Toxic Tornadoes: Poisonous People Preparedness

It’s tornado season. Just as storms brew up in uncertain weather and leave destruction in their wake, the aftermath of a toxic attack from a colleague can devastate even the most centered leader. My coaching clients have reported a surge of passive-aggressive and out-right nasty behavior recently—prompting this spring coaching column. That knife in the gut or stab in the back can be painful–but re-framing and understanding their behavior can help you become more proactive, with steps to heal after the attack and prepare to avoid the next.  After all, these colleagues would not have attacked you if you weren’t the strong leader that you are; it just wouldn’t be any fun for them!

1.  Know why people act mean.  As Richard Rohr says, “You can take it as a general rule: If you don’t transform your pain you will always transmit it.” Attacks come from a wound within that person.  When you are targeted by someone’s venom, active responses as outlined below will help relieve yourself of the poison. Don’t relive or perseverate on nastiness.  Don’t let this person’s toxicity control you or sap your confidence.

2.  From an attitude of curiosity, reflect on what might have precipitated this instance of toxic behavior?

  • If the person is a kind individual that normally does not “have a nasty bone in their body”(I’m channeling my mother here), then it is reasonable for the leader to ask them the coaching question privately “What is going on right now that would have caused this situation to occur or for you to say what you did?”
  • If this individual is normally nasty because of their own issues and they treat everyone this way, then you can choose one of several options. Please note: If you do not address the behavior, lack of follow up makes you an easy target for the next tornado.
  • Make them aware their behavior and ask for them to change their manner of communication.
  • Send them to the Employee Assistance Program or recommend a therapist.
  • Fire them if their nasty communication is an established pattern. Research indicates that toxic behavior affects the team’s ability to communicate and contributes to errors while undermining patient safety.
  • If you are not able to urge this person toward new job horizons due to their place in the organizational chart, then think about ways to avoid them. You have better things to do than deal with toxic energy.

3.  If you as a leader advocated for what you believed was best for patients and for your community—and your behavior thwarted a toxic person or their goals, good for you! Call out their behavior privately“I understand that it was difficult for you and your department that ____ and also I did this for our shared goals. We all look good as a team if our community health improves.”

4.  Perhaps something you said made a colleague lose face and your nicer twin might have avoided a public thrashing. If so, apologize that you made “X statement” that would have been better said in private.

Most of us have buried woundedness that can escape with certain triggers.  With that in mind, do your best to resolve an attack with the steps above, and then let it go.

For additional leadership coaching contact Ruth Hansten RN MBA PhD FACHE at 360.437.8060 or  Follow Ruth at @Rhansten on twitter, and visit our website at or

This Blog entry  was first posted on LinkedIn Pulse on May 29,2015.

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