavior on others. What we’re saying about cluelessness is they may understand, “Yes, I’m rough and at times I’m really hard on people.” But they may not truly understand the amount of sleepless nights that individual is having as a target of that. They may not understand how much that individual has reduced their work effort. They may not understand how hard that individual is trying to find another job. They may not understand the sick leave that that individual is taking.

If it’s not turnover, then a lot of people will call in sick because you made them so sick with stress or just the dread of having to interact with you. We’ve talked about shaming and humiliating, being the difference in the intent. We just talked now about this passive feedback through condescension. Let’s talk about that second part you talked about of the types of toxic behavior, which is all about sabotage. What does that look like in the story?

Here’s a scenario that happened recently. This one individual who was highly toxic ended up, because he was not getting the kind of kudos that he wanted on the team and from the team, decided to sabotage some of their efforts. Actually, changed some protocols etc. to steer the team the wrong way.

Another interesting thing about what happens with teams is, it’s a process that Elizabeth Holloway and I, Elizabeth, again is my co-author, we call it secondary gain. If you will, imagine you’re on a team and you’re not the toxic individual and the team is constantly looking at the antics of this toxic individual. They start talking about, “Can you believe the way she just talked to the CEO of this company? Can you believe the way he talked to this potential investor?” What happens is this gossiping turns into secondary gain. They get a lot of gain out of talking about, “Ain’t it awful?” Then an interesting dynamic occurs. If for some reason that toxic individual is fired or he or she leaves the organization, they often don’t know how to relate positively to each other because what was the cohesive glue was talking about the toxic person.

One of the things that we do when we’re doing team development with a team that has engaged in that, now that toxic individual is gone, we allow them a certain period of time to talk about how ‘ain’t it awful’ and ‘can you believe what he or she did.’ Then they cannot talk about it anymore. They now have to move on because that person is no longer part of the team.

Really, really great. Is there any final bit of advice you have for us Mitch, On what we can do to try and prevent getting in bed, so to speak, hiring, taking money from investor that might be toxic? Besides just doing your due diligence, is there other signs that we could really avoid?

Here’s one, and we call it the Recruiting Cue Sheet. Let me start by first telling you a story that an individual was being hired in an organization. The hiring manager could not be there immediately at the airport. The administrative assistant went to the airport to greet this candidate. The administrative assistant was trying to be cordial, engaging. The person who is coming in for the interview was just answering questions in a monosyllabic way. The administrative assistant said, “She’s probably nervous. It’s a high level position.” Until the hiring manager showed up. Then, this individual was absolutely brilliant, exuberant, asking one great question after another. The administrative assistant was looking to himself saying, “What did I do?” He didn’t do anything.

Remember when I talked about earlier John, that many of these individuals are chameleons. They’re very capable of kissing up and kicking down. I would not hire that individual because there’s a high probability that this person coming in is going to kiss up and kick down. What do you do about it? We have a process that we call the Recruiting Cue Sheet.

I understand that we should have some team interviews and one-on-one and bringing the team together, as well. There are number of individuals, like the administrative assistant, that this investor is going to interact with even for a minute or two. Here’s the strategy, you as the individual thinking about this investor, whether or not you want to work with him or her, you go around to the individuals who are likely to interact with that individual. Maybe it’s the administrative assistant. Maybe it’s the cafeteria people. It could be maintenance people.

You go up to them and say, “You may or may not have an opportunity to interact with this individual, but if you do, I’d like you to answer these three questions on this form.” I’ll make that up off the top of my head now. One question is, “Did the person give you eye contact?” Second, “Did the person engage you in conversation?” Third, “Does this person look like the kind of person that we want to work with?” Ask those individuals. If you get a different story from what you have perceived, just have your red flag go up and say, “This may be the individual that we don’t want to work with.

Nice, fantastic. Mitch, this has been great. How can people follow you on social media?

One is, first of all, my website is one arena. I guess that would be the primary one because that’s how I use that as my primary vehicle for people to get in touch with me. They could read some of the latest work that I’ve done in the area. That would be a great resource for them.

Fantastic. Thanks again for sharing all the secrets on how to avoid creating or staying in a toxic workplace.

Thank you, John. I enjoyed it.

Me too.

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Tags: Breaking the Code of Silence, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, Dr. Louellen Essex, Dr. Mitch Kusy, John Livesay, Mitchell Kusy, pitch, podcast, podcasts, sellingsecretsforfunding, start ups, startups, successful pitch, Toxic Workplace