Toxic People

I believe that the community has yet to open the topic of “toxic people” sufficiently. Only a few people (among them Martin Fowler) have touched this topic, but even he only scratched the surface. We need to go deeper. Hold my hand, this might get scary…

What is toxicity?

I’d define toxicity (at workplace) simply to be manipulative, impolite or abusive behaviour. So it’s much more severe situation than someone just having a bad day.

For the sake of simplicity, I’d categorise toxic people in two groups: “hurt” or “sick”. If a toxic person is “hurt” they are projecting some old disappointment into the current reality – for example bullies acting out insecurity. This is one healable. However, if they are “sick”, then we are dealing with a disorder, for example narcissism, which is not healable. The common denominator with all toxics is passive-aggressivity.


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People on the receiving end of toxicity suffer in multiple ways. A short exposure to toxicity typically leads other people to feel uncomfortable, hurt and/or self-doubt their own actions or skills. A prolonged exposure typically leads to people actively avoid being in contact with the toxic person.


Some people are more resistant to toxicity, and some have very little tolerance for it. Personal histories and their triggers play a big role here.

Toxicity as an Organisational Dysfunction

Being job interviewed, I often ask “Do you have toxic people in your organisation?”. I can think of only one interview, where the studio head could honestly reflect on their organisation’s dark side. Typically interviewers (team leads, department heads) meander and reveal a mere minimal knowledge on the topic: “Well, those types don’t tend to stay here very long…”. This is a bad answer, because it reveals a passive approach towards people. The expression “not very long” can mean anything from a few months to several years. I think it’s evil to force people work with toxic people at all!

Forcing workers to put up with a toxic colleague/manager is just evil.

The more personal and theoretical experience I’ve gained about toxic people, the more convinced I’ve become that toxicity is an unspoken agile dysfunction – comparable in its destructive power with not having a source repository, build server, or testers!

There are two main consequences from toxic people: attrition and quality.

Firstly, if a company allows toxic people, the sane ones will leave and the remaining ones will be depleted of energy. Some employees can feel this waiting period such a torture, that they decide to leave whilst organization is waiting for the toxic person to leave. In one organization, I witnessed 5 ppl leaving (and 5 more considering leaving) at least partially because of a toxic person – and yet in the end the company CEO could not accept that they have any personnel problems. Amen, and good luck.

Secondly, the presence of toxic people affects collaboration and organization’s ability self-reflect and improve – this by design affects quality negatively.

Agile teams should have a #NoAssholesPolicy.

It doesn’t matter if agile implementation is technically perfect, with DevOps and all, if people don’t feel good. If people don’t feel safe, they won’t stay nor commit, hence the negative impact to attrition and quality. Agile does not work if a-holes are allowed. That’s the price an organisation pays for allowing toxics: agile won’t work!

Patterns of Toxicity

A few repeating patterns of toxicity exist. The important one is the notorious toxic-enabler -dynamic. It’s identical to alcoholic-enabler -dynamic. Every alcoholic has at least one enabler (typically the partner), who by silently accepting the behaviour (lies, broken promises, threats…) enables the drinking. It’s exactly the same with workplace toxics, they have their enablers in place so that the status quo can continue.

In workplace, for each toxic person, there always is at least one enabler – someone who silently accepts someone vomiting on others and everything.

For further patterns, please refer to the diagram underneath:

Scrum Master enables a Toxic Developer
Here everybody in an agile team sees the toxic behaviour, but the Scrum Master doesn’t escalate it. The team will experience increasing difficulties in releasing high quality software, attrition rate might rise.

CEO enables a Toxic Developer
Here everybody within and upwards from an agile team sees the toxic behaviour, except the CEO, who rationalises it away, thus enables the suffering of everybody underneath him (in this org branch). In this pattern, a secret (unspoken) dependency exists between the CEO and the toxic dev. This branch of organisation will eventually grind to a halt, productivity goes down and attrition rate will go up.

CEO enables a Toxic Middle Manager
A variation of the previous, same dynamic, same secret dependency, same prognosis.

Everybody enables a Toxic Culture
The CEO is the toxic one and everybody keeps up the facade for him. This is basically the current White House scenario, where the whole culture has collapsed, everything is based on lies and conflict & drama are the norm.


So, there you have it. Please comment, please share if you find this interesting. Hopefully this evokes some discussion, I think this is an important topic.


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