The Best Ways To Respond To Toxic Colleagues With Mitchell Kusy

by | Jun 30, 2022 | Podcasts

SWGR 113 | Toxic Colleagues


Are you having trouble dealing with toxic colleagues at work? Listen to this episode as Mitchell Kusy discusses how to solve these challenges and respond in the best ways possible. He shares proven strategies that could help increase team productivity and financial performance. This information is based on his experience and research with over 400 leaders. He explains how you can create a work culture of respectful engagement, impacting individual, team, and bottom-line performance.

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The Best Ways To Respond To Toxic Colleagues With Mitchell Kusy

This is the show where we talk about leadership, visibility, and presentation skills. We are talking about management, and how you handle if you have a toxic person on your team, or if you are on the team and there is a toxic person or a toxic boss. We have the wonderful Dr. Mitch Kusy.

Before I go into that conversation though, I would like to invite you to find out how your presentation skills are by taking our free four-minute assessment at It takes about four minutes, and that is how you can find out where your presentation skills are strong and where, if not, you could get a little bit of support so that you can get the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. If you score high enough, there is also a place where you can ask for a free 45-minute conversation with me to talk about those results and what you could do.

My guest is the delightful Dr. Mitchell Kusy, who is a professor and organizational psychologist, and a part of our Pride month guests who also has talked about his partner of many years. Dr. Kusy’s official bio is very impressive. He was a Fulbright scholar in organization development. He is a professor in the Graduate School of Leadership and Change at Antioch University.

His passion is co-designing work cultures to improve staff and customer experiences so that will increase team performance every day civility and the bottom line. Mitch has consulted and been a keynote speaker with hundreds of organizations nationally and internationally helping create work culture of respectful engagement, impacting individual team, and bottom line performance. He previously headed Leadership and Organization Development at American Express Financial Advisors and Health Partners. Mitch’s client lists ranges from A to Z, from AT&T to firms in New Zealand. There is a huge list on his website.

His work is with the Healthy Workforce Institute, focusing, increasing civility, civil behavior that is, in the healthcare field. Mitch is a best-selling author with 6 business books and over 100 research to practice articles. His book is Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore. Dr. Kusy is the recipient of the Minnesota Organization Development Practitioner of the Year Award. He resides in Minneapolis and in Palm Springs. You will see from our conversation what a nice person he is to be talking about handling toxic people. I know you will enjoy it.

Mitch Kusy, welcome to show. Thank you for jumping in.

I am delighted. I am delighted to be here and our previous chat before this. I am excited.

You are going to the category of people who I had not met you before, but once I met you, I said, “Why haven’t we been friends forever?”

I know. That is the problem with getting old.

I have lots of things to ask you about. Before I get started, let me ask you who your dream interview would be. If you could interview someone who is no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be listening?

I would have to say Beverly Sills, the famous opera diva, who is no longer with us. There is an interesting piece of information about Beverly, and by the way, you could tell by my choosing her, I am an opera buff. The interesting fact of information about Beverly, who was world-famous, one of the top opera divas in the world, is that she had two children who could not appreciate her talent.

One child was deaf and had multiple sclerosis. The other child had multiple handicaps. He was mentally disabled. Neither could enjoy her talent the way many could world. The question would be, “What was that like for you?” Interestingly, as we were talking before in her biography, she does not say anything like, “Why me?” Her question is, “Why them?” I want to ask her what was that like for her?

It is one of those cosmic ironies. I grew up listening to Beverly Sills. She was the reigning diva of my time, and my parents loved her. My mother especially had loved her dearly. She was on the board of the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, and we have other friends who were friends of hers, because her daughter had multiple sclerosis. In some ways, it is a more visible version of what happens to many where life does not turn out the way you expect.

SWGR 113 | Toxic Colleagues

Toxic Colleagues: We’ve all been uncivil at times and because we’re human. We make mistakes. It becomes toxic when the behavior is targeted, harmful and repeated.

She went on with her life, became really famous, and gave her talent to many people. I bet, in some ways, her children appreciated what she brought in any way that she could.

They just could not understand what the fuss was that she was so famous for it. It is like being the child of a painter and you are color blind. That would be very interesting. I admired her. Someday when you and I are in the same room at the same time, and there is a lot more alcohol, I will tell you about the first time I met Beverly Sills, which is one of the great disaster stories of all time.

I will take you up on that, and I will have a martini when we are doing this.

It’s definitely a story that needs alcohol. In any case, I asked you here to talk to us about the work you are doing, helping leaders cope with toxic employees. I think the first question I have to ask is you are such a nice guy. How did you get started talking about and studying toxic people?

I get that question asked a lot, and the best answer I could give you is it was quite serendipitous how this happened to me. It was not planned. There were two events that occurred. One event was I walked into an elevator and I smelled a special perfume. I smelled that perfume previously, but I could not put my finger on it. Then something strange happened. I got sick to my stomach.

It was a visceral response, I was really sick. I am thinking, “What is going on?” It was about 2 or 3 days later that I realized what was going on. I smelled that perfume in my mind, and I realized it belonged to an individual I worked with who wore that perfume. She was highly toxic, and many people left the organization in her weight. Subsequently, that was the first event.

The second is my dear colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, when I was new at Antioch University. She is a professor there as well, and I am as well. She said, “Mitch, have you ever thought of doing a study to look at toxic behaviors in organizations?” When she asked that question, I got sick to my stomach again thinking about that perfume. I immediately said yes, because I wanted to find out, “If I am having this kind of response, I wonder what is going on with other people?” That is when we embarked on a study with over 400 leaders in our research to examine how true it is related to toxic behaviors? Is it a figment of our imagination or is there a reality to that? What do we do about it?

What we do about it is the main thing I am going to ask you. What is the difference between toxic behavior and somebody who just does something bad? I am thinking about the times that people have stabbed me in the back. Fortunately, it was not too many of them, but in my opera days, there were companies I could never go back to because somebody was threatened by me and lied about me to the General Director who, thereafter, believed that I was a horrible person, the times I have been stabbed in the back, compared to actual toxic behavior.

Be sure to give credit where credit is due. Share on X

Let’s dissect that. I do work primarily, other than my professor role, with the Healthy Workforce Institute. Dr. Renee Thompson is the CEO of that organization. One of the things that I have learned from her that is validated by the research is, first of all, it does not matter what you call it, toxic behaviors, disruptive behaviors, bullying. There are three primary characteristics that make someone toxic or disruptive or a bully. The behavior needs to be targeted, it needs to be harmful, and it needs to be repeated. It’s targeted to one person or one group.

For you, the scenario that you just raised is that this behavior of stabbing in the back was targeted towards you first. It is harmful. Was harm created? One of the harm could be you are reluctant to work with this individual on a team. The third is it is repeated, and the way you talked, it was not just a one-time deal. That would make that behavior highly toxic, as opposed to someone having a bad day. To be honest, we have all been uncivil at times because we are human. We make mistakes. If it is not targeted, harmful and repeated, then what we understand is that is not going to be highly toxic behaviors.

There is something else that I see as a benchmark is that many times when we are uncivil, not everybody, but there is a tendency to apologize to someone with that incivility. If you have been impolite, you have been uncivil, you said something that was not nice, we have all done this, but hopefully, that is not in the categories of targeted, harmful and repeated. It is easier to do something about.

I am a word person. I am enjoying the fact that you are using the word, civil. Civility is related to civilization and people working together. Professor Kusy, you do know the root of that word, but talking about having civility in the workplace, being polite so that we get along as a group.

There is a connotative and a denotative definition of that. There are two ways to interpret civility. One way to interpret civility is really respectful to individuals to act in ways that we demonstrate concern to that individual. There is the aspect of civility that, “I am just going to be civil and respectful to your face,” but afterwards, do some things that harm that person. The kind of stability we are talking about where we are working together as a team, we do not say everything that comes into our mind about that individual out of respect for that person.

One of the hallmarks too, and I hear this often when I am coaching people, are you coaching something, a concept or a practice to someone where they can make a change in their behavior? Are you trying to coach them on something where it is not in their realm to make a change in their behavior? We need to look at that. That is all the under the rubric of civility.

My mother used to say, “Manners are the grease that keeps the gears of society running smoothly.”

You have got to send that to me. I want to use that on a PowerPoint. I will credit your mother. You have learned a lot from your mother. I will tell you what I learned. Many things, but I learned how to cook Italian from my mother because my mother was Sicilian.

SWGR 113 | Toxic Colleagues

Toxic Colleagues: Some individuals may not speak up and give their ideas at a team meeting. And that affects the team performance.


My mother was all about, “Be polite.” That is another conversation with that martini. Let me get into some of the practical things you can do. Let’s say you are leading a team, and there is someone in the team who is not being civil. If you have somebody toxic on your team, what can you do?

There is a whole range of strategies. I always say, start with the easiest. One of the strategies that I have learned, this is from Dr. Debra Meyerson, who wrote the book, Tempered Radicals, and did research on this. Let’s pretend in this team meeting, someone, and let’s pretend this is a woman, provides a suggestion. The leader of the group said, “I need some suggestions in.” This woman provides a suggestion. It is a really good suggestion. A gentleman responds and says the same thing that this woman did. People on the team say, “What a great suggestion, John.”

This happens all the time.

Every time I relate this case, I hear this all the time, particularly from women, but I also hear it from men who, for one reason or another, they are marginalized. The tempered radical does this. Let’s say the leader is now the tempered radical. Remember, everybody is rallying around what John said, and the tempered radical says, “John, I want to thank you for taking Elizabeth’s idea here and running with it. Elizabeth, thank you for initiating this great discussion right now.”

What Debra Meyerson said is that the tempered radical makes change in quiet ways. Some would say, “Maybe that is a little passive-aggressive,” and maybe it is, but the intent here was to give credit where credit is due, and others did not acknowledge that credit. That is one of the things I learned from the research of Debra Meyerson. That is a baby step where you start.

I have to ask because that thing about single-focused people who are thinking about one thing, quite often, the case is they hear it subconsciously. Because they are not actually paying full attention to the person who was speaking, then five minutes later, they say the same thing. They really do think they thought it up. Is that toxic behavior or is that just not listening?

Let’s go back to what I said that makes it toxic. Is it targeted? Is it harmful? Is it repeated? Is it targeted not just to this one individual, and his name is John, does he have a tendency to do that a number of times? First of all, it is targeted. Check that off. Is it harmful? Yes. Because some individual may not speak up and give their ideas at a team meeting that could improve the team performance. Is it repeated? Yes. The individual has done this at many times that you will hear things like, “There goes John again.” When you hear those kinds of things, you know it has been repeated. Using the Litmus test of targeted, harmful and repeated, indeed it is.

Even though it may not have been intentional?

It is rare to find someone who's only toxic because they're incompetent. Share on X

Intention does not have anything to do with it. It could be conscious or unconscious. Intention does not matter. When you start getting into intention, and that is the problem when you give people feedback about their behavior, they can say, “That is not my intention.” It goes off in another realm. Intention does not matter. Do not even go there. Conscious or unconscious, this is what happened. This is the behavior. Do not label it to the individual’s toxic realm. Do not use that term and say, “This is what happened in the meeting. This has happened a number of times. This is the result of when you do this.”

There are lots of times where you have to decide at what point is it bad enough that you have to take action. What can you do if you are on the team, and you perceive that you are being disregarded or attacked and the manager is not doing anything?

There are several things. First of all, I tell my clients, “Ask this question, how much worse off will I be if say something?” If you perceive you are going to be significantly worse off, do not say anything yet, but then you go to the second. Go to a trusted individual. Someone that you know will just not say, “Poor Mitch,” but give you honest feedback. You think understand the context of this organization. You understand the dynamics of this team. “What should I say something about it?” and then listen to their feedback.

If, indeed, there is some perception that you should say something, there are a number of strategies. The first strategy, and I am not saying it is in a priority order, one strategy is to give the person feedback on their behavior. Go directly to the individual. You make the determination, “I can do this.” I found a four-step process that I use as part of the Healthy Workforce Institute. First of all, it is scripting this entire four-part process. You scripted ahead of time because it is highly anxiety producing to give this person feedback, so you script it ahead of time.

You script four things: the intro, behavior, the impact, and the toss back. The intro, “Something happened at this meeting today. I want to talk with you about it.” If they give the okay or maybe it is, “Another time we can going to talk about it, a better time.” The behavior is, “When I have been giving feedback at this meeting, you, as the leader of the team, have been interrupting me.” Notice I did not say, “You shamed me.” Notice I did not say, “You intimidated me.” Those are terms that can be convoluted, and someone can work their way around.The impact is, “I am fearful of speaking up at this meeting or I am angry, and I have decided to shut down unless we can do something about it.” Toss back, “I would like to hear your thoughts when might be a good time to talk about it.” The intro, the behavior, the impact, and the toss back, and you script it ahead of time.

Maybe practice saying it with somebody, a trusted person.

That is why you want to script it ahead of time because it is threatening. One strategy is the tempered radical strategy. The other strategy is giving feedback. Another strategy, moving up the ladder, if you will, let’s pretend it is your boss because one of the top questions I get is, “What if my boss says this?” You have tried the tempered radical approach. That did not work. You tried scripting it with the four phases. That did not work.

Your next strategy, you are asking yourself the question, “How much worse off will I be if I say something versus if I do not?” You go to the boss’ boss, and you ask for a meeting with this individual, and so that you feel safe, there has got to be psychological safety. You say, “I want to talk with you about this. It is serious.” You bring in a human resources professional to have that conversation with this individual.

SWGR 113 | Toxic Colleagues

Toxic Colleagues: In healthcare alone, there’ve been hundreds of studies showing that anywhere from 60 to 80% of professionals have witnessed or experienced quitting as a result of a toxic individual.


This is the conversation with the boss’ boss or with the boss themselves?

You could do a number of things. It depends on how threatened. If it is the boss, my suggestion is to first go to the boss. You could try the scripting. If that did not work, you can go with an HR person. If that did not work, the next strategy would be the boss’ boss. You could even say something like, “We are getting nowhere here. I want you to know I am going to Sally, and I am going to invite HR. I want you to be here as well so have this conversation together.”

That sounds really scary.

It is very scary, but otherwise, what is the alternative? The person is going to quit. One of the things I found in my study, they quit while still employed. What they do is they say, “John comes in at 8:00 in the morning, so I am going to start work at 5:00 in the morning, and I am going to have at most four hours with him. I am not going to do anything extra.”

You keep collecting the paycheck but not actually doing the work. That brings up a whole bunch of things. I have a whole list of questions for you. One of the strategies that I have helped my clients use is if the boss is not listening, then who does the boss listen to? If you are at a high enough level, do you have any relationship with anyone on the board because the boss has to listen to the board? One of the things that happens a lot is that people get promoted to higher level positions without ever learning how to be a manager.

They become that toxic manager because they do not know what they are doing, but they cannot admit that to themselves. I have had three clients in that situation in a row because nobody ever trained the manager how to be a manager and suddenly, she is the Chief Information Officer and is being terrible to the team. What do you do if you have got somebody and you realize they are toxic, but they are mostly toxic because they do not know what they are doing? It is not intent. They are paddling as fast as they can, but they are still underwater and they do not actually know how to be a good manager. Is there an answer to that?

The answer that I would give is in the work that I have been doing the past many years on this, it is rare to find someone who is toxic because they are incompetent. I hardly ever hear, “This boss does not understand spreadsheets.” What I hear is, “This person is a horrible leader. They cannot engage the group in setting a vision for our team. They do not recognize the talent of this team.” One could say, “That is an incompetent leader,” but the incompetence is about relationships. The incompetence is not about, “The person is a bad CPA.” In fact, here is an interesting statistic. I do a lot of work also with healthcare organizations. One of the interesting dynamics is, in the opposite frame that you just shared, what happens with the physician who is the top-ranked physician in the organization, but people are quitting left and right because of their behavior? They have the competence. Interestingly, healthcare has done more than any other industry in doing the research in this area. For example, there have been hundreds of studies that demonstrate anywhere from 60% to 80% of professionals in healthcare witnessed or experienced quitting as a result of a toxic individual.

Another study found that with an intimidating provider, individuals that report to this provider, anywhere up to 70% to 80% will seek the advice of someone else rather than this provider when it comes to a medication question. Subsequently, they all say that this impacts the safety of patients and the overall patient outcomes. Interestingly, as an organizational psychologist, I always thought that medical errors were due to incompetence. The healthcare industry is now finding from 10 to 15 to 20 years of research that it is the intimidating, toxic behaviors that cause negative patient outcomes.

You can judge a book by its cover. Share on X

That is a good indicator for the value of emotional intelligence. Thank goodness, we are finally getting to a point in business where that is being addressed.

I was doing a keynote address with 500 people in one room. It was a non-healthcare audience. I relate these statistics in healthcare because we are all impacted by healthcare. A gentleman raises his hand and says, “Mitch, my wife is a nurse. Last night, she reported that she disagreed with the medication order. She went to 2 to 3 other people to interpret that order, rather than go to the intimidating provider.”

A woman raised her hand and said, “Mitch, I am a surgeon. I need to be intimidating in the operating room suite. Would you want to go to a surgeon who is not perfect?” I said, “Doctor, I want to go to a surgeon. If they are about to make a mistake, someone feels comfortable enough to call them on that error.” There was utter silence in the room.

I do not mean to demonize physicians. The research shows that there is a lateral abuse in healthcare, nurse to nurse, physician to physician, and vertical abuse, physician to nurse, clinical nurse leader to clinical nurse. It is approximately 77% vertical abuse and around 65% lateral abuse. It is endemic everywhere in healthcare and beyond. It is just that healthcare has done more than any other industry.

I have got one other question. A lot of what I do is about putting yourself in the shoes of the other people, including in relationships. If you can figure out where they are coming from and what they care about, you can tailor what you have to say in a fashion that they are going to say, “She is speaking my language.” I think it comes from my many years of training as an actor to put myself to say, “What was it that motivated this villain, Scarpia in La Tosca? What motivates him to try to kill the tenor and seduce the soprano?” Does it do any good to try to figure out where they are coming from?

To an extent. Let’s go back to the script: the intro, the behavior, the impact, and the toss back. To answer your question, it is the impact. The impact would be something like this, and this is where they are coming from. You perceive that this individual wants to be a good leader. She is not being a good team leader right now. “The impact, Sally, is that others perceive what is going on that they are starting to shut down as well. I know that you want to have an engaged team,” or, “Even I am shutting down. This prevents you from being as effective as you can because you are not getting my engagement in the team.” What you are doing is you are looking at that impact, how it might impact that individual. You could say something like, “I do not know if this is right. I would like your feedback on this,” because you could be wrong with that.

“This is the way it seems to me. What is it like from your point of view?”


SWGR 113 | Toxic Colleagues

Toxic Colleagues: It’s the intimidating, toxic behaviors that cause negative outcomes.


Mitch Kusy, I could talk to you for hours. I would have to have you back, but we are out of time. You have written several books. Specifically to address this issue, you have got one called Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore. There is another one about toxic behavior, Toxic Workplace!. I assume we can find all of that on your website.

The first book, if people want to read it, that I would recommend is Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore. I wish we had another minute because I could tell you how that title came about.

Tell us.

I go work out at 5:00 AM. I went to do my workout and I came back about 6:45 AM. I said to Scott, my partner of many years, “Scott, what is going on? You woke up in the middle of the night writing.” He said, “Mitch, I have got the title of your next book.” Scott is a biomedical engineer. He is a marketing person. I am thinking to myself, “What would Scott know about marketing anyway?” I kept my mouth shut because I am a good partner. He said, “The title of your book should be Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore.” I said, “That is brilliant.”

Previously, the title of the draft of the book was No Work Jerks Allowed. I could not get a publisher to take the book. I said, “That is brilliant.” He said, “You talk about how 12% of individuals quit because of a toxic person. In your own study, 51% are likely to quit. In healthcare, you talk about how 30.7% of nurses knew someone who quit.” First of all, I got the contract for the book at the end of the week. There are two morals for this. One is you can judge a book by its cover. The second, sometimes you should trust your life partner of many years. They might know something.

They have seen it from the outside and you are too close. Thank you, Scott, for having given us the great title of which then got you to the contract, which got you to this great book.

Thank you, Elizabeth. You are a great interviewer. I love talking with you. I hope just one thing I said helps create less toxic anxiety in the world.

I hope so, indeed. Thank you, Mitch Kusy, for being part of this. Let me remind you that if you are curious about your presentation skills, both within your organization and within your industry, you can take our quiz at That is where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and serving you, and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition you deserve. I will see you on the next one.


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About Mitchell Kusy

SWGR 113 | Toxic ColleaguesA 2005 Fulbright Scholar in Organization Development, Dr. Kusy is a professor in the Graduate School of Leadership & Change at Antioch University. His passion is co-designing work cultures to improve staff and customer experiences that increase team performance, everyday civility, and the bottom line.

Mitch has consulted and been a keynote speaker with hundreds of organizations nationally and internationally, helping create work cultures of respectful engagement impacting individual, team, and bottom-line performance. He previously headed leadership and organization development at American Express Financial Advisors and HealthPartners.

Client list ranges from A-Z from AT&T to firms in New Zealand. His recent work is with the Healthy Workforce Institute, focusing on increasing civility in the healthcare field. Mitch is a bestselling author with 6 business books and over 100 research-to-practice articles. His most recent book is Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore Dr. Kusy is the recipient of the Minnesota Organization Development Practitioner of the Year Award. He resides in Minneapolis and Palm Springs.