To Fix a Toxic Workplace, We Should All Become Toxicologists

A toxicologist is someone who studies the safety and biological effects of drugs, chemicals, agents, and other substances on living organisms. They develop methods to determine harmful effects, the dosages that cause those effects, and safe exposure limits.

If we look at a company in biological terms, such as a living organism, the ‘toxicologist’ might then be someone who studies the harmful effects of toxic individuals not on the cells of the body, but on the teams within the organization. The potency of toxic individuals etches away the foundation of the company and weakens the spirit and morale of the employees. Eventually, a point of hysteresis is reached, which is the point that there is no longer an elastic recovery.

The damaging effects to the average company can go unnoticed for long enough that the only recourse, besides burning it the ground and rebuilding, is to give everyone the wisdom to be their own “toxicologist.” This article will be a primer on how to become just that, your own organizational toxicologist.

I do have one critically important request: take the awareness and insights you get here, add to your learning by reading my other blogs, or any source of related information, and then do your part to raise the awareness with friends and co-workers. We need you to recruit more toxicologists to help with the installation of the needed definitions that have long been lacking. These definitions expose those who have been cleverly profiting from the myriad of tactics.

To understand the individuals who secretly tear down or create roadblocks to building the foundation of the business, you have to first separate the single most important distinction between them and everyone else. There are only two types of people in a company or organization:

  1. Those that are selfless and want to see the company succeed that desire to be an instrumental part of that success.
  2. Those that are selfish in their own desires and pursuits. Their interests in the company’s success are conditional on how that aligns with their own one-dimensional goals and ambitions.

This is not to say that those that want to be the star performer are automatically allocated to category #2. This is where it gets most difficult to decipher because the ones that are in group #2 are cunning, coy, and polished in their appearance of genuineness that their toxic effects go either unnoticed or, brushed aside because of their performance and results.

Many years ago I read somewhere that the most powerful weapon in the world is the power of persuasion. Coercing and emotionally manipulating hundreds, thousands or millions of people can be deadlier than 100 atomic bombs. Psychological manipulation is the most potent weapon to take and hold hostage any company or institution.

Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and privileges at the victim’s expense.

This happens to you every day you go into public or walk past the receptionist in your office building. The problem is you do not realize it is happening. It is not because you are lacking in intelligence. You might say that one could be “naïve” of being emotionally manipulated. I would argue that it is not the best definition to use. The definition of naïve is “showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment.” This is not why you get manipulated on a regular basis. It is because,

  1. They are that damn good at it.
  2. Because of your good nature, you give people the benefit of the doubt (see the previous article).
  3. Because of groupthink, even when it is just you and this other person, you fall into a one-person groupthink trap. (Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional outcome.)

According to Preston Ni, most manipulative individuals have four common characteristics:

  1. They know how to detect your weaknesses including “in the moment” vulnerabilities, such as when you are distracted or focused elsewhere and unaware of their “emotional lurking.”
  2. Once they get a fingernail into your psyche, they start to slowly tear it open just enough to peek inside while consciously engaging in conversation with you. They will almost always be looking right at you, eye-to-eye, which you likely take as a genuine connection but actually, they are looking inside of you to determine what to say or do next. What you don’t see is their proverbial hand about to clasp onto your beating heart. This is when they start an unnoticed series of techniques and gauging the effectiveness.
  3. Depending on what they want, even if it is part of a long-term plan of controlling you, they use and refine their coy and cunning techniques. You are but one part of their self-centered interests that involve multiple people without your realizing it.
  4. Eventually, they will have a refined arsenal of tailor-made tactics just for you. I have seen exquisite tailoring of psychological manipulation for individuals that it reminds of today’s bio-hacking where dietary intake is scientifically designed for the individual. But here, it is more art than science and should be called “emotional-hacking” in that it is also tailored for the individual.

My focus is on how these individuals affect companies and take hostage the ability to reach the organization’s full potential. We all know firsthand the damage just one person can do to a team inside of your company. The tactics they use, even when you start to notice them, have no identifiable name that everyone can use to raise awareness. It is like we are all in a crowded basketball game with hundreds or thousands of people with no actual rules and no referee to call foul. In fact, there is no word “foul” that everyone understands what it means. Instead, you take elbows to the eyes and knees to the gut and say very little because there is no way to say it. All we’re left with is, “the department manager isn’t being genuine or honest to us.” How do you substantiate such a claim of your observations?

If you were to accuse someone at a senior level of this, you can guarantee they have a cornucopia of measured tactics to ensure the accusation ricochets off of them and leaves the mark on you. They did not get to this level by being sloppy novices at the emotional manipulation game. Their entire life is laser-focused on their own power and advancement without the burden or distraction of empathy or concern for others. They are simply focused and put their time into honing the craft of psychological manipulation. In the absence of a set of definitions like “foul” in basketball, how can they ever be pinned down for what they do to others or the systemic toll it takes on the company?

There are almost too many examples of the categories of emotional manipulation. For many, it can be overwhelming to ponder just how often it is happening to them.

Manipulation can be, of course, the negative kind such as belittling, berating or humiliating someone in a setting of other workers or even customers. It can also be seen through pressuring or coercing someone to do something that benefits their own agendas. An example might be to coerce a subordinate to volunteer to be on a team or take on an assignment that ultimately benefits the manipulator rather than the one who is being manipulated.

Another common form of negative manipulation is when a manager, or co-worker, give particular employees the silent treatment. They make themselves unavailable to meet with, often because they are being set up to fail. Many have experienced situations where something was said to them behind closed-doors and they felt no one would believe them what was said. Or, the direct threat and intimidation worked in keeping the individual focused on avoiding the bully’s articulated consequences of non-compliance. Creating an environment when no one is around or paying attention is a highly effective opportunity to coerce, threaten, intimidate and emotionally manipulate someone, especially a subordinate.

One of my most memorable personal experiences is when my manager got just a few inches from my face at a trade show booth and calmly threaten me to never go around him again, because, the director of sales was interested in my joining his team (who approached me directly about my interest.) What this person didn’t realize is my soon-to-be wife was standing five feet behind him watching him do this to me (she was with a partner company who had been assigned to our booth for technical support.)

Manipulation can also be positive such as insincere kudos and “good job” accolades. Promising the promotion or raise to later use the arsenal of reasons it hasn’t happened yet, such as, “all the HR red tape” or all the factors that are simply “out of their control.” We have all witnessed, experienced, or heard the stories of where a manager assures one of their employees of their safety and security to then a months later show them the door or have them transferred to another department. Purposefully being dishonest using relative terms and the specific selection of how things are said is fertile ground for using plausible deniability to get away with it. Why? Because we do not have a specific definition for this tactic. There is no word “foul” to be called out as it is happening.

When a toxic individual has someone in their target line, such as a subordinate, a career-damaging tactic that is probably the easiest to get away with is the art of distorting, delaying or withholding important information. When someone gives you what you need months later than you needed it and you fail at whatever was your task, in the proverbial court of law, you cannot say this person did not give you the information you needed nor can you prove they purposely delayed delivery. It’s the game of relativity and plausible deniability. Regardless, their mission was accomplished.

A related common tactic is the use of mixed messages to keep someone confused and off balance. My personal favorite is what I call “understate — exaggerate.” This is where someone can toggle on both extremes of any situation and do it so well it leaves people with a whole range of mixed emotions. Always look for directional power words like “never, always, everyone, nobody, etc.”

One of my favorite recent examples is when President Trump first said “nobody respects women more than I do.” Obviously, this is a pretty exaggerated statement. Yet, no one asked him to help them understand exactly what he means by each of these words he chose to use. Behind each one you will find a web of contradictions, lies and untruths.

If the aforementioned tactics do not get the control they want from you, they turn to the most proven arrow in the manipulation quiver, victimhood. This is when you should feel the clasping of their hand around your heart as they look you in the eye. This is where they can profit from your good will, guilty conscience and normally adapted instincts to care, nurture and fulfill a duty. The very things for which they are not burdened with the distraction. For example, if you tell someone how they made you feel, such as from one of the other tactics, instead of being understandable and apologetic, they turn you into the aggressor and themselves into the victim by “one-upping” you in how tragic things are for them and how you should be pitying them. They might even claim that they have put themselves at risk for how hard they pushed for your promotion to happen, or, they have been put in far more stressful situations than you are complaining about for handling the job of two or three people.

Now, I want you to pause for just 30–60 seconds and think of the people in your current and past life that come to mind that has exhibited even the subtle signs of what I have just described. Because it is unavoidable, you can add celebrity types (or politicians) that you feel are this way.

I am guessing you have streamlined a short list of those who you would say are the dangerous types; the ones that have demoralized departments and teams, ran companies into the ground, or perhaps was the reason you decided to leave the company. You should have also skimmed at least a few people that might have less severe examples of these traits, but you would consider the “difficult people” your HR training is supposed to teach you to better manage. So why are “difficult people” there in the first place? Do we really need to have HR training to deal with them versus moving them into positions (or the exit door) that do no harm to the progress of teams or subtract energy and passion from them?

We see it often do we not? When our manager says, “yeah, they can be difficult to work with at times, but in the end, they usually get the job done.” Or they might say, “he just gets caught up in the moment and sometimes says things he shouldn’t, but, he is passionate about the business and customers seem to love him.” Obviously, I could go on with examples but the point is these are statements that stem from the benefit of the doubt. These are rooted in relative terms like “they can be…at times” and how often is “usually?” Which is it, do customers love or like them? How many does “seem” imply? Hopefully, everyone who touches the customer is at least liked, right? These are passive comments to explain away bad traits and worse behavior. We are all guilty of this and there is a myriad of reasons this “allowance justification” process happens, and the details are always unique, specific, and personal to the individual who is giving the benefit of the doubt. Often, it is because, like most, they fear the bully. Bullies instill quite clearly the consequences of non-compliance to their demands whether stated belligerently out-right or silently assumed, and even their superiors might well fear them.

Note: Every bully is a narcissist and every narcissist is a bully.

When you compound the number of people we allow to be out-right or mischievously subtle about their selfish intentions amongst the many that are selflessly trying to make a difference for everyone, you will find the true caustic agents that sour cultures and deteriorate foundations. This is especially true when the company allows them to reach positions of managing people. Each time they succeed in getting away with their tactics of manipulation, they grow stronger. Eventually, those they see as career threats are marginalized and will eventually leave the company. If they don’t leave of their own free will, they will get set up to be let go. Others stop trying as hard because their energy level barely gets them through the day. Like trying to get rid of mold and mildew. It never fully goes away. Once your company gets to this point, you have very few options to fix it other than a proverbial burn it down and rebuild it from those ashes.

In my years of observing and studying this inside of companies, I have narrowed it down to four signs you can see happening in real time. This is part of what I called the 6 Factors of Ultimate Potential, or simply the UP-Factors. Particularly, UP-Factor #2, or UP-2, which is Experience & Maturity. Experience is, of course, experience. Either you have experience in a given market or role such as sales, marketing or manufacturing, or you don’t. This says nothing about you as a person and whether or not you are toxic or constructive to teams. This is where maturity is measured.

Of all the sources of great and wonderful insights into human behavior and the traits that can be studied that relate to what I have already described, it is too difficult to boil it down to the equivalent of the word “foul” in basketball where everyone understands what it means. Therefore, I have introduced the 6 UP-Factors as a way to call things as you see them. For the toxic, you can simply point out that they have low UP-2. Everyone can relate to what that means because it relates to at least one of the following list of four observations that someone is toxic.

· Do they (more often than not) need to be “right” or otherwise “win” the debate or conversation?

· Do they fail to actively listen and try to understand what others are saying while noticeably turning the focus somehow to themselves?

· Do they rarely reshape their views and opinions after listening and considering the inputs, ideas or feelings of others? (Note: it is okay that someone might need a day or two to ponder before showing that they have reflected on the inputs and views of others).

· Do they often get noticeably irritated when others do not agree with them? For example, YOU ARE EITHER WITH ME OR AGAINST ME!

In my experience, the only people that are hard to say for sure are toxic are the ones that are the more covert in exhibiting them. These are the individuals that rarely express their true feelings outright. They do it secretly. The ones that never commit to any of your requests for support and do nothing as a result. They have a path and no one is going to change it, but the path they are on is far from obvious. I will promise you, however, that if you start looking at the people you work with through the lens of UP-2, you will see it. And as a newly appointed office toxicologist, you share, train, educate and make aware for others to see the things going on around them also through the UP-2 lens, and soon everyone else will see the same things. This is when everyone will blurt out in unison, the emperor has no clothes!

When you know what a term means, and that term describes what you see happening, you simply use the term because it now has a meaningful definition. Below are some of the tactics used every day by toxic individuals to control the powers of perception and persuasion.

BROAD-BRUSHING: A method of evading pointed questions while simultaneously removing oneself from the line of questioning. This is done by answering questions that were actually not even asked, and subsequently directing blame or fault towards others to manipulate the perceptions of the questioner and observers. By the time they are done talking, it is difficult to get the flow back to where it started.

UNDERSTATE-EXAGGERATE: This is when someone plays two sides of situations to their benefit. “Understate” is where one situation or person’s actions are diminished by undermining facts as heresy, conjecture, misunderstood, or simply inaccurate. “Exaggerate” is when they switch to strongly advocating other situations, events or individual’s actions where the strength of their certainty lies on amorphous details and blurry recollections. However, the conviction of the Exaggeration, especially when aided by Intellectual Bullying, leaves the listener feeling at least open to the possible validity of the encompassing statements. Which can be seen from either extreme — Understate or Exaggerate.

POINT-SHUFFLING: Occurs when someone feels they are being cornered to answer highly specific questions. It is a rapid-fire way to escape the questions where Broad-Brushing is a more ‘curved’ way out. Once removed from the “line of fire” of questions by Point-Shuffling, the person can ease into other tactical forms such as Broad-Brushing, Throttle-Loguing or Understate-Exaggerate.

REASON-RIFLING: This is the infamous “excuse machine” that happens when pressures are mounting towards this person. They will quickly find nothing but rapid-fire reasons they are viewed or perceived as having failed or not met expectations. There is always a reason it ended up this way, right?

VICTIM-HOOD: When all else fails, play the victim. Set-ups, operating without needed information, being railroaded or thrown under the bus, etc. This is closely tied to the process of Reason-Rifling. Meaning they will exhaust the magazine of reasons then proverbially faint for sympathy.

THROTTLE-LOGUING: This is a tactic often used in conjunction with others such as Broad-Brushing and Point-Shuffling as an “accelerator pedal” to drive a conversation where desired (which is usually any direction away from the one it is currently on). In the absence of direct questions to avoid, this person can “take the floor” and Throttle-Logue. It is a race-against-the-clock window of opportunity to say many things; broadly directed, powered with verbs of certainty, leaving the listener feeling the intended way. It often appears as though they may not even know exactly what they will say next, but they always know what they are not going to say.

INTELLECTUAL BULLYING: This is when someone uses many factual or statistical “fragments” as necessary to overwhelm someone by casting themselves as the obvious foundation for which to make claims and speak of facts and truths. This tactic will extinguish any attempt to think or believe counter to this person’s view. Or, it serves to take away the chance for those that see this happening from countering it because of the alleged reliability of so many facts, figures and statistics (real or not). In other words, it can overwhelm the audience. And if everyone else agrees by virtue of not speaking up, it falls into the category of groupthink and the Abilene paradox.

LEMON-SEEDING: This is the over-arching way the artfully sly person can get out of being held accountable for their actions or behaviors. Like trying to pinch a lemon seed out of a wet glass, it is not easy. They have mastered these many techniques of redirection, projection, denial, and yes lies. They live inside the “white lies” and gray boundary because they can always recall the specific choice of relative words they used to technically say nothing definitive despite their purposeful intention to make you believe they were at the time. The closer someone gets to pinching the lemon seed the more irritated and angry the person will become. They will eventually detonate an “uncouth drama bomb” if they have to in order to evade having their lemon seed pinched. The best way to pinch a lemon seed is to think of one well-crafted question that you can ask that by simply asking it, the blood pressure rages inside of this individual. The nature of such a question is always based on pinpointing the ambiguities and relativity in their highly-crafted words as they are Broad-Brushing, using Understand-Exaggerate, Throttle-Loguing, etc. You are looking for directional power words and when you ask the lemon seed-pinching question, you do so from an inferior point of sincere interest to understand better. This actually irritates them even more than if the question were asked confrontationally.

To give you just one example of pinching the lemon seed:

They say: “That has been tried before and it failed. That is not what the market wants and everyone knows that.”

You ask: “Can you help me understand, for my own learning, exactly what was tried, by whom and how it was and the criteria for determining that it failed?

You ask: “When you say it is not what the market wants, can you give me the backstory for my own benefit who that was determined? Who did you meet with and what were the questions asked?

Both these questions will trigger one of the tactics described above. This example is written as a technical one so, it is expected that Intellectual-Bullying will be a likely response. This would likely be accompanied with Reason-Rifling, Throttle-Loguing, and Point-Shuffling. Their goal is to keep pushing further and further away from the specificity of these questions. If you stay on this track and keep asking these pointed clarification questions, the uncouth bomb will eventually detonate. At this point, you need no further proof that you are dealing with a highly potent toxic individual, characterized using your newfound toxicology training.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. My hope is that you not only learned something from it but have now the enthusiasm to do your part in raising the awareness of toxicity in the workplace.

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