—by Joshua Slocum, Executive Director
During my 16 years with FCA, many local FCA affiliate board members have called looking for help: “How do I serve with a colleague who creates problems and division?” These leaders are afraid. What if my colleagues think I’m a troublemaker? What if I’m the only one who thinks something is wrong? So-called “high-conflict toxic personalities” create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.
Dealing with toxic personalities in the workplace is a controversial topic that many would rather avoid. But we cannot avoid it. The federation of Funeral Consumers Alliance groups—70 today—is not immune to this problem. I have seen toxic leaders take down local FCA groups because no one would challenge them. These groups have folded, leaving the communities that they served without valuable FCA guidance, in addition to causing important membership data to be lost.
My hope for those of you reading this is that you will be empowered to recognize these problems and know that you are not “crazy.” Ignoring toxic personalities will not make them stop. Only you and your colleagues can draw a boundary and say “no” to destructive personalities in your organization.
What are toxic personalities?
Toxic personalities are often the byproduct of certain kinds of personality disorders. If you want to read further, look online for resources that describe “Cluster B personality disorders.” These are known as the “erratic” and “dramatic” personality disorders. Those with these conditions have ingrained behaviors and attitudes that are confrontational and controlling. The key trait all Cluster B personality disordered people share is narcissism.
Researchers variously estimate that between 3 and 10 percent of adults may have such personality disorders. It’s overwhelmingly likely that you have encountered such people at work, in your social circles, and perhaps your volunteer life.
You do not have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist to recognize abusive behavior, though. Nor do you need to put an official label on it. This is what really matters:
- Recognize abusive behavior; don’t ignore it or make excuses for it.
- Understand that people with these high-conflict, toxic personalities remain that way. They seldom change, and their fraught interactions with colleagues continue over time.
- Institute a zero-tolerance policy on abusive behavior in your FCA, and do your duty to remove volunteers or board members who abuse the organization or its supporters.
How do toxic personalities behave?
Here are some composite characters. Neither of these is a real person, but these composites are an accurate sketch of the kinds of behaviors that I’ve seen in local FCAs experiencing trouble and discord. Keep in mind that the “helping professions” attract a certain percentage of people who get satisfaction from being perceived as a savior. Not all toxic or narcissistic people are obvious; some wear the camouflage of a selfless martyr.
- Donny serves in Rotary, is a member of the Chamber of Commerce, mounts a toy drive for poor children at Christmas, and serves as the treasurer of the local FCA. When Janice joined the board, she asked for a copy of the organization’s financials for the past five years to get herself up to speed. Donny bristled at the request, and asked Janice if she were accusing him of financial impropriety. Stunned, Janice said that she only wanted to understand the group’s financial position so that she could make informed decisions. Donny flounced out of the meeting, and then sent an email to the entire board complaining that he’s not going to have his record of service besmirched by a newcomer.
- Martha founded her FCA and makes sure everyone knows it. She believes that it personally belongs to her, and feels no need to have a democratically elected board. She hand-picks passive people for board service. Every single member packet must go through her hands; only she can return calls from members asking for advice; and no one can see the mailing list except on her authorization. If she’s ever questioned about this behavior, she turns on the tears and pretends to be mortally wounded. How could anyone criticize her when she gives so much of herself? It works, and the board never draws any appropriate boundaries for fear of Martha’s reaction.
How to deal with toxic personalities
First, how will you know if you’re dealing with such a person? If you ever feel like you have to walk on eggshells around a person to avoid a confrontation, or if you feel like it’s better to keep your head down so your board colleague won’t notice you, you’re at least aware that you’re in a tense group dynamic.
First, give yourself a reality check: Remember that some good people simply don’t get along with each other, and that’s OK. It’s abusive behavior that is not OK. Does your colleague always seem to be in the midst of some grievance or drama for which they claim to have no responsibility? Is this a pattern of behavior you’ve noticed over time?
You’re probably dealing with a high-conflict toxic personality.
There is only one way to effectively deal with toxic leaders and volunteers, and that is to remove them from your organization. Remember that people with these traits are not “having a bad day.” They are displaying long-term personality characteristics that will continue to cause problems.
Talk to your peers on the board. Ask them whether they think your concerns are reasonable, and whether they’ve had similar concerns themselves. You may be surprised by how grateful they are that you started the conversation.
Here are some specific steps to take:
- Establish basic rules for civil, honest, and transparent conduct. Have them in writing as policy statements, and ask each board member to sign them. Outline what behaviors are not acceptable, and make sure that everyone understands that these rules apply equally to all who volunteer to serve.
- If you do not have term limits for board members written into your bylaws, you may have trouble getting this past a toxic leader. Not having term limits is a serious mistake. You should see this as a red flag (and it’s not usually an oversight, if you have a high-conflict toxic personality at the helm of the organization).
- Together with your board, put your concerns in writing—be sure to cite specific behaviors and incidents—and deliver this to the problematic board member. Ask him or her to respond in writing and share their views. We have a duty to be fair, to follow good professional practice, and to remember that we may be mistaken ourselves. Sometimes it may turn out to have been a terrible misunderstanding. But if it is not a misunderstanding, and the member deflects and accuses others unfairly, you have no choice but to ask for his or her resignation.
- Have a process in your bylaws for the removal of an abusive or incompetent board member. Consider how many board votes would be needed for such an action (simple majority, super-majority, etc.).
These are some of the hardest, most anxiety-provoking group dynamics that can be encountered in a work environment. If you’re feeling a knot in your stomach, it’s understandable. But you are the only ones who can draw a boundary and refuse to tolerate abusive and destructive behavior.
If you are in a situation like this, please feel free to call me. We can have a private discussion and strategize on how to approach the issue. FCA’s national board also has several very experienced affiliate leaders who would be happy to help you.
Further reading—You will find many prominent medical sites, such as the Mayo Clinic, have general, but dry and less informative articles listing the behaviors of personality disorders in clinical language. These sites are less helpful than those written from the point of view of loved ones and colleagues who have personality-disordered members and coworkers. I recommend these instead or in addition to:
FlyingMonkeysDenied.com—A site run by people affected by family and friends with Cluster B Personality Disorders. Numerous articles shed light on how these disorders affect those around the person, with practical scenarios that are easy to understand.
HighConflictInstitute.Com—A plain-spoken collection of scenarios, advice, and techniques for identifying high-conflict, personality-disordered coworkers and how to manage the situation. Note that I am not saying, “How to manage them.” You can’t. You need to accept that separation from your organization is the goal, not fruitless pandering to a toxic colleague. You will only drive away your healthy, productive colleagues.