Bob Sutton: Techniques to Avoid Toxic People | Summary and Q&A

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October 18, 2017
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Stanford eCorner
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Bob Sutton: Techniques to Avoid Toxic People

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Summary

This video discusses the negative effects of toxic people in a workplace environment, as well as strategies to limit exposure and protect oneself from their harmful behaviors. It highlights the importance of distance, collaboration, slowing encounters, finding a safety zone, and having a supportive boss.

Questions & Answers

Q: How can exposure to toxic people in the workplace be harmful?

Assholes, or toxic individuals, have been shown to have a negative impact on those around them. Studies have demonstrated that the closer one is to a toxic person, the more communication and influence they have over that person. This exposure can have detrimental effects on one's well-being and productivity.

Q: What research supports the concept of distance as a protective measure?

Research dating back to the 70s by Tom Allen at MIT suggests that as distance between individuals increases, their communication and influence decrease. In fact, if someone is 150 feet away from another person, it is almost as if they are in another country. These studies emphasize the importance of physically separating oneself from toxic individuals.

Q: How does the proximity to toxic individuals in an open office environment affect individuals?

A study conducted by Harvard researchers observed the effects of toxic individuals in an open office environment. It found that if someone is within 25 feet of a toxic person, their likelihood of becoming toxic themselves increases. Additionally, their chances of getting fired also rise.

Q: How can sitting next to a collaborative superstar impact one's career?

Recent studies indicate that sitting next to someone who is highly collaborative and skilled can benefit one's career. The positive influence of such individuals in an open office environment can enhance professional growth and success.

Q: What strategies can be employed when dealing with an abusive person, especially those with a Machiavellian personality?

When confronted with an abusive person, particularly one with a Machiavellian personality, it is crucial to slow the frequency and rhythm of encounters. Research and experiences show that when these individuals observe the pain or suffering caused by their abusive behavior, it triggers a neurological response. Slowing down interactions by waiting to respond to emails, reducing the frequency of meetings, and creating space can help mitigate the negative impact.

Q: Can you share an example of how delaying responses and meetings can help in dealing with toxic individuals?

A doctoral student had a toxic advisor who was verbally abusive and sent nasty emails. To cope, she slowed down the rhythm of interactions. Instead of responding immediately to every email, she would wait and send a short, polite response after multiple exchanges. Similarly, she reduced the frequency of in-person meetings, allowing more time between each encounter. This helped create a buffer and alleviate the stress caused by the toxic behavior.

Q: How can finding a safety zone be beneficial in dealing with toxic individuals?

In some cases, it may be possible to physically hide from toxic individuals to minimize direct exposure. For example, in a hospital, nurses would seek refuge in the nurses lounge to escape a doctor known for abusive behavior. Finding a space where one can avoid interactions with toxic individuals can be a valuable protective measure.

Q: How can having a supportive boss help in dealing with toxic individuals?

It has been found that having a boss who protects their employees from abusive behavior, be it from higher-ups or difficult customers, is a hallmark of great leadership. Such bosses create a safe environment for their employees, shielding them from unnecessary stress and ensuring their well-being.

Q: What qualities make a boss effective in protecting their employees?

Great bosses not only shield their employees from external pressures but also actively support and advocate for them. These bosses are committed to creating a positive work culture and provide a safety net for their team. They take on the role of holding an umbrella to prevent the negative impacts of toxic environments from affecting their employees.

Takeaways

Exposure to toxic individuals can have detrimental effects on one's well-being and professional growth. It is important to limit exposure by keeping a distance from such individuals, particularly in open office environments. Sitting next to collaborative superstars can positively influence one's career. Slowing the rhythm of encounters and finding a safety zone can help mitigate the harmful effects of toxic behavior. Additionally, having a supportive boss who protects employees from abuse is crucial for a healthy workplace environment.

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