Be a force for good

Toxic people have—and always will—exist. How inescapable and long lasting the legacy of their badness is depends in large part on what good people do. Or don’t do.

Badness is hard to resist, especially contagious when those in charge are the toxic ones. James* was one of the most toxic leaders I worked for. He’d replaced David, the former regional leader whose compassion had put him at odds with corporate leadership.

James’s skills were many. He thoroughly understood the business and played office politics flawlessly. He also excelled at lying and manipulating. He bullied, blamed, and insulted everyone who failed to both meet his standards and pay him the deference he believed he was due. James spread fear like rose petals tossed at a wedding.

As the weeks and months under his leadership passed, more and more of the management team became infected with James’s toxicity. Some converted willingly, delighted to be free to indulge their shadow selves and stamp out David’s legacy. Others clung to James’s toxic coat tails because they believed they had no other choice if they wanted to continue drawing a paycheck.

Unchecked badness becomes like the scum that spreads across stagnant waters—pervasive and controlling. Researchers have shown that:

  • People react more strongly to bad events than good ones.
  • Bad events produce stronger and more memorable emotions.
  • In bad relationships, bad characteristics exert more influence than good ones.
  • The reciprocity of negativity is more potent in environments where badness is primary.

Badness can envelop people mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. It’s excellent at silencing our better angels.

People get sucked into the vortex of badness for many reasons. They may have always longed to have power and have no qualms about the source of their power being fear. Maybe they succumbed to the pressures to conform and be part of the in-group. Perhaps they have a strong ingrained sense of obedience to authority.

David, James predecessor, had hired me. When he offered me my job, I didn’t hesitate to pull up roots and move over a thousand miles to a place where I had no friends or relatives. The chance to work for a boss who equally valued people, principles, and profits was worth it. So, for me, working for James was torture. His approach ran contrary to my values and beliefs. I felt betrayed every time one of my colleagues chose to support him.

Certain that my days were numbered and tired of feeling hopeless and powerless, I called corporate and told them what was happening. I described how a once vibrant and inclusive work culture had become cruel and exclusionary. That truth, integrity, and honesty were non-existent. The person to whom I spoke was noncommittal about James and more focused on exploring how I might be seeing the situation incorrectly.

A corporate pooh-bah was dispatched to investigate my claims. Betty spent a week conducting one-on-one interviews behind closed doors. She spoke to me last, not to interview me, but to tell me that she would let me know the outcome of the investigation.

A week later she was back. Unannounced. On a Friday afternoon. Several others on the senior team had already left for the week. James wasn’t there either, having gone to headquarters. This couldn’t be good.

When she walked into my office and closed the door, sadness washed over me. For the first time in my career, I was about to be fired.

Betty opened by saying that her initial assignment had been to find reasons to fire me. But after her first interview, the focus of her investigation had shifted to James. Person after person recounted stories of his lies, insults, and abuses of power. At that same moment, James was meeting with the CEO, learning that his employment was over.

What a stunning turn of events. People yearning for positivity, compassion, respect, and honesty had saved the day. One voice in pursuit of goodness hadn’t been enough; many voices changed the tide.

Good can still triumph in the end by force of sheer numbers. ~Roy Baumeister, social psychologist

Today, badness seems to be everywhere in public life, encouraging our shadow selves to get onboard and go with the flow.

Resisting the pull of badness feels lonely and is hard. But it’s good work good people must do. Staying good requires that keeping several behavioral and attitudinal elements in mind:

  • Always be true to ourselves. Decide not to blend in and follow along.
  • Refuse to live down to the negativity of badness. We have to give ourselves positive unconditional regard, no matter how alone we feel or how much we doubt our position.
  • Avoid seeing ourselves as powerless. We do have power. We can resist the forces intent on dividing and conquering by labeling those who think differently as the enemy.
  • Stay inquisitive. Think critically. Don’t blindly accept what’s positioned as mainstream thought and actions. We need to be self-aware and watch for flaws and gaps in our own memory and attention that signal a slide into badness and step up and in to correct what we’re doing and thinking.
  • Connect, connect, connect. Keep friends close and those who disagree just as close. Be courageous and open-minded with our outreach.

Even though there are times when it looks like the toxic people are winning, choose to be good. Be the example and encourage others to stay good, too. When enough of us spread light, goodness prevails.

*all names have been changed 

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