Right out of the gate, let me confess that I have historically given people the benefit of the doubt long after there’s little doubt left about their deceit, greed, immaturity, or alienating.
I have allowed an unhealthy situation to persist after most people would’ve dumped, fired, or quit; because I was afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or wanted to avoid the hard work of change. The results of dithering like this are never good. It has created a lot of hurt, a lot of confusion, disappointing results, and unnecessary stress.
But I still want to make the case that there are reasons to stay.
More specifically, there are solid reasons to stay with a friend, employee, team, or company that seem “toxic”. I want to argue that, by too quickly cutting out “toxicity”, we may be missing out on healthy intimacy, profitability, and our own personal development.
We may be missing out on healthy intimacy, profitability, and our own personal development.
The word "toxic" literally means "poisonous" or "very harmful in a pervasive or insidious way".
"Toxic” can be an accurate way to describe a culture.
“I grew up in a toxic family.”
“I had to leave. It was such a toxic work environment.”
“I can’t be around church. It’s toxic.”
But it’s also a term used to describe people.
“I recently got out of a toxic relationship.”
“I wish someone would confront my toxic boss.”
“I can’t hang out with her any more. She’s just so toxic.”
And, at least once, it was used to describe the effects of a kiss [Thank you, Britney].
Generally, we say someone is "toxic" when their motives and actions erode trust, malign people, divide groups, abuse, or negatively influence in a chronic way.
However, in my experience, we can be too quick to slap the label of “toxic” on a culture or person when what we’re really encountering is something more like “challenging”, “difficult”, or momentarily “hurtful”. I don’t blame you for wanting to have less of that in your life, but overreacting may create even more damage.
Overreacting may create even more damage.
Don't end things prematurely.
I argue that we can sometimes end a relationship or leave a situation because we’ve encountered toxic choices, and concluded we were dealing with a toxic person. In other words, we’ve encountered harm and assumed the entire situation was inoperable.
So, how can you tell if you’re facing some toxic choices or an entirely toxic person?
First of all, it’s almost never the case that a person is toxic simply because they disagree with you.
Secondly, I believe (and I can be wrong about this) that most people we label "toxic" are not perpetually poisonous. I think a truly toxic person is rare—dangerous—but rare.
But I can understand if you want to err on the side of caution. It’s difficult to know if you’re dealing with a momentary or pervasive issue. You certainly don’t want to allow someone insidious to stay in the mix any longer than necessary. There’s too much at stake.
But you also don‘t want to reject or remove someone meaningful from your life if it’s not necessary.
So, it may be helpful to briefly contrast toxic choices with toxic people.
Toxic Choices vs a Toxic Person
At the outset, let's admit that we all make toxic choices from time to time. It's a symptom of our humanity. We all make decisions that have the potential to tear down, mislead, and divide. We have all behaved in ways that we regret. We were all less mature than we are now and learned some lessons the hard way.
But here are 3 ways to identify the difference between a person who is making toxic choices and a persistently toxic person:
Toxic choices are anomalies. They are nearly unprecedented in light of a person's historical behavior. A toxic person has created a pattern of unhelpful behavior over time. But, even here, I would caution that patterns can be changed. That's called maturing. You don't have to commit to being the person that helps with it, but I don't believe any one is irredeemable.
Toxic choices are clearly reactive. A person may be temporarily cranky or "spinning out" due to new responsibilities and stress. There may be issues going on outside of work. There could be a new love interest and the person is contorting themselves to gain attention. A toxic person is proactively, intentionally (and, again, over time) sabotaging, discouraging, stealing, undermining, or gossiping to get something they want.
Toxic choices cause people to hide instead of fight. These choices are embarrassing, so it's understandable (though not productive) for people to try to cover them up and hope time heals. However, when it comes to light, there's at least some degree of ownership and willingness to clean up the mess. A toxic person will also often hide behavior, but is unwilling to accept responsibility or submit to any restoration when confronted.
Get rid of poison. Keep opportunity.
There may be more criteria that would help you know if you're dealing with some unproductive behaviors or a truly damaging person. Regardless, here are some choices you could make to address it:
Start with curiosity. Use the comparisons above to find out if the undesirable behaviors stems from something reactive and rare or not. Ask what's going on in their personal lives (to the degree it's appropriate in your context). Make it as easy as possible for them to be honest without fear.
Prioritize reconciliation and growth. Regardless of your assessment, give the individual clear ways they can make things right and benchmarks of growth you'd wish to see. They might not do any of it, but at least the terms of restoration are clear. Start with the offer for another chance. I'm sure you're glad you've been given a few of them.
In the rare event that you're dealing with a bona fide toxic person (as far as you can tell), then it's important to act quickly. Too much hangs in the balance including the effectiveness of your team, your future, and your mental health.
Finally, if you still want to think about it more thoroughly, I encourage you to read my post about when to give up hope.