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Toxic Colleagues - A Bigger Problem Than You Think

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar November 14, 2018

We’ve all known colleagues who prefer to gossip at the coffee machine rather than contribute positively to the organization. We may then talk about them and their complaining about the organization, managers, colleagues—and the coffee.

If we do, the complainers are not just annoying, they are also contagious. Research reveals the damage they do. Let us share the data with you, and why toxic colleagues are bigger problem than we often think.

First, the data

To begin, let’s explore how many toxic colleagues surround us. Gallup’s ‘State of the Global Workplace’ (2017) provides an answer. The data come from companies in 155 countries around the world. This report has been a trusted source for years. It reveals terrible results.

Globally, only 15% of one’s colleagues are engaged. To be clear, engaged to Gallup means those colleagues who ‘are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological “owners”. They drive performance and innovation and move the organization forward’. They are much more productive and profitable than the least engaged. We qualify them as top performers.

The biggest group of 67% is not engaged at work. They are ‘psychologically unattached to their work and their company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.’ We all know those colleagues. We sometimes become annoyed with them. But we wouldn’t qualify them as toxic.

The remaining 18% are those who are actively disengaged at work. These are the ones who sabotage the workplace because they ‘aren’t just unhappy at work – they are resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.’ Yep, here they are. We definitely describe this group as toxic.

Engagement Data

To show that this is not just some other country’s problem, we checked the data from the 10 countries that the most visitors to our site live in. You can see the data below. It is pretty bad almost anywhere you are on the earth.

We checked Gallup's employee engagement data from the 10 countries that the most visitors to our site live in. It is pretty bad almost anywhere you are on the earth.
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This data is similar to previous years. We are, typically, surrounded by disengaged or toxic colleagues, and not by engaged high performers. This is sad. And the cost of disengagement is getting worse.

Now, the research

What value do the most-engaged colleagues add to the bottom-line? What is the cost of disengaged/toxic colleagues? These are questions answered by research from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Professor Dylan Minor’s research tries to uncover the real cost of toxic workers. With his colleagues, he examined the behaviours of workers. They assessed if they were benefiting the organisation (the top performers) or harming it (the toxic workers). Then, based on performance data, they compared the value of hiring a top performer colleague versus parting with a toxic one.

They found that engaged top performers boosted the performance of colleagues. Indeed, the top 1% of these colleagues earned an extra $5,300 for the organization: merely by doing more and better work than the average colleague would do.

Then the research becomes very interesting. Typically, the cost to the organisation of a toxic colleague was an estimated $12,800. It turns out that the cost of being surrounded by toxic colleagues is much greater than the benefit of working with top performers.

Toxic colleagues are a pain in the ass for almost everyone forced to work near or with them. Worse, they are extremely costly to the organization—because their toxic effect turns out to be highly contagious.
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Dylan’s team showed that if someone is influenced by toxic colleagues, that person is then 50% more likely to become toxic, too. And, whereas high performers had a positive impact on a few close colleagues, toxic workers could spread their negative behaviour more widely, like across an entire floor.

So, we rest our case

Toxic colleagues are a pain in the ass for almost everyone forced to work near or with them. Worse, they are extremely costly to the organization—because their toxic effect turns out to be highly contagious. This is a huge problem if our organizations have more actively disengaged (or toxic) workers than engaged, top performers.

You can do the math yourself. But we rest our case.

This is yet another piece of evidence that shows organizations should be focusing much more on employee engagement than they currently do. Not just for the happiness of employees, but also for the bottom-line.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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