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The Carnage of Tops: Toxicity as Anger



We’ve all had a supervisor who has blown her top at one time or another. Maybe we did something terribly wrong, or maybe we simply annoyed her. Whatever the reason, every one of us has been laid waste by an overly aggressive employer who left us bleeding and gasping for breath on the battlefield--no apologies and no remorse. Indeed, this unfortunate scenario has happened to most of us multiple times, leaving us the surveyors of a battlefield riddled with the carnage of countless blown tops, all of which callous our opinions of employers and make us leery of anyone who says, “Follow me.”


When I was a police officer in Waynesboro, Virginia (many years ago now), my shift corporal was a man of very low self-esteem. He was one of those fellows who is instantly offended when someone else is successful or competent. As soon as he discerned that I was not only a competent police officer, but I was also a man of confidence, intelligence, and achievement, he immediately went on the attack. Around every corner, he criticized and berated me. On one particular occasion, after I had taken all I possibly could, I confronted him. I can remember his reaction. He was immediately offended and became angry and verbally belligerent. Naturally, I don’t remember everything he said, but I vividly recall his toxicity of anger. He was mean, spiteful, and bullying. In short, he was angry, and he took his anger out on me.


Ultimately, there was nothing I could do about him or his attitude. He had a predisposition against me and, most likely, against anyone who threatened him personally or professionally. I went to a friend of mine who was a veteran on the department for advice, and he encouraged me to “let it go” and submit to the corporal’s authority. I did so, but I felt humiliated, trapped, and powerless. Worse, I felt unmotivated and demoralized.


And this is how most people react when they encounter toxicity that is explosive and wrathful! Who wants to be in the presence of an armed grenade or ticking time bomb? When the prospect of explosion always looms, people hide, practice avoidance tactics, and remain silent. Their morale plummets, their innovative spirit is squelched, and they soon become time-for-money traders, doing what they need to get through each day and nothing more. That is to say, employees who face anger toxicity are less than fully productive.


Anger toxicity, however, can take two basic forms. One is aggressive and surfaces as direct verbal attack, expletive-laden diatribe, and/or overtly spiteful retribution. This is the anger toxicity with which most are familiar and is the type to which we have alluded thus far. But there is also a much more passive form of anger toxicity. This one is quite subtle and manifests as gossip/backbiting among supervisors, lopsided employee praise, workplace favoritism, and/or various forms of professional obstructionism (e.g., unjustified withholding of promotions, unfavorable location assignments, etc.). In some ways, this form of anger toxicity can be more detrimental to the employee and is certainly the more overlooked or “accepted” type.


Soon after being promoted to captain in the Army, I was assigned as a liaison officer for an infantry brigade. My supervisor, the brigade operations officer, was an altogether personable and affable guy. The brigade commander loved him, and he seemed like a stereotypical “happy-go-lucky” fellow. Although he and I did not see eye-to-eye on everything, I thought we got along quite well. So, you can imagine my surprise when I received a below-average evaluation from him on my annual evaluation report. I was floored! Not once during the year did he mention anything I was doing wrong or any areas in which I needed to improve. In fact, he was always very complementary of my work. I naturally challenged the evaluation and eventually got it changed, but you can imagine my distrust of this officer from that point on. He had betrayed me, all the while wearing a smile on his face. And as time went on, I saw more and more indications of his character deficiencies, narcissism, and general disregard for others. Although he never lost his temper with or openly humiliated me, I harbored the same feelings of demotivation and demoralization that I had with the police corporal. In other words, his passive aggressiveness was just as cutting and just as harmful to our professional relationship as the corporal’s active aggressiveness.


Whether aggressive or passive, then, anger toxicity is an organizational cancer. It eats away at the very cells, sinews, and bones of places that employ these types of toxic leaders. I’ve heard well-meaning people say, “Everyone blows his top once in a while.” I believe this is true, and we should give people the benefit of the doubt if their anger is only mild and rare. Who hasn’t had a bad day and simply needed to blow off a little steam? But when the blowing of one’s top is more than occasional and results in a field laden with tops, then there is a problem. And it’s a problem for everyone involved: the supervisor (i.e., toxic leader), who needs to learn to handle his anger better; the employee, who must endure the toxicity; and the organization that must deal with the fall-out of toxic leadership. Anger toxicity that is allowed to fester will quickly ruin organizational morale, productivity, and innovation. Wise leaders will seek to root it out at its core. In the best case scenarios, this means retraining and retooling leaders. At other times, it means restructuring the organization through promotions, demotions, new hirings, and dismissals. But whatever means are necessary, toxicity of this type cannot be tolerated.


Of course, anger toxicity is only one type. There are several others, and in my next toxicity blog, I will deal with one of these--a type that manifests, not in aggressiveness, but in that most common of all human character traits: pride.

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