Roots of Toxic Behavior
Underneath toxic behaviors are either toxic personality traits or disorders of mood or impulsivity. By personality traits, we mean enduring patterns of perceiving, interpreting, and relating to the world and oneself. In other words, personality traits concern how someone has learned to understand the world and his or her place in it. The toxic behaviors discussed in this book include narcissism, aggression, rigidity, and unethical behavior.
There are a variety of belief systems that underlie aggression. Ruthless managers perceive the world as a dog-eat-dog competition in which people are out to get you, and if you are not a predator, you will become someone’s prey. Bullies obtain a perverse pleasure by intimidating others. Other aggressive individuals chronically view themselves as victims, and what others view as aggression they see as self-defense or compensation for wrongs done to them. Frantic and volatile managers have enduring problems modulating the intensity of their feelings and are often flooded by them.
Similarly, there are a variety of views of the world that can drive rigid behavior. Dictatorial and authoritarian managers believe that strict hierarchical organization and control are the best way for the world to work. Compulsive managers fear chaos in the world and in themselves. Oppositional and passive-aggressive individuals feel that their autonomy is constantly being threatened, and they must push back in order to defend themselves.
Narcissistic personality traits (arrogance, devaluation of others, limited empathy and conscience) play an important role in several types of toxic managerial behavior. The self-preoccupation, devaluation of others, and limited empathy and conscience of narcissistic managers free them to behave in markedly aggressive, controlling and unethical ways. People without narcissistic traits may want to behave in these ways at times but constrain themselves out of respect for other people.
Problems of mood and attention are generally more readily treated than are personality traits. Mood and attention have large, biological components and can readily change with medication. In contrast, personality traits depend upon the models in your head concerning how the world works, what type of person you are, and what your place is in the world (your identity). These mental models cannot be directly affected by medication and generally change slowly in psychotherapy.
However, when people are stressed by anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, alcohol, drugs, or a toxic environment, any tendency they have for aggressive, rigid, or narcissistic behavior intensifies. They may appear to have a personality disorder even if they do not. Treating the underlying mood problem can lead to rapid improvement. In fact, a lifetime of difficult personality traits can almost vanish if the underlying chronic depression or ADHD is treated.
An organization’s culture, role models, and performance measurement system are also important in determining managerial behavior. They can either inhibit or foster toxic behavior in an individual who would otherwise behave in problematic ways. Figure 1-1 shows the factors that drive or inhibit toxic behavior.
Figure 1-1. Factors driving and containing toxic behavior.