The following is a contributor blog from CDR Certified Coach, Dr. Mira Brancu. Dr. Brancu is the founder and CEO of Brancu & Associates, a women’s leadership development and organizational consulting company. She currently serves in several academic leadership capacities for the Department of Veterans Affairs and is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University. Dr. Brancu has over 20 years of experience in clinical psychological interventions, management, leadership, and operational and organizational effectiveness. Thank you, Mira, for your unique insight into this topic! 

You know how a toxic employee can drag down the whole team (and sometimes beyond)? Sometimes, that means you, the leader, as well. But as the leader, you have a responsibility to serve as a role model and safe haven for your team: to protect them and yourself.

The good news is that there are ways you can do that.

One of these ways is through your own self-awareness: you need to know where you stop and someone else starts.

In other words, when you have a clear understanding of your own strengths, weaknesses, and risk factors for adding to the problem, you will know why a problematic interaction is happening and what options you have to intervene. Are the one making it worse? Or is this really about the other person and has very little to do with your management of the situation?

What character traits and risk factors could make a situation worse?

We’ve all experienced those bad conversations where we somehow tried to fix it but only made it worse. Sometimes we know exactly how we contributed, other times we leave a bit bewildered.

The more we take the time to analyze these patterns and understand them, the better we can be at conflict resolution. This skill is especially important as a leader.

Below are some traits, pulled out from the CDR-3D assessment, that could make a conflict worse.

  • Pleaser – On the CDR-3D, this is one of the Risk Factors. Having a desire to please others isn’t always a bad thing, but with certain people, it can lead to unhealthy patterns of being taken advantage by people who want to take away your power.
  • Uneven temper  – On the CDR-3D, this is one of the Character Traits. Wearing your heart on your sleeve can help others understand quickly how you feel instead of having to interpret; however, it also holds you back from keeping your cool which could be used against you.
  • Recognition – On the CDR-3D, this is one of the Drivers and Rewards. Everyone is driven by different types of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that keep them motivated. Like other characteristics, though, you always have to worry about too much of a good thing. In this case, when you become too concerned with how others might view you, you may be giving away too much of your power to someone else.

I bet just from these three examples, you are starting to see some patterns. Toxic people often enjoy taking power away from leaders. And traits like the above may make it easier for to do so.

Here is a great article on toxic behavior for those who may not be sure if they are dealing with it.

However even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of being “toxic,” unhealthy work relationships can still cause a significant drain on personal resources. And a drain on personal resources can affect even those of us with the best coping mechanisms.

How to apply self-awareness to managing toxic employees

Knowing these things about yourself can help you identify when you are getting entangled in bad patterns that make you feel frustrated, angry, and less than your ideal self as a manager.

Once you identify these patterns, the next step is to make a plan and practice applying new skills to minimize becoming entangled, losing your temper, or making unintended decisions you will later regret.

Having a coach, trusted advisor, mentor, or therapist can help you create and practice this plan.

Here is an example of a leader I recently worked with. Names and some details have been changed to maintain confidentiality and anonymity; however, these experiences are not unusual – many leaders have or will end up having similar employee experiences.

Dr. Margaret Long was recently promoted to a new Research Director position over a large program. She was by far the strongest candidate, but not everyone was happy with this new change. Namely, one employee, Janet, did not appreciate the changes Dr. Long was making which would take away some of her favorite projects.

Janet had also been without a supervisor in this role for 4 years and felt the program was really hers to build, in her vision. And she wasn’t willing to let it go that easily to Dr. Long, whom she thought was not a good leader.

To address her concerns and send a clear message to Dr. Long, Janet started keeping program information from Dr. Long, would not share much about the work she was doing, did not follow through on assignments from Dr. Long, and spread negative gossip painting Dr. Long as an abusive supervisor despite Dr. Long’s many attempts to support her work.

As a people pleaser, instead of holding Janet accountable for these behaviors, Dr. Long tried harder to show Janet how much she supported her by bending more and more rules to allow Janet the independence and flexibility she requested.

Unfortunately, this caused new problems with the rest of the team, who felt Janet was now receiving special treatment. The positive and strong relationships that Dr. Long previously had with the rest of her staff were now eroding as a result of her over-engagement and support of this toxic relationship with Janet.

Janet eventually also learned how to push Dr. Long’s buttons, knowing what was important to her and then questioning and criticizing in order to cause Dr. Long to feel exposed and unable to be an effective supervisor.

Normally, insights into problematic behavioral matters like these can take months or even years to uncover. By then, much damage has been done and the patterns are harder to break. However, with a good leadership assessment that measures traits and risk factors, such as the CDR-3D, you can accelerate the learning and quickly create a plan.

In this case, we were able to identify what was causing some of the unhealthy circular patterns, and pick several alternative interventions to replace the current unhealthy patterns. The interventions were specific to Dr. Long’s profile and needs. In this case, they included positive self-talk (internal mantras), ways to catch her need to please with Janet and interrupt the attempt, boundary setting, and setting up a performance improvement plan.

Over time, Dr. Long was able to extract herself more easily from being pulled into the unhealthy relationship behavior patterns Janet was attempting to create.

Her ability to separate herself and focus on meeting the primary mission of her job helped her feel more in control and confident as a leader, without losing her values in the process.

Importantly, by accelerating the process of addressing the problem as quickly as possible, Dr. Long was relieved of a situation that can cause a lot of pain and emotional suffering for leaders.

Putting it all together

Self-awareness is a critical ability of great leaders. By understanding where your own struggles stop and someone else’s start, you are better able to manage conflicts, especially with more toxic and difficult personalities.

There are many ways to gain self-awareness, from structured methods, such as leadership assessment tools, to unstructured methods like asking peers for feedback. All methods can help; the more the better.

Pair self-awareness with structured leadership coaching and training on managing conflicts and you have a winning combination to successfully manage toxic behaviors the way you want to: with dignity.


Mira Brancu, Ph.D.

CEO, Brancu & Associates