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January 16 2014

Toxic Capital That Will Make or Break Your Company

“John, you can (help fix) bad employees, if they have the right spirit. 
You can even (help fix) bad customers, if they are ‘true believers.' 
About the only thing you cannot fix, is a bad manager. 
They are toxic, and they infect everything else around them."

Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO, Gallup

I remember this brilliant piece of business advice as if it were yesterday. Not only because it was spot on, but because I was dealing with precisely this same situation in my own organization, and at the exact time that Jim and I were having this discussion. 

According to Gallup 2011-2012 State of the Global Workplace research report, 24% percent of all employees are what Gallup calls 'disengaged workers.' Let me be clear. These people are actually dangerous. They don't like you, and not only are they actively scheming against your company, organization, unit or group, you are paying them to do it. 

Imagine someone sitting in your staff meeting, and as you excitedly outline your bold vision to your assembled team at your weekly staff meeting, this is a person sitting somewhere in the corner of the room, writing the following on a tablet as you are speaking --- "this crap...will never happen!" It's bad enough that workplaces have an average of 24% of these employees, but if they also happen to be a manager, forget about it. You and your organization are in deep trouble. They will infect everything. Or at least try. 

And then you have something Gallup terms 'non-engaged workers.' They account for 64% of all workers. That's right, 64%. These are not bad people. They may even be good people. They are just not passionate about you, and your company or group. It's fair to say that they are most likely emotionally disconnected from their workplace.

While everyone else is running around talking about how to achieve this objective or that one, they are on the phone with a friend, or talking to that same friend on Facebook. Or maybe they are just daydreaming about their crocheting project at home, or their grandchildren in another state. Again, these are not bad thoughts, they are just not about their workload and the organization paying them.

Quoting again from the Gallup Reportthe vast majority of employed people around the globe are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.

They come to work on time all right, and they don't leave before the bell rings. They dutifully do their assigned job or task. Basically, you have no real complaints about them. The only challenge is that they are not dreaming about your company's dreams, or even their department's dreams. It's all good though. If they are answering the telephone, or working in the mail room, or providing basic administrative support, this might be totally fine. They are basically doing what you paid them to do. I am not saying this is acceptable, I am just saying it's not the kiss of death for the organization. 

You can make it your mission in life to move some of this 64% of non-engaged workers to the engaged worker category. Great. Good for you. I will do the same within my organization. But the actively disengaged workers, they can kill everything, and destroy the best of business plans and well laid strategic dreams. 

As in Gallup’s 2009-2010 global study of employee engagement, "actively disengaged workers — i.e., those who are negative and potentially hostile to their organizations — continue to out number engaged employees at a rate of nearly 2-1."

I actually experienced an example of this toxic (human) capital that could make or break your company. She came to me highly recommended, and I soon placed her in a position of some key management authority, based solely on her credentials, and on who introduced her. I should have looked further. I should have paid more attention to her attitude toward me and the organization I love so much, and not just what I thought she could do for us. 

It didn't take long for her to make her mark. Within 6 months I found extremely competent and straight forward workers on my team literally patching around her, trying to actively avoid her. But they couldn't. She held the key to important functions within the organization. Before long, she had started her own eye-rolling, "isn't this ridiculous" club, within a unit of the organization. Those individuals who are already non-engaged are easy to sway, unfortunately. 

But the final straw was when I picked up a whiff of fear from members of my team. That was it. Some of my key leaders were now convinced, strangely, that they had to play ball with this negative person, in order to keep the momentum ball rolling. They may have even been hesitant to comment because I had hired her personally. Whatever the reason, they had convinced themselves that they could not actually do without her. People in the Fear-Based Leadership business are brilliant at this by the way; convincing otherwise sane people, that they have more authority, usefulness, even need, than they actually do. 

And so, I earned my paycheck on the day I did this: I personally made the decision to fire her. I am convinced I also did her a favor. She was miserable, and she was making everyone else miserable too. By releasing her of this trauma of working at our organization, we were releasing her to go and find her unique gifts and passions in this life, elsewhere. 

I don't know what happened to her (though I and we wish her well), but I know this for sure – our organization is on a growth and prosperity streak like no time I have ever seen. And our people are now of one accord. Momentum!

Remember, leaders are required to make decisions, and leadership requires you often to make tough ones. And when you do – when you marshall the courage to do the right thing, often acting alone, you will see a reaction which makes you feel great about the action.

Rainbows, after storms. You cannot have a rainbow, without a storm first. 

Let's go. 

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing).

Photo: Joe Belanger/