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  • Writer's pictureAshley Graham

Somehow We Manage: Episode 6 - Totally Toxic


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Ashley Graham

Toxic behaviors in the workplace are insidious, more insidious still is the failure to respond to them with mechanisms of accountability. In this episode, we discuss how managers can provide feedback on toxic behaviors without becoming mired in the term set by toxicities totalizing worldview to join the conversation: follow us on Twitter; check out our blog; or subscribe to and comment on our YouTube channel. Simply search Guildmaster consulting in quotes, and you'll find us.


Welcome to "Somehow We Manage," the podcast for software engineers and their managers. I'm Ashley Graham.


John Graham

And I'm John Graham.


Ashley Graham

And today we're going to talk about toxicity and totality. So two words that needs some definition for sure when we talk about them in the context of the workplace. But I wanted to talk about this because we've been getting some questions about the mention of toxicity has kind of been alluded to in some blog posts. And so I wanted to hear a little bit more about your framework and then also apply to some of my prior training on totality and totalitarianism stemming from my philosophical background. Does that sound good? Ambitious? Good.


John Graham

Sounds good.


Ashley Graham

All right. So first of all, tell me a little bit about the toxicity model, as you see it taking place in the workplace. Where did this model come from? How have you applied it in the past to a workplace?


John Graham

Toxicity is a word used in the workplace to fill in for similar words used in other parts of life toxicity drives largely from manipulation. It does not derive from disagreeableness I think a lot of people...


Ashley Graham

That is very key.


John Graham

We're not saying disagreeableness is always okay. That a little bit is fine, because some healthy conflict...


Ashley Graham

They need healthy conflict...


John Graham

But simply being mean or angry or frustrating is a different problem and requires different solutions. Manipulation is incredibly dangerous because it is hard to know that it's happening. And it can often cause bigger issues than sheer mean. In a lot of cases, workplaces use the terms toxicity outside the workplace. What it is we're talking about is narcissistic manipulation. You might have heard of narcissism in the news lately, it seems to gotten a lot more attention. Narcissism is part of what's called the Dark triad, basically three antisocial kind of personality traits, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sociopathy. So narcissism is kind of self centeredness to the point of being toxic. Machiavellianism is the plotting goodness, the--you know--the cool collectiveness of just trying to get ahead and manipulating people and...


Ashley Graham

Insincere manipulation as as Kim Scott might put it in Radical Candor... Insincere manipulation?


John Graham

Yes. Yes, exactly. And sociopathy would be a general, disregard for others emotions, lack of shame, lack of guilt, these things all highly correlate with each other. So there's a lot of interest in the dark triad outside of the workplace. But certainly in employment psychology, there is interest in the dark triad as the source of this toxicity. A great book on toxicity would be the No Asshole Rule, as well as the follow up Surviving Assholes. There are many reasons why toxicity is dangerous. But there's probably...there's a great example in the No Asshole Rule of basically, a toxic person is going to treat their managers differently than they treat their subordinates. And so you can have somebody who's absolutely ruining your business by treating all of their subordinates terribly, and you won't know because...


Ashley Graham

As their manager...?


John Graham

As their manager you won't know. So I want to get back to totality. But a lot of the framework is around that dark triad. There's kind of the light side of it, which we call the H factor. There's a great book called The H Factor. That's honesty and humility.


Ashley Graham

Yeah, you've talked about that a little bit. In the blog as well---like, Big OH culture.


John Graham

Big OH culture is... We talk about H factor. So H factor is honesty, humility. Low H people are going to be at high risk of having these dark traits. High H people are going to be lower risk. People also tend to cluster around theirH tendency. So if I know you and I know how extroverted you are, I don't necessarily know how extroverted your friends are. You can have introverted friends it's not...you don't... you don't choose people based on how extroverted or introverted they are. However, over time, especially with adults, you are going to more and more be near people who share your H values. So if you're honest and humble, your friends will tend to be honest and humble. You will have tended to have falling outs with friends who weren't that. That doesn't happen with any other personality trait other than openness to experience, where it happens very similarly. If you are open to new experiences--you like art, yo like science, you like new things, you like novelty--you're going to tend to find friends that also share those traits. And you will find people who aren't into those things maybe not that fun to hang out with. So Big OH culture is about recognizing that that human groups tend to stratify along these two different dimensions. So you get kind of four different groups: open but dishonest, open and honest, closed and honest, closed and dishonest. And you...that's going to really drive what culture you have at your company. When we talk about toxicity, we're largely talking about cultures who were attempting to be high H cultures (i.e., egalitarian cultures). And what do you do with low H members of that culture? You can have whatever personality you want. It's really important we focus on behaviors, because it's a high H trait to believe in growth. And it's a high H trait to be forgiving, and, and hope the best for people. So where people are going to struggle is what do I do with these bad behaviors? And it's just the same normal feedback model.


Ashley Graham

Sorry, when you say the normal...


John Graham

Yeah, the model we... I love Manager Tools, that model. You can check out Manager Tools podcast and Manager Tools Basics that are going to talk about, you know, that you're going to basically ask permission ("Are you ready to receive some feedback?")


Ashley Graham

Sure.


John Graham

We're going to talk about the cue, the concrete cue, ("When you do x, it has the effect...") andwhy that's good or bad. I'm going to say, "Please keep it up...." Or, "Can you do better?" How we would modify that feedback for toxicity is manipulation is now okay to call out. People are uncomfortable with calling it manipulation, because they're not quite sure what it is. But there are patterns of manipulation. And if you know what they are, and have ruled out nearly any other explanation of events, then you can give some feedback on, "Hey, when you don't tell me the whole truth, it leads to..."


Ashley Graham

Right. Right. Again, targeting the behavior not going into motive, like...


John Graham

Yeah...


Ashley Graham

..."I feel like you're a manipulative person...." is different than, "When you do this manipulative tactic... Like and you don't even have to say manipulation. It's pretty clear. When you say, "When you lied to me yesterday, it had the effect of causing distrust between us. I don't want that. It damages the team; it damages our relationship. Can we work on this together? Or can you work on this..." more pointedly. Okay, so that is the ideal model adapted for toxicity. Tell me a little bit about--kind of part two of my question--how you tried to implement this in a workplace or tried to consult on this in the past.


John Graham

It's a lot like... and I just happen to be working on a blog post on software patterns... but it's a lot like patterns. Being aware of what things are can help. It can help give you the abstractions you need to understand what's going on. Especially for me, a lot of these things seem just so foreign, these behaviors, these behaviors because they just never occurred to me. And I'm like, no one would do that. No one thinks that way. H Factor shows people do think that way. Plenty of academic as well as philosophical literature shows people have been thinking like this for a long time. So it requires a bit of familiarization and you do need to kind of understand some of the underlying strategies are not actually complex. Okay, much of what leads to obvious manipulation, like lying, gaslighting, or...gaslighting is a form of lying...trying to wedge people out trying to sow dissent between...


Ashley Graham

...triangulation...


John Graham

...triangulation. It's actually not that complex behaviors that are pretty easily learned is as early as childhood and they just work. It just works. You have to get out of the mindset that people are sitting around plotting and planning these elaborate schemes to get ahead. Instead, they are just spreading rumors to anyone who will listen and eventually they get a break through.


Ashley Graham

Right. So you're saying it's kind of more habitual than planned? I mean, because that's what's interesting. When you hear manipulation, you think... you think hands, right? That's part of the word...is like forming them in ways that they want. And it can feel very much like puppet master manipulator. You're saying that actually, these are kind of behavioral habits that are also reinforcing of mental habits, right, mutually reinforcing. And so it's not helpful to actually get into accusations of an elaborate plan.


John Graham

Yeah. Because while I'm sure the highest Machiavellians might have an elaborate plan, usually the plans aren't that elaborate. You don't need elaborate plans to be that effective. Let's talk about a case in point. That's in the news. Right now. We have two toxic behaviors that are incredibly easy to to see we have projection, and we have that just constant line with the Russia invading of Ukraine. Russia is claiming that they are invading Ukraine to de-Nazify it. Meanwhile, any scholars of fascism, right would understand Russia is probably way more fascistic--right?-- than Ukraine...a lot more relying on conspiracy theories, on grand narratives and propaganda, on authoritarianism. And I think that's something that we want to talk about when we did that. When we introduced the term toxicity, how do we stop people from just using it as weapon? When we have...


Ashley Graham

A grand narrative, another grand narrative for propaganda purposes?...


John Graham

Yeah, you can also see the the firehose of lies is what it's called. There is no big scheme, there is no grand plan of exactly the beliefs that Russian intelligence officers want to implant in Ukraine, in the Russian people, in American people. They just will make up anything, and you see what sticks, you see what starts to grow. If you know a couple of different patterns, like if people are ever fighting, quietly, approach both sides and say you agree with them; that will make the fight worse. It's little things like that. And another cultural reference, let's talk about Game of Thrones, "Chaos is a ladder." If you're just going around trying to sow dissent with whoever you can do it with and get away with it. Eventually, an opportunity will arise. And it'll make you look like some sort of chess grandmaster, because you were the instigator of all of it. But it rules out all of the other things that fell apart, and you just happen not to be correct.


Ashley Graham

So it's not really a master plan. It's just a way of navigating the world through habits that sometimes break through, or in the case of propaganda, and in the Russia example, it truly is just a barrage of media and messages and seeing what takes off, you know, very, very literally following the analytics for a social media campaign to see what sticks...?


John Graham

Weaponized toxity, yeah.


Ashley Graham

When you kind of gave this model to organizations, how did you do that? What were some of the consequences of it? Because I have to be honest, one of the concerns I have with some of this language is it can feel very good versus evil. I mean, you hear that even in the the Russia versus America or democracy versus fascist countries... Which, okay, I don't want to say the, you know, I don't want to equivocate about that. But I do want to say like, I know some Russian people who are not with Putin in what he's doing, right? So I don't want to totalize... so how do you implement this language--which can feel somewhat like a battle of good and evil, or us versus them, the the humble ones versus the dishonest ones--how do you implement this without just fanning the flames of dissent that a toxic behavior would actually want?


John Graham

You need to know this is nothing more than a mental model. If you understand that some people will have habits based on a tendency to think... that's step one, you just need to understand it exists. There is no part of trying to identify and root out toxicity that actually is, you know, "J'accuse!" In fact, I would say because of that projection, that is a sign of, you know, toxic behavior.


Ashley Graham

Who is just going around accusing everyone of being toxic?


John Graham

Yeah, the protections here, or the the process here...once you understand the model, how do you find it? What do you do about it? It's the same as any other dispute. You need to fact find. If two people are arguing, you need to figure out as much as you can about what they're arguing about...was anything in writing? And this is one reason to prefer written communication over verbal or memo-ization if you do have verbal meeting, or if you have meetings have more than two people in the room. So one of the effects of that is that you might have a disagreement over what happened in a one on one, because those tend to, you know, you can't have more than two people in the room. So you need to get to the root of things... Nine times out of 10, if you get to the root of things, it's going to be a misunderstanding or not in the toxic frameworks. We're in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team framework. But let's not be naive, because if you do find toxicity, it is dangerous. You need to fact find; you need to be aware of the patterns that toxicity can take such as projection, victimhood, victim blaming as behavior patterns, not definitions of motive. I mean, frankly, let's, let's say you find a truly toxic person. They, you know, have all these patterns of behavior... their motive is power, it's always power. Doesn't matter, doesn't matter. You can know their motive, and it doesn't help you.


Ashley Graham

Right, it just demonizes them, which again, doesn't really help you.


John Graham

I think it shouldn't demonize them. Because the flip side of all this is that a lot of humble and honest people don't pursue power because they think it's wrong to do that. And so when we have positions of power, either in businesses or nonprofits or anything else, it feels arrogant or assuming that they would propose themselves when we need more good people saying, No, I, I have pursued this skill set. I think I can do this.


Ashley Graham

If you bring in this model, this heuristic device of toxicity and its behaviors, and it starts to be a way that you can...have lossy compression of the individual... You know, it's like you try and shove their behaviors or who they are, their motives or... Honestly, like putting the behaviors in these categories is fine to me. You're not going to have as much lossy compression if you're tying concrete behaviors to the impact of the team, and expected behaviors in response, that you know, expect to change. But I guess I've seen times when people take this language and-- because it's so powerful, and it helps them see things, you know, like any heuristic device would, it's compelling--there becomes this almost thrill in being able to explain more, explaining more becomes a way to comprehend another individual. I'm not trying to have a slippery slope here. I've just I've seen it in organizations where, like, the pattern comes to replace the reality. And for me, that is the heart of my interest in philosophy. Like anyone who I followed it, Gabrielle Marcel, Emmanuel, Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil.. like all of them are concerned about what happens when reality is replaced with a mental model or with a system that can't possibly account for its richness. And what happens when you totalize and say like, "This is [essentially] a toxic person..." How do you still follow the protocols of a business? Because you know, a business isn't in the business of saving souls of waging war against evil. It's in the business of... Well, I don't know, what would you say? I'll give my answer... but what do you think the business is in the business of... a software shop...


John Graham

You are trying to generate wealth for all stakeholders. People get a job at a business because it will give them a salary. investors invest in business, because they'll get a rich consumers buy from the business because they're getting more bang for their buck from that product than others. I want to almost take a step back. And you know, our enemies will accuse us of the very thing, right? Whether we do it or not sort of stuff that you again, you see with the Russia-Ukraine events...it, it doesn't matter what we do. What is toxicity replacing? It's replacing meanness. Before, you could just accuse somebody of being mean. Let's give an example of... let's say you were manipulating them, and poking them until they finally got upset and frustrated. And now you accuse them of being mean. It used to be meanness, or aggression or something like that...disagreeableness was the thing to get someone on. And it's easy to make it look like the person who is actually the victim is the perpetrator. And that's all that's happening here. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your point, the term toxicity will be used and will be totalizing. But it is used by the same people who are attempting to totalize with whatever term they've heard lately. So it's not unique to toxicity that we use this.


Ashley Graham

I would have the same critique of any heuristic. You know, when I see personality tests applied; and I'm like, okay, but there's some part of reality that's not being captured there. And what happens when you over rely on the tool. You know, it's, it's agile critique too...when you've replaced interactions with people with tools or or with heuristic devices for those people. So your point is well taken; and I would have this criticism of any management theory, or any psychological theory. Where I'm particularly concerned is okay, you think of the business in terms of generating wealth for every one. I think of it in terms of generating value. And part of value to me is the employee experience. And I know that you would tie that back to wealth, and we don't totally disagree, you're just more of a an overt capitalist. But I have seen... even when you were discovering this model, to be candid, you were seeing it everywhere. Right? Once you would read this book and share this book with others, like the H Factor... you were seeing it everywhere, and it was starting to impact your ability to see things outside, like exteriority to this theory. Because it was so painful to like, once you see the pain, you can't look away in a sense. Like, you're seeing it everywhere in the organization; you're wanting to root it out, because you're seeing the harm it does. How do you pay serious mind to the harm of toxicity, while also not overplaying into its own hand? Does that make sense?


John Graham

I think in my case, you want to differentiate between someone learned something new, and it suddenly made the world easier to understand for them. That's versus someone heard a new buzzword that, that people in power are paying attention to. Let's talk about using toxicity as a weapon. It has to take off. The organization has to say we're going to take toxic toxicity seriously. Once that happens, you'll get a lot more people using it as a weapon. So while I probably, you know, got obsessed with it initially it was because all of these things seems so unrelated and so confusing.


Ashley Graham

Yeah, I mean, because that is the nature of manipulation...


John Graham

And suddenly it was crystal clear that... I felt like I was the only one who could see it. And over time, more and more people were like, I'm starting to actually see the pattern you're seeing. And I never was trying to be totalizing towards people; it was more realistic. So there is some good research in the psychology of personality... The traits are hard to change, but they are changeable. The issue with dishonesty is that dishonest people don't understand why on earth they would need to change. There was a recent article showing that just performing behaviors like giving to charity, maybe anonymously, did actually start to move the needle on honesty, on rates of honesty. However, what was interesting was that some people admitted their goal was to become more dishonest over time. So it's, this is...this is the same with openness. People who aren't open value not being open, and maybe want to be less open. So you may not get a movement in the direction you want. That being said, let's get back to the process. Yeah, none of the toxicity has anything doesn't change the process.


Ashley Graham

Exactly.


John Graham

It doesn't change the process, we're still talking about six pieces of feedback, performance improvement plans, verbal written warnings, everything like that...all the chances in the world because you need to give them the chance to grow. And you also need to show everyone else we use the same rules for everyone. Let me give an example. In a pre-toxicity world, somebody might have forgotten about a delivery, or at least that's what they're saying, "Oh, I forgot about that. I'm sorry." You write it off, everybody makes mistakes. And then you realize this person tends to forget about that one deliverable every single time you ask them. In a pre-toxicity world, it's super hard to just accuse them of saying they're forgetting because it doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel right.


Ashley Graham

Well because you're about the behavior as well. When you say that you're...


John Graham

Yeah, it's easy to get away from the feedback model. If you think it's a genuine mistake.


Ashley Graham

Ah...


John Graham

It's easy to get away from the feedback model of somebody who's just, "Oh, I forgot."

Sure. Then it's not feedback. You're like, oh, okay. Yeah. It's just a casual conversation of like, "Oh..."


John Graham

Now you can say you don't have to know about toxicity, just hold people accountable.


Ashley Graham

Which is what I would typically say....


John Graham

Yeah, you won't, you wouldn't need the toxicity model. If you could just hold people accountable. But a lot of people are uncomfortable with that. People will say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I'll get it to you next time." And you want so much to believe them. And you want so much to believe that..


Ashley Graham

If you're high H?


John Graham

Ah, yeah, exactly. You don't want to believe they're lying to your face? You don't want to think that about them. It hurts you to think that someone else is like, you know, just straight up, "Yeah, I'll get that to you next week, boss." Understanding toxicity helps you notice like, "Look, you could be forgetting or you could be lying. I don't care."


Ashley Graham

Right.


John Graham

When you don't deliver the deliverable, it has this impact. Please do so. It gives people an excuse to get out of this. Oh, they had a really hard week. It's like, this is the 10th hard week they've had, and as nobody else on the team have a hard week and still manage to get things done. That's okay.


Ashley Graham

So this is really interesting. And this is the first time I'm realizing this in all of our personal conversations about toxicity in the workplace. For me, I thought it was going to take away from that feedback model--that it was going to devolve into speculation about their, their character or their traits, their personality traits, or the psychology of personality, which a company really... I didn't believe that a software engineering firm should be in the business of psychoanalyzing, right? They should, or a manager shouldn't be in the business of therapy, which we could talk about another time. I was concerned that it would devolve into that. But what you're saying actually aligns with my interests and what I would say. It should help you hold more accountable, because you're like, "I ultimately don't care. I don't care why you miss this or that you cannot sidetrack me with manipulative talk." Ultimately, this model helps you just stay to the behavior, its impact and the changes required, it helps with accountability. That's the first time I'm understanding that about your use of this model, so thank you.


John Graham

Frankly, the big lightbulb for me was that these behaviors are far more prevalent than I ever thought they were just that adjustment of my Bayesian priors allows me to give feedback more regularly, because I'm like, well, it could be this.


Ashley Graham

And you want to nip it in the bud of it, because the impact to them and to the team...


John Graham

You want to nip it in the bud... The behaviors have a pattern and one of the patterns is victimhood. And victimhood is astoundingly good at not receiving critical feedback, right? And so if you know that that's a possibility, and usually have somebody who's seems like the victim, that's fine. "I'm so sorry, this happened. But when you miss a meeting, we need you to..." Like it gives you a way I was like, I gotta cover my base. "I'm sorry that this has happened to you. However, I need to also make sure that you know to show it in the meeting on time." So it gives it gives a reminder of like, ah, they probably are a victim. But just because they're a victim of something doesn't mean that they get away with other behaviors. So I need to make sure to cover that critical feedback. There's...so much of manipulation is avoiding consequences of your actions. And we're talking...


Ashley Graham

Say that again, sorry...


John Graham

Manipulation is avoiding consequences of your action. That's why you have to modify the feedback theory, but not the, not the actual process. To help it work against this. It's like a new antibody for a new virus, you just have to know, here's what it looks like. And it's okay to give your normal feedback. If it starts looking like this, you're not going to hurt anyone. The feedback model already is generous enough for people who are making mistakes. It's generous enough for people who are victims of things. It gives lots of wiggle room. So use that wiggle room, hold people accountable. It's okay. You're not the bad guy.


Ashley Graham

Okay, so a question I have, if you have someone--maybe I'm still uncomfortable with the word toxic--but like, their defense mechanism, is this...either this victimhood play or, or... this obfuscation? Bamboozling? I think is one of the things that you call that. Like, if they're getting feedback, it's really easy for them to come up with reasons, you know, why they did something or to ask you for more explanation to kind of negotiate the terms of the feedback. And I've seen managers who to avoid that kind of just stick to their script and do not go outside. Like, "When you did x, it had this impact on the team. Can you change that?" You know, like, but they keep reiterating their script. Like what should a manager do when--in the middle of giving this very procedural, just mode of feedback--they meet with some of this bamboozling? You know, how should they respond to that in a way that... I guess you kind of alluded to it, but it's like... Alright, I can be empathetic, but that doesn't invalidate my feedback, right? Like, how do you navigate that as a manager?


John Graham

Exactly what you just said, listen, okay. Don't say anything. They deserve to have a....


Ashley Graham

Okay, so would the person then say like you're stonewalling.


John Graham

Well, you know... I'm not saying be absolutely silent. Yeah, don't... nothing they say is going to change the feedback. Well, you need to assume that. You need to assume that. The pattern I've seen in terms of manipulation is, I'm going to give you some feedback. And then I get feedback on my feedback. And, "That wasn't delivered correctly." Or, "I wouldn't have done that if I were, you know, managing somebody like me." And for some reason that nullifies it all. Oh, I didn't do it right. Okay, well, I'll get you next time you little rascal. And it's surprising how long that'll that can go on. Because, because giving critical feedback is incredibly awkward.


Ashley Graham

Oh, yeah. And you're not gonna do it perfectly.


John Graham

Yeah, you want... you can't do it perfectly. So if somebody says that wasn't delivered perfectly, ergo, it is null and void. If somebody says that, you know, obviously, but you can walk out of meetings, and somebody will say, "I dodged that one." So, if you listen, if you can figure out how to say like, um, you know, "I understand you're upset. I don't think this is all cut and dry. And I am giving, you know, some critical feedback to others involved. But I need you to improve on this." If you can just stick to you know... Galaxy brain level is like, you may learn something that oh, okay, I need to go investigate that. But let's just let's just go with beginner level, just assume you won't learn anything. Nobody can be perfect. This is why we have the six, you know, pieces, a few pieces of feedback in case mistakes are made. Let's look for an obvious and pattern that is not getting better. Just rely on the six pieces of feedback. Try your best to listen, do not argue, don't agree too much. Don't.


Ashley Graham

That's hard.


John Graham

You can agree with feelings. "I understand you're upset. I'd hate you know, I'd hate to be upset. I think this was a really tricky issue. But I think you could have done better." Stuff like that.


Ashley Graham

Okay. Alright. This is helpful. I think I still have some more questions, but we can take it on in another podcast because I see our daughter is waking up. And as many of you know, we try to tackle issues in the span of her nap. So thanks again for talking through toxicity and we'll probably have a second conversation about totality. But this has been really nice primer.


John Graham

Yeah, sounds good. We are on a mission to try and improve management. So if you feel like you can take up that mantle with us. We can use your help share it far and wide.


Ashley Graham

Follow us on Twitter; check out our blog; or subscribe to and comment on our YouTube channel. Simply search "Guildmaster Consulting" and you'll find us.

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