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Toxic employees of the month: Stealthy saboteurs

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Stealthy saboteurs keep their discontent a secret instead of voicing concerns above board.

Stealthy saboteurs keep their discontent a secret instead of voicing concerns above board.

They might be your top performers, your team leaders or even your mid-level managers. When the spotlight shines on them, they’re chipper and agreeable, but once official meeting time is over and their bosses step away, the stealthy and secret saboteurs show their true colors, spreading dissent that can unravel the momentum of strong management.

Expressed properly, doubts and concerns can be productive – they prompt leaders to consider problems and perspectives they may not have planned for. However, the cloak-and-dagger style of the saboteur is far more subtle. These employees hold their tongues during official meetings, leading decision-makers to believe everyone is on board with upcoming action plans. Then, saboteurs hold what Inc. calls the “meeting after the meeting,” where they finally voice their lack of support to their subordinates or peers.

These “meetings” are equally as likely to take place during a walk out to the parking lot or while pouring a cup of coffee as they are to occur at a desk or conference table, but their effect is the same: The stealthy saboteur’s vocal dissent dissolves consensus and corrodes morale.

One stealthy saboteur can stir up dissent in an entire department. One stealthy saboteur can stir up dissent in an entire department.

What makes stealthy saboteurs so insidious?
Although intangible, one of an organization’s greatest assets is its culture. Workplace culture prescribes which behaviors are accepted as normal and which are quelled out – it defines how employees will behave when no one else is looking. Will they stay past 5 to finish what they’re working on? Will they go the extra mile to wrap up a project, or simply pass the buck whenever they have the chance? The answers to these questions are all contained in an organization’s culture.

Going behind a manager’s back can have a ruinous effect on a company’s employee culture, since it normalizes subordinate behavior and saps energy and motivation from otherwise committed team members. Effectively, one saboteur can turn a team of energized employees into apathetic worker bees, unwilling to commit to a project for fear it won’t be supported by a group of dissenters.

How can you handle these toxic employees in the workplace?
Oftentimes, stealthy saboteurs are so effective because they are social leaders who command the respect of their peers. It is this quality that allows them to build a cohort of followers using peer pressure. On the surface, this might look bad for employers. After all, social norms and relationships are among the most difficult forces to reckon with in an office. However, savvy employers can use this very quality to help get a department of dissenters back on the same page as company leadership.

“When crafting new action plans, try actively including tricky employees.”

When crafting new action plans, try actively including tricky employees in the planning process, ERE Media suggested. They clearly have the ability to think critically, and asking directly for their input before a plan is made public could help encourage them to share their concerns above board. Plus, by incorporating a few of their suggestions into your strategy (or at least taking their concerns under advisement), you’ll give employees a stake in the new plan’s success, converting saboteurs into advocates.

Of course, you’d be better off not hiring these kinds of employees in the first place. Unfortunately, that can be easier said than done, since their charisma and critical thinking skills may seem like valuable assets in an interview. Be sure to follow up with references to get a sense for candidates attitude at their previous places of employment, especially when things didn’t necessarily go their way.

It’s also critical you make sure new hires are well-qualified for their role, since some stealthy and secret saboteurs are simply making up for a lack of confidence in themselves to execute initiatives successfully. Try using pre-employment tests to weed out applicants who may not be ready for the job. You will know right away whether they have the skills needed to perform their role well, helping you hire smarter and more quickly. Contact EmployTest today to learn more!