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Dealing with "Toxi-Colleagues"

You’ve tried everything with a “toxi-colleague” in your organization:

1. Killing them with kindness.

2. Ignoring them.

3. Bucking them.

4. Silencing them.

5. Changing them.

6. Being open to understanding their own pain (about something that you are unsure about) because we try to believe that there is a root cause for every action, reaction, or inaction.

Yet, nothing works (and they probably know it too). In fact, the toxicity becomes so acidic that their actions and adversarial tactics are suffocating the system. Damaging or halting forward progress. Blind-siding your judgment or crippling your innovative hard work.

Rebecca and I are asked the following question more than anything else in our Dunk Tank chats, study groups, reflections, and analysis with other educators (and even parents) of school districts all across the nation. And, that one question is: “What does one do about the really toxic colleagues?” When we are asked this question, people want an answer. And, they deserve an answer. But, then, Rebecca and I scratch our heads because there is no ONE right answer. Everything is situational and contextual.

But, there is some guidance that we can provide and here it is:

See, there are 3 shades of “toxi-colleagues” and it has to do with positioned power and how YOU are positioned alongside the “toxi-colleague.” Here are those 3 shades:

1. Those whom YOU supervise.

2. Those whom are positioned equally in the system hierarchy with YOU.

3. Those whom supervise YOU.

Each one of these shades are both similar and different at the same time. Let me explain:

No matter what shade of toxicity you are involved in, you are a human being with emotions, reactions, and feelings. And all of the coping strategies in the world sometimes do not do anything to help. All of the medications in the world only make matters worse because they throw a blanket on the blazing fire that is still going to burn up that blanket at some point. NOTE: We are not poking fun at anyone who uses prescription medication or uses self-medication to cope. In fact, Chapter 6 of the Dunk Tank is devoted to these types of issues and we take them very seriously.

So, what we are saying is that you have to make a decision to exert your agency as a school leader or educator of any kind who goes to work each day to do amazing things for children. The reality is that you have to mitigate these factors of deciding what you are going to do about your situation or “toxi-colleague” who is either trying to ruin you or the organization (or both). Destructive behaviors often do not discern between the two and as toxicity increases, so does political entanglement (most of the time). Often, toxicity can become workplace bullying and in those instances, legal issues can transpire very quickly.

So, what do you do?

1. You have to analyze what explicitly confronting the “toxi-colleague” will do to your career, ability to seek a promotion, or affect the daily duties of your current position. When I say “confront,” I don’t mean by using violent means. I mean explicitly taking the issue head on by saying, “This is how you are making me feel.” “When you do _____________, it leads to ______________.” If _______________ does not stop, I will have to _________________.” This is about accountability, not threats. Document everything. And, I mean everything. Meeting date, time, disposition, notes, witness sitting with you. Sometimes a representative from your unit will sit in. Never take on anything alone or without a witness. Your decision to take a stand may have political consequences that you are not even aware of. But, the question you must ask before explicitly confronting the issue is, “Could it get any worse, anyway?”

2. If positioned power must have you rely on the supervisor of your “toxi-colleague” to take some sort of action, your supervisor will either handle it or not handle it. NOTE: Unfortunately, we have heard about hundreds of stories where supervisors turn into squids and do not have the spine to handle the issue or organizational toxicity (most likely because they feel that if they handle it, their own career will be threatened even if they work through #1 above in their own mind).

3. The decision to do something or not do something about your “toxi-colleague” comes with a new set of decisions. Do you start looking for a new position? Do you fight the system through legal means? Do you place the “toxi-colleague” on notice? Do you gather allies to help you fight the good fight?

4. You might be feeling that the “toxi-colleague” wants you to crash and burn or wants you to leave the organization. You might even be feeling that you should just stay put so “they don’t win.” The problem with that is that you have to analyze what YOU want or need. Who cares if your “toxi-colleague” feels like they won over you if you do leave? What is your mental status with all of this crazy stuff going on? What is your health status? Do you want to get out of bed in the morning? Do you see yourself losing yourself?

5. Most importantly (and often neglected): What is your backup plan if things get even more toxic because of your decision to either “holdem’ or foldem’?” Are you willing to leave the organization (either voluntarily or involuntarily if things go South)? Where will you go? What will you do? Who can you connect with who might help you? Ultimately, where will you find happiness and joy? What are your talents to get you there? Do you have a Plan A, B, and C ready to go if you want to go (or have to go). Do you have references in place? Are you equipped to leave? Don’t walk the desert without water.

Toxicity and politics are friends. They often go hand in hand. When people misuse their power and license themselves to run rampant with their own misbehavior, the Dunk Tank often ramps up for the reasons we outline in Chapters 2 and 3 of our book. The best plan is a strong and healthy mental plan. You cannot do anything when exhausted or beaten down. Know your adversaries. Anticipate how they tick. Anticipate their next moves. If you don’t, it will leave you unwell. And, if you let toxicity fester, chances are it will seep into your bones sooner or later. Toxicity is like lice. Get too close to your “toxi-colleagues’” hair, and you might have an infestation all to yourself.

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