toxic peopleLeadership would be so much easier, the saying goes, if it wasn’t for people.

And topping off the list of difficult people to work with or lead is toxic people.

The hard part is, as much as we might wish it was otherwise, toxic people are everywhere.

Two questions spring up almost immediately when the subject of toxic people arises.

How do you spot them?

How do you deal with them?

It’s critical in leadership to think through the people aspect of what you do. I know it’s easy for visionaries to think success lies in ideas, or operations people to believe that progress lies in execution, but the key to getting anything done is always people.

What you accomplish in leadership is often most powerfully shaped by you allow into leadership. If you let toxic people in, you pay a staggering price.

My guess is not everyone will like the direction or language in this post. I get that.

However, every day gifted leaders quit toxic cultures, toxic bosses and leave toxic workplaces. Every single day, amazing businesses, churches, causes, and not-for-profits miss their mission because someone allowed toxic leaders to sabotage the work.

And every day, good people go home discouraged and defeated because nobody had the guts to deal with the toxic people at work. If you don’t think our culture suffers from toxicity (and even evil), just read the headlines or scroll your feeds for a few minutes. Yep. We do.

So with all that in mind, here are 7 insights that have helped me immensely in figuring out how to spot and then how to deal with toxic people.

1. Understand that basically there are three kinds of people

It probably seems too simple to divide the world into three kinds of people, but try as he might to avoid it, clinical psychologist and best-selling author Henry Cloud helpfully points out in his book, Necessary Endings that there are essentially three kinds of people in life and leadership.

Wise People

Foolish People

Evil People

Essentially the difference between wise people and foolish people comes down to how they deal with truth.

Wise people encounter truth and change as a result. For example, after getting a speeding ticket, wise people learn and slow down. After being told their words hurt someone, a wise person will try to understand why, apologize and work hard not to do it again. They’re open, not defensive, they learn and grow and tend not to make the mistakes over and over again.

Foolish people encounter truth and don’t change. Instead, they try to adjust the truth so they don’t have to adjust to it. Confronted with a problem, a foolish person will deny, blame, minimize, generate excuses and do anything in his or her power to avoid having to deal with reality.

They don’t learn and rarely grow. As Cloud’s frequent collaborator John Townsend puts it, foolish people have a flat learning curve. As a result, they tend to wreak a lot of havoc and cause damage in their own lives and the lives of others.

Foolish behaviour means some broke people will always be broke, some chronic procrastinators will always be late and some people keep running into the same problems again and again. They may mean well, but they’re lack of learning means they keep making things hard for themselves and others.

Finally, as hard as it is to admit, some people really are evil. They intend to harm you. They want to take you down. And as hard as it is to believe, they don’t have your best interests at heart and want to see you fail. I found it hard to accept this early on in leadership, but I’ve seen it often enough times to no longer dismiss it.

There are basically three kinds of people in the world: wise people, foolish people and evil people. The sooner you accept that, the easier it becomes to make progress.

So what do you do with this stark (and unpleasant) truth?

2. Realize That Some People Won’t Change

At some point in our lives, all of us behave wisely, foolishly and with evil intent.

I know I’ve spoken words that I intended to hurt, and when I do that, I’m acting in an evil or toxic way. And sometimes I make the same mistake over and over again, and when I do, that’s foolish.

People who are generally wise sometimes do foolish things and mean things.

The good news with Cloud’s categories is that people do change with time and grow.

Evil people may have a change of heart and start helping not hurting, and when they do that, they can even become wise. Foolish people sometimes realize how much damage they do and decide to learn and grow.

But overall, most of us would have to admit that human beings fall into one of those three categories at any moment in life: you’re either generally wise, foolish or evil in your approach to life.

And that means, as much as you want to believe otherwise, and despite your coaching and encouragement, fools often remain fools and evil people remain committed to harming others.

Yep. I know. It sounds so judgmental and terrible and I resisted it for a long time too— resisted it to my peril and to the peril of the people I lead, may I add.

Henry Cloud admits it’s a tough pill to swallow:

“If you are a responsible and loving person, then you might assume that other people are like you—responsible and loving. They do the right thing, taking responsibility for themselves, for their mistakes, for their work. And they care about other people and how their actions affect those people…So doesn’t it make sense that everyone else would be like you and really care? 

Sure, if you lived on Mars. But this is planet Earth. And if you are going to succeed in life and business, you need to succeed on this planet, not Mars.” (Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings)

Just because someone can change doesn’t mean someone will change. That’s where your leadership and discernment come in.

So what’s next? You learn how to spot toxic people.

3. Learn How to Spot Toxic People

I’m increasingly convinced one of a leader’s key tasks is to learn how to spot toxic people and take appropriate action.

In my view, both foolish people and evil people are toxic to your culture and mission.

Fools pollute things not because they’re trying to ruin things, but because they (for whatever reason) do tend to do it again and again.

Foolish leaders keep repeating their mistakes because they’re either convinced they’re right or oblivious to the fact that they’re wrong, regardless of the fact that others have pointed that out.

And evil people, well they meant to lie, harm and malign.

So how do you recognize the signs?

A few years ago I wrote a post outlining 6 early warning signs you’re dealing with a toxic person. You can read that post here.

I’m going to add a few more to the list I didn’t cover in that post. See if any resonate.

Behavior that’s ultimately toxic to your organization’s culture and mission include:

  • Making the same mistakes over and over again, despite frequent attempts to help them and ample time to correct the problem and change.
  • Self-absorption.
  • Lying.
  • Manipulation.
  • An unwillingness to listen to feedback.
  • Assigning blame.
  • Refusing to accept responsibility.
  • They’re never wrong.
  • Playing the victim.
  • Frequent anger.
  • Hidden agendas.
  • A critical spirit about anything they didn’t think of.
  • Gossip or malicious talk about other people.
  • Ignoring boundaries they or other people have set.
  • Passive-aggressive behavior (what happens to your face and what happens behind your back are very different).
  • Pursuing their own mission that’s different from the organization’s mission.

The list could be much longer, but this gives you a sampling of toxic behaviors that take people and missions under.

Naturally, we all exhibit some of the behavior listed above some of the time (we’re all human), but the wise realize what they did, correct course, change and grow.

If you allow toxic people into leadership, you can be sure a toxic culture will follow.

4. Take a Good Look in the Mirror

The first place to look for wisdom, foolishness, and evil in leadership is the least comfortable place to look: in the mirror.

I’ve been in senior leadership for over two decades. As much as I don’t want to admit it, it’s still true: my organization will only ever be as healthy as I am.

Ditto for you. Fight it all you want, but your organization will only ever be as healthy as you are as the leader.

Even if you’re not the senior leader, that’s true of the team you lead, the department you run, or the crew you manage. The health of the leader tends to determine the health of the team.

It’s hard to have a healthy organization if you don’t have a healthy leader.

So when you see foolish behavior or bad intentions inside you,  confess them and address them. Invite other people to give you feedback. Learn and grow.

Healthy leaders produce healthy teams. Unhealthy leaders don’t.

5. Limit Fools

So what do you do with foolish people?

Well, here’s the problem with foolish people at work: You only have so many hours in the day and so much energy. The problem with pouring your time and energy into foolish leaders is that after your coaching and help, they’re no better and you’re drained.

What’s worse, is their repeated mistakes impact everybody around them and threaten the organization.

Does that mean you’ll have no fools at work? No. First, there’s an abundance of foolish people and behaviors. And second, I’m not sure that completely eliminating all fools from your life is a good idea. We should all have at least a small place in our life and leadership for building into others, even if sometimes that takes a little more grace and lot more time than we’d like.

What that does mean, though,  is that because your time is limited, you should limit your time with fools and be really careful who you hire and recruit.

The key to fools is to limit the number and limit their impact. Otherwise, the cost is simply too great. Whether they mean to do damage or not, foolish people can do a lot of damage.

It’s hard to build the future on people who have trouble navigating the present.

6. Eliminate Evil People

When it comes to evil people…people who want to wound, maim and undo you or your organization, there’s only once option: block those attempts. Get away and stay away.

Looking back on my leadership, I realize there were seasons where—for whatever reason—people wanted to take me out or take down our mission. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. Clear boundaries, firm decisions and consistent ‘no’s’ that block any attempts they make to undermine the mission are critical.

When it gets that serious, I always involve other leaders I trust to make sure that we really dealing with someone who intends to harm and that the boundaries we put in place make sense. On rare occasions, those boundaries have included the police.

And while my faith tells me to love my enemies, there are some instances where a person is best prayed for from a distance, not from up close.

Imagine reaching 100—or 1000 or 10,000 new people—in the next year if your mission continues. That’s what people who want to harm you threaten.

Taking the mission seriously means that, as a leader, you also have to take evil seriously. It’s actually that important.

7. Stack the Top of Your Organization With Wise People

You know how to get the healthiest team and how to best move the mission forward? Stack the top of your organization with as many wise people as you can find.

The top is critical (by that I mean your senior leaders, board and other key players) with as many wise leaders as possible. Look for honest, humble, growing leaders who love to learn and are open for feedback.

Teachability is a much greater ingredient in wisdom than IQ is. A humble, hungry, teachable leader will beat a smart leader any day. (Surprisingly, there are a lot of intelligent fools.)

Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do based on the points already covered, and a regular vigilance that you need to maintain in keeping threats at bay, but the secret is once you do that and stack the top of your organization with wise people, a natural buffer gets created.

Eventually, a multiplicity of wise leaders will help you create a healthy culture.

Here’s the truth about culture.

Create a deeply healthy culture and, over time, toxic people will leave. 

Why? Because a healthy culture spits out toxic people. Just like healthy bodies ward off disease, healthy cultures ward off toxic people.

Here’s the surprise. No one gets kicked out. When your culture is ultra-healthy, toxic people leave when they can’t get traction or validation.

Your long term investment and vigilance finally pay off in ways you never expected.

What Are You Learning? 

I realize this approach probably seems tough, but tough beats the malaise and toxins that run through so many organizations these days.

So…what are you learning about toxic people and a healthy workplace?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Deal With Toxic People (7 Pro Tips)

28 Comments

  1. Keith Harcombe on January 15, 2021 at 9:23 am

    Excellent. New job. New church. New position to stack my senior team.
    I am saving this one. Thanks Carey.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 15, 2021 at 4:54 pm

      Great!

  2. Jeremy Van Langenberg on January 10, 2021 at 5:15 pm

    As with others I appreciate that you tackled a hard topic. Some toxic people I had to deal with probably didn’t know they were i.e. they didn’t set out to sabotage the church, but it might have happened if they wern’t confronted. They eventually left.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 11, 2021 at 3:58 pm

      Sadly, that seems to be all-to-common. 🙁

      • Linda on March 22, 2021 at 4:40 pm

        Im not sure it’s always so black and white.
        I had a new boss that continually found fault in what I was doing. I was accused of things that were not true and was given no recourse, if I said anything I was being defensive. If I said anything to her or my next level boss I was not heard and I was the problem noone else.
        My boss was also caring and had a kind heart
        I had always been someone who acknowledged my mistakes and grew from them.
        Because of this person, my mental heath went down hill. I left that job because I could no longer cope with my best not being good enough.
        We are all foolish in some way at some time and make decisions and act out of the hurts of our past.
        I did not see her as evil or toxic , she did not see me that way.
        We had two different styles of leadership and in our brokenness we both made mistakes.
        Sometimes God allows things or people in our lives to teach us something, and sometimes things happen to push us put of our comfort zone.
        I had to leave, she stayed.

  3. Les Hirst on January 10, 2021 at 12:22 pm

    The Allure of Toxic Leaders by Jean Lipman-Blumen is well worth reading when the subject of toxic leaders comes to the front.

  4. gary whittaker on January 10, 2021 at 9:50 am

    Thank you, right on. And I have to realize that I have been all three in the past. And others and myself have paid a price for evil and foolish acts. God is so good,and continues to purge my heart toward purity. Not there yet, it’s ongoing.

  5. Mrs. Valerie Hayward. on December 2, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Its staggeringly tragic that this is so. None of us should be toxic if we are Holy Spirit filled Christian’s.
    What about 2Corintians 3: 16 – 18. Christ Jesus our Saviour is not mentioned here much though.
    Psychology was mentioned in 6 warnings to spot a toxic person. But psychology is a pseudo science and the Book of Proverbs is God’s psychology Book!
    I left a church with a toxic leader as it became intolerable. Only I, left, because I was married to a toxic atheist fro 30 years, SO I recognised the manipulation etc.
    The other name for this, is a narcissist. (A gas lighting narcissist is evil)
    I copied the former article down word for word though which you posted. All of us can see some of these traits within us – BUT in a living relationship with my Saviour I know Roman’s 6: 1 to 14 happened and I pray Lord, to rid me if such traits; knowing that there us no righteousness in me at all – apart from my Saviour. THAT’S why He gave His life for us, so we could be born again as He says in John chapter 3.
    I’ll never be a leader. I’m a 70 year old lady. I HAVE found a good church and I pray to God nothing in me will ever jeopardise that with them or any other very, very precious, humble anointed Christian’s that God is trusting me to gave Fellowship with. l Thank you for pointing all this out. God has used it.
    I pray your organisation bears fruit in keeping with repentance, in the power of God rather than from even the best human wisdom!
    Not by might; not by power but by My Spirit says the LORD.
    GOD bless you, love in Jesus, who is Lord.
    from Valerie.

  6. Munatsireyi Mlambo on October 21, 2019 at 7:58 am

    Powerful post indeed

  7. Blessed on October 8, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    This is a very insightful article, thank you! Our senior pastor of a medium sized church was asked to step down after many complaints from staff. 76 people left in the 10 years he had been the leader of the church and it took 3 people resigning on the same day for the elders to do something about it. It saddens me that this should have been picked up years ago but the the senior pastor had at least 3 “best friends” on the eldership. We need to be careful who is allowed to govern churches. The board/eldership reported to the senior pastor where I think it should have been the other way round. About one year one with a new senior pastor and our church is flourishing. The staff are happy, the SP encourages, builds up and manages them so well.

  8. shiapengdd on October 7, 2019 at 10:08 pm

    Good article

  9. Jeremy Joseph Zach on October 7, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    Outstanding post and I love how much you go after hard hitting topics within leadership.

    Here’s where I am a little unsure — Cloud’s 3 groupings of people — Evil, Wise, and Foolish. I have seen, read and studied leaders who exhited all the attributes of being wise, foolish and evil. To me Cloud’s definition is too simplified to a complex problem. Books like PsychoPath Free and Becoming Narrasstic Nightmare argue that toxic people are brillant and charm and know how to gaslight the best of the best. And they argue that the most toxic leaders work or are very present in the nonprofit sector.

    Not until you have been bitten by a toxic leader you will not know or understand how to deal with them. Education on personality disorder will enlighten the why and hows to the behaviors, mindset and games toxic leaders will play.

    When you get bitten and attacked by toxic people, you will know how to deal with them and apply the antibiotics to keep your sanity.

  10. Darrell Adcock on October 7, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    Great post, Carey! You said, “No one gets kicked out. When your culture is ultra-healthy, toxic people leave when they can’t get traction or validation.”

    I think the inverse is also true: When the culture is toxic, healthy people leave when they can’t get traction or validation.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 8, 2019 at 8:59 am

      Hi Darrell,

      I totally agree! Healthy people leave toxic cultures all the time.

      Cheering for you!

  11. Edward Otieno on October 7, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Great piece, i like this very much. Thank you .

  12. Blake on October 7, 2019 at 11:26 am

    Thanks for the post. I want to affirm what you said about a healthy culture repels toxic people. I have had to deal with some as well and have never had to ask anyone to leave because they left once they realized they had no foothold. Perhaps there are times when asking people to leave is necessary but I have not experienced and hope that I never do.
    Pressing on in The Mission!

  13. Eric Sun on October 7, 2019 at 11:24 am

    I’ve seen that list of toxic behaviour in Church leaders.
    What do you do then, as a congregant?

    • Dave on October 7, 2019 at 2:01 pm

      Eric, I think the best thing you can do is leave. Ultimately those leaders are responsible to God. I wouldn’t make attempts to get them removed, just walk away. Depending on how long you’ve been there and how ingrained you are in community, I know that can be very painful. But it’s not going to do you or your family any good to stay under toxic leadership.

      I’d simply notify a staff member via email that you are finding a new church and leave it at that. If others ask why, share, but I wouldn’t discuss it unless you’re asked. The book A Tale of Three Kings has helped give me a great perspective on this topic.

      • Greg Dueker on January 10, 2021 at 4:45 pm

        Dave,
        I agree that A Tale of Three Kings is a must-read for those we place in positions of leadership. We all do well to examine our hearts for the three elements revealed in how we respond to criticism, threats, and opportunities. I like to add Christ as the 4th King. And while leaving may eventually be necessary, we are generally too quick to do so. Rather I would want to be a humble agent of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5) until the Lord makes it clear that I should leave.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 7, 2019 at 2:05 pm

      Honestly, that’s a hard one. I suppose if things don’t change, you may want to look for a healthier context.

      • Eric Sun on October 7, 2019 at 10:14 pm

        Thanks, Carey and Dave, for your answers!

  14. Leah on October 7, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Thank you so much for this very insightful post. My husband and I have just come to a new church (he is Lead Pastor) about a year and a half ago. Only 2 weeks after arrival about 50 people left the church (about 1/3 of the congregation) and as we are getting to know the people we are seeing signs of toxic culture in leadership and trickling throughout the congregation. For the most part, though, most people don’t have any clue what happened and why so many people left the church. We are on a path to healing now and we are seeing great changes from once toxic leaders. There is still a long ways to go. The struggle sometimes is what to do when we see the signs of toxicity. Do we just ask them to leave and move on or pour into them a new spirit and let God do His work? The answer is unfortunately not so black or white. Also, it seems like every week there is a new staff issue that we are navigating which can be draining emotionally and spiritually. We pray every day that God will give us wisdom to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” Micah 6:8.

    Thank you for this post and for the wisdom you bring to helping each of us navigate the hard work of ministry.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 7, 2019 at 2:06 pm

      Oh that sounds hard. I think one of the best things you can do is to stay healthy and invite as many wise people to join you in leadership as you can. Healthy at the top means healthy at the bottom in the long run.

  15. Adam Kemper on October 7, 2019 at 10:25 am

    I appreciate the language you used to describe each type of person. It fits with my experience in ministry. The practical advice was also helpful because it’s easy to get caught up in helping others who seem to always have problems without making any progress. Thanks!!

  16. Daniel Decker on October 7, 2019 at 9:21 am

    Always on point! Great post. Thanks for your insights, transparency and “wisdom.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 7, 2019 at 9:54 am

      Thanks Daniel. Still learning and growing.

  17. Larry on October 7, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Thankyou for the greatly informative article,and God bless you richly for all your hard work

  18. CarlaAnne on October 7, 2019 at 6:50 am

    Excellently covered topic. I’ve worked with toxic leaders. And it’s a veritable hell-on-earth. And very crazy-making. They accuse others of the very toxic actions they are doing! It’s especially damaging when those leaders call themselves Christians. Thank you for a great post.

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