Some people may disagree with me, but I believe we are all potential leaders. Whether or not it is in the job description, sooner or later we all find ourselves in a situation where we can – and do – influence others, even though we may be unconscious of it at the moment it occurs. It is often in the informal sense of leadership that we might do the most damage or, conversely, choose to do the most good. The following is the true case of ‘Superman’ vs. ‘Toxicman’.
Early in my career I joined what turned out to be a highly dysfunctional team. It was a new experience for me, and it completely threw me off. The work itself was largely enjoyable, interesting and rewarding. The official team leader appeared approachable and open to input. The people were skilled and knowledgeable, some extremely so. Yet, I dreaded our weekly team meetings almost from the outset and, within a short time, I also learned to dread any and all encounters with most team members. This team had succumbed to the influence of one overwhelmingly negative and confrontational person … ‘Toxicman’.
You have likely met a person like ‘Toxicman’. He enters the room with his permanent scowl of doom, and the energy and conversation drain away like a two dollar pint at happy hour. He always has a complaint about the way he is being treated by the organization. His work load is too great, leadership is incompetent, colleagues are sub-standard and none of the plans will ever work. Even in his absence, conversations are drawn to his latest negative antics. Toxicman is a walking dose of lethal poison and he seems bent on destruction.
In our case, there had apparently been numerous futile complaints over the years and now it seemed most people had accepted that the official leader was powerless in the face of such a viral force. But I noticed that one person on our team of 10, I’ll call him ‘Superman’, continued to interact in a meaningful way with Toxicman. I occasionally saw them share a laugh in the hall. They even shared an office (I imagined that would be a special hell). Superman managed to maintain a positive attitude and a good relationship with a very difficult individual. I had to ask him what was going on, and he shared these insights:
• Toxicman was gifted in his area of expertise, but not so generously endowed with patience. This was aggravated by a medical condition which he struggled to control and sometimes resulted in outbursts over the slightest thing. Armed with this knowledge and empathy, Superman made it clear to Toxicman that he wouldn’t engage in the outbursts. He’d engage only while Toxicman had his demons under control.
• Toxicman rarely felt listened to or otherwise validated by the team. Superman practiced enquiry and active listening so Toxicman felt heard and validated. Superman in fact managed to tap into Toxicman’s desire to contribute.
• Superman knew he couldn’t fight Toxicman and win. He took it on as a personal challenge to manage the only thing he could control: his own attitude. And he was winning 90% of the time.
• Superman made it his rule not to engage in negative conversations about Toxicman. He refused to be ‘carrier’. At most, he would acknowledge the challenge, and then attempt to bring things back to the positive.
I learned a lot from Superman that day. I adopted his strategies and, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up sharing an office with Toxicman for several pretty enjoyable years. I learned a lot from Toxicman, too. He really was a gifted expert. I wish I could report that Superman and I made everything right with the team. We didn’t. But I do believe we made things much better than they might have been.