Braving the Black Holes: Ejecting Toxic People from Your Galaxy

Author: Avi Z Liran
International 𝑫𝒆𝒍𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕𝒇𝒖𝒍 𝑬𝒙𝒑𝒆𝒓𝒊𝒆𝒏𝒄𝒆 & Organisational Culture Consultant, 2x 𝐓𝐄𝐃𝐱 🎤 Keynote Speaker, Author, Trainer & Mentor.


In the past few weeks, I’ve heard stories of people dealing with toxic bosses, and I’ve encountered my own gym bully and online troll. You’d think that working for some of the most exemplary companies, known for their outstanding cultures, would make you immune to toxic individuals. These organizations often win Great Workplaces awards. But, alas, even in these seemingly ideal environments, “black holes” can infiltrate, drawing energy and enthusiasm into their void.

Despite rigorous hiring and a relentless focus on positive values, toxic behaviors can sneak in, often masquerading as competence or ambition.

One of the key vulnerabilities of companies with good cultures occurs during acquisitions when integrating people who aren’t a cultural fit for the buying organization. The real issue is that it takes time to recognize their detrimental impact on the merged company.

On a personal level,toxic people create a trail of emotional wreckage, leaving others emotionally and mentally drained, exhausted, stressed, anxious, and even burnt out. Constant stress and anxiety from toxic relationships activate our body’s stress response, increasing cortisol levels. Chronic high cortisol can harm our mental and physical health.

They erode self-esteem, making individuals feel insecure and question their own abilities. Over time, this relentless strain can escalate, potentially leading to helplessness, hopelessness, PTSD, depression, substance use disorders, and in extreme cases, even suicide.

On the organizational level, these “black hole” bosses or coworkers often create conflict, eroding team morale, disrupting collaboration, and rusting trust. This negativity can become a breeding ground for gossip and finger-pointing, turning the workplace into a minefield. Productivity takes a nosedive, engagement levels drop faster than a lead balloon, and overall results suffer. In extreme cases, a toxic boss or colleague might actively sabotage your career opportunities or growth potential, throwing a wrench into your professional development and leaving you feeling like you’ve been sucked into a black hole of despair.

1. Develop Awareness.

Like cancer, the sooner you identify toxic behavior, the easier it is to address it with less pain, damage, and quicker recovery.

Familiarize yourself with the 12 types of toxic behaviors to spot the warning signs early. Unfortunately, toxic people often display more than one of these archetypes:

The Narcissist: Look for signs of self-obsession, (they behave like the sun and you should orbit them), condescending behavior, a need for constant praise, and a lack of empathy for others.

The Bully: Uses intimidation, threats, and verbal abuse to control others. They target the vulnerable and exploit insecurities, enjoy public humiliation, and constantly criticize with sarcasm or harsh language. Bullies shift blame, isolate people, and might even use physical aggression. They manipulate situations and spread rumors to undermine others.

The Fault Finder: They can spot a flaw in everything from a mile away and love to point it out, belittling others as if they’re competing for a gold medal in nitpicking.

The Victim: The “BMW” guys who always Blame Moan and Windge. They are pros at finger-pointing dodge accountability like a game of dodgeball. Their endless complaints about misfortune could drain the energy from a power plant. They always seek sympathy and attention, often throwing a tantrums to get what they want.

The Manipulator: Watch for their ability to twist facts, expertly milk your empathy or guilt, and spin deceit for personal gain. Their stories often read like a novel with more plot holes than Swiss cheese. If you leave a conversation wondering how you got roped into something absurd, you’ve been outfoxed by a real-life trickster.

The Drama Magnet: Notice their consistent involvement in conflicts or their tendency to exaggerate situations, turning minor issues into major crises to stay in the spotlight. They often share personal problems with others in a very emotional manner, seeking attention or sympathy. Their social media presence is usually marked by emotionally charged posts that often polarize their audience. They might also have a pattern of falling out with friends and maybe quick to assign blame to others while portraying themselves as the victim.

The Controller: The master of micromanagement and the sworn enemy of delegation. Got a black belt in backseat driving and a PhD in hovercrafting. With their eagle eyes, they watch over your shoulder, craving updates like squirrel hoards acorns. They guard information like a dragon hoards treasure, believing knowledge is their superpower. If you feel like you’re under surveillance and can’t make a move without their approval, you’ve found a classic Controller.

The Energy Vempier: They turn trivial tales into emotional epics. Their “quick catch-up” spirals into a monologue marathon, leaving you feeling like you’ve binge-watched a drama series. They make every minor hiccup seem like a season finale cliffhanger. If your energy dips faster than your phone battery at 1%, you’ve likely encountered one.

The Jeleous Person: Watch how they downplay others’ successes with dismissive comments or backhanded compliments. They might sabotage others with rumors or sneaky obstacles and often redirect praise to themselves. Their body language betrays them: crossed arms, eye rolls, or forced smiles at others’ good news. They avoid celebrating others’ wins and thrive on negative gossip. Constant comparisons and delight in others’ misfortunes are big red flags.

The Gossiper: The office news network, always buzzing with the latest scoop, true or not. They eagerly share speculations about others, turning whispers into full-blown sagas and weaving intricate narratives from thin air. Their stories come with a dramatic flair, often shared in hushed tones or behind closed doors. They float from group to group, leaving a trail of stirred-up drama and friction. If you want your news broadcasted, just ask them to swear not to share it.

The Passive Aggressor:Passive-aggressive behavior involves expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than addressing them openly. Look out for signs such as denial of anger, sarcasm, backhanded compliments, hinting instead of direct communication, sulking, and intentional inefficiency. They tend to avoid responsibility with excuses, complain about you to others, sabotage efforts, and withhold important information.

The Taker (leech): Beware the one-way drain disguised as a friend. They rarely offer help when you need them. They will disappear with excuses and have the nerve to come and ask for more. They charm you with requests for help, bestow on you guilt trips, and a never-ending series of crises are their go-to tactics. They seldom show genuine appreciation, ignore your boundaries, and are selectively friendly based on their needs. Watch for conversations dominated by their problems, leaving no space for yours.

2. Self Reflection

Toxicity isn’t always one-sided. Some people who display toxic behavior might be responding to you or are simply misguided.

Turning off the toxicity tap starts with a reflective scan, recognizing it first in ourselves. Before labeling someone as toxic, ponder the role you might play in the poisonous relationship.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Could you be the unwitting Chernobyl in your workplace, unintentionally emitting harmful radiation that’s triggering the very behavior you detest?

Be honest with yourself. Solicit feedback from trusted people. If you discover you might be contributing to the toxicity, it’s essential to contain the fallout. Identify your mistakes, take responsibility, apologize, and take steps to mitigate and rectify the damage.

It might not put an end to their toxicity, but it will keep you from joining the dark side.

3. Misguided Misstep or Toxic Trap?

Sometimes, especially when you’re new to an environment, it can be challenging to determine whether a person’s actions stem from a momentary lapse in judgment or reflect a deeper pattern of toxic behavior.

The key lies in understanding the intentions behind the actions, observing patterns, and noting their response to feedback.

Intent:Evaluate the intention behind the behavior. Ask the person to explain why they did what made you feel they might be toxic. A misguided person may have good intentions but poor execution, resulting in negative outcomes. In contrast, a toxic person often exhibits malicious intent, aiming to manipulate, control, or harm others.

Patterns:Look at the frequency and consistency of the behavior. A one-time mistake can happen to anyone and usually doesn’t define a person’s character. However, if the behavior recurs, it suggests a pattern. Misguided individuals may repeatedly make similar mistakes due to ignorance or lack of skill but typically respond positively to feedback. In contrast, toxic individuals exhibit a way of living that consistently involves harmful, manipulative, or abusive actions, regardless of the context or feedback received. They may demonstrate a pervasive negative attitude that affects various aspects of their interactions and relationships.

“A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Responding to Feedback: A genuinely misguided individual will typically show remorse and take accountability for their actions. They demonstrate a willingness to learn, change, and make amends. Conversely, toxic individuals tend to avoid responsibility. They deflect blame, try to turn the tables on others, and remain indifferent to the harm they cause. They may use emotional manipulation to address your feedback, such as gaslighting, guilt-tripping, or playing the victim, to avoid accountability and maintain control.

4. Realize:

The American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (1), wrote: “When the great Buddhist teacher Atisha went to Tibet . . . he was told the people of Tibet were very good-natured, earthy, flexible, and open; he decided they wouldn’t be irritating enough to push his buttons. So he brought along with him a mean-tempered, ornery Bengali tea boy. He felt that was the only way he could stay awake. The Tibetans like to tell the story that, when he got to Tibet, he realized that he need not have brought his tea boy: the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told”

You’ve taken incredible steps! You’ve identified the toxic behaviors, reflected on your own role (and thankfully, you’re not the culprit), and even extended an olive branch to the toxic provocateur.

Now, it’s time to prioritize your well-being. You deserve a positive and healthy environment. Release the notion that you must continue to suffer. Let go of the grumpy tea boy in your life and do not allow him to pollute your peace.

It’s time to take action! Move forward to a healthier situation.

Whatever you do, Don’t JADE (Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain). Engaging with toxic people using JADE is like trying to convince a cat that a bath is fun. It’s futile and frustrating. Don’t get sucked into their endless justifications or arguments because toxic individuals lack empathy and are laser-focused on their own agenda

5. Take Actions:

Once you’ve realized that this person isn’t just having a bad day but is as toxic as a perpetually regifted fruitcake, the likelihood of them changing is as slim as Uncle Charles winning a Nobel Prize for his whimsical culinary rhymes. You have two choices: take swift action or continue to suffer. The longer you delay, the worse the impact will be.

🚀 Eject Them from Your Galaxy: Toxic people rarely change, and if their presence in your life is optional, it’s time to move on. Preserving your well-being is not only your right but also your responsibility. Know when to walk away. Poisonous people are like snakes. Safely distance yourself from the snake to avoid further bites especially if the relationship or situation is beyond repair.

Even if the toxic person is someone close to you or your boss, and their behavior is causing significant emotional distress, it might be best to cut ties completely. This can be difficult, but prioritizing your own well-being is crucial to avoid a negative spiral that will hurt your health. Remember, your mental and physical health comes first.

In our interview for our book, Garry Ridge (2), the legendary former chairman and CEO of WD-40, emphasized his zero tolerance for toxicity in the company. With his signature humor, he quipped, “If I find someone toxic in my company, I swiftly send them to the competition.”

🚀 Set Firm Boundaries: Imagine yourself surrounded by a beautiful, flourishing garden. This garden represents your well-being, and just like any precious plant, it needs protection from pests. Toxic people are like those pesky garden critters who come to harm your garden.

To keep the toxicity at bay, set clear boundaries. These boundaries are like a strong fence around your garden, defining what behaviors you will and won’t tolerate. Be sure to be firm and direct in communicating your limits and expectations. Let them know what kind of treatment is acceptable in your garden and what will be considered unwelcome.

Don’t be afraid to be firm. Protecting your well-being is not selfish, it’s essential. Often, toxic people respect strong resistance. When they see a well-protected garden, they might lose interest and seek an easier target.

🚀 Limiting Interactions:Reducing the frequency and duration of your interactions with toxic individuals might be necessary to preserve your mental and emotional health, reducing their influence and the potential stress they can cause.

If you have control over your schedule, you can arrange it to avoid unnecessary contact. KISS, Keep Encounters Short: When interaction is unavoidable, keep it concise. Limit conversations to the necessary topics, especially in a professional environment where complete avoidance is impractical.

When interaction is unavoidable, keep it concise. Limit conversations to the necessary topics, especially in a professional environment where complete avoidance is impractical.

🚀 Leverage on Rules and Norms: When dealing with toxic people, sometimes their behavior goes beyond mere annoyance and crosses into violations of rules or norms.Familiarize yourself with the organization’s policies on behavior and reporting. Understanding these “rules” empowers you to handle issues calmly and objectively. Rules shift the focus from personal confrontation to enforcing fair and well-known standards, helping to de-escalate potentially volatile situations.

Example: I once had a toxic boss who insisted I stay in his office while he smoked. Knowing the rules, I said, “This is a public place, and smoking is not allowed by law. I’ll return once you finish. Since I am sensitive to smoke, we will need to open the windows and wait for a while because I don’t want to be a passive smoker.”

However, confronting the toxic person isn’t always advisable. If you feel like you’re in a workplace version of The Hunger Games, don’t just throw yourself into the arena of conflict. Sometimes, it’s better to rely on the old phrase:

“The work of saints is done by others.”

Report the rule or norm violation to the appropriate authority to minimize your exposure to the toxic person. Keep calm like a duck on water. Serene above, paddling like mad below. Find a private moment to report the issue, avoiding times of high tension or visibility.

Example:Imagine a gym bully hogging the leg press machine like it’s their personal throne. Knowing the gym’s 20-minute time limit rule, you politely remind them of it. If they refuse to adhere, don’t argue; instead, approach the staff to enforce the rule.

Cultural norms also play a critical role in maintaining a healthy group dynamic.

Example: In a workplace where gossip is brewing, as a leader, you need to nip it in the bud tactfully. You can’t just watch from the sidelines. Gently pull the person aside and say, “You don’t want the reputation of a gossiper. We value respectful communication, and talking about someone behind their back isn’t kind. Let’s keep our conversations constructive.”

However, if you’re not the leader and you fear for your position, find a trusted senior person and ask, “Is this kind of behavior tolerated here?”

🚀 Seek Support: Your Pit Crew: Navigating the rough waters of toxic behavior alone can be exhausting. Seeking support from friends, family, or a professional is crucial for your physical and mental health. It is a sign of wisdom and humility, not a weakness. Even the F1 champion driver needs a pit crew to keep them going.

As Dionne Warwick sang: “Keep smilin’, keep shinin’, knowing you can always count on me for sure. That’s what friends are for. For good times and bad times, I’ll be on your side forever more. That’s what friends are for.”

Your inner circle:Family and friends are your trusted go-to mechanics. They know you inside out, can provide emotional fuel, and offer encouragement, perspective, and advice. When you’re running on empty, a chat with them can recharge your batteries.

Professional Help: Sometimes, you need a specialist to fine-tune your engine. Therapists and counselors are like skilled mechanics for your mind, providing strategies and coping mechanisms tailored to your situation. They help you navigate complex emotions and build resilience, acting as your personal navigators through stormy weather.

When signs of toxicity mount, don’t wait until it has a severe effect on your mental health. The earlier you approach them, the better. They’re qualified to protect you from the fatal accidents of sadness and depression, ensuring you stay on the road to healthy emotional well-being

Colleagues, Coaches, and Mentors: In the workplace, trusted colleagues, coaches, and mentors can offer invaluable guidance and support. They understand the unique context of your challenges and can provide practical advice. Personal coaches play a crucial role too, offering tailored insights and strategies to help you excel. Think of them all as your trackside experts, helping you maneuver the tricky curves of professional life with precision and confidence.

Support Groups: They say that a problem shared by many is a comfort to fools, but that was before they invented the idea of support or mastermind groups. Joining a support group connects you with others facing similar challenges. It’s like being part of a racing team where everyone understands the pressures and shares strategies for success.

Tapping into the wisdom of your trusted mastermind group can expand your view and introduce new perspectives. Together, you navigate the track, learn from each other’s experiences, and cross the finish line stronger.

6. Braveheart. Not Bystander!

The late Roman Kent, a survivor of Auschwitz, proposed in his memorable speech the “11th Commandment”:

“Thou shall never be a bystander.”

He emphasized the timeless principle that “Hate is never right and love is never wrong,” urging everyone to actively stand against hatred and injustice.

In Delivering Delight, we work with companies to measure and upgrade their culture and present the leadership with an “MRI” of their organization’s culture. One of our clients had a culture report showing high entropy and complaints of bullying. During the subsequent phase, where we helped them redefine and upgrade the company’s core values, the top leadership committed to non-toxicity and no bullying. They also established safe reporting mechanisms to ensure swift action against any toxic behaviors. A few months after completing the cultural transformation, I was informed that a bullying incident occurred and the toxic leader involved was asked to leave.

If you are a leader, remember that toxicity cannot thrive without your tolerance. Your response to toxic behavior defines the culture of your organization. Allowing an achiever to bully others because of their contribution to the bottom line poisons the well, eroding trust and damaging the overall culture.

As a leader, you have the responsibility and obligation to root out such behavior, ensuring a healthy and respectful environment for all.

The term “Braveheart”means a courageous person. It is associated with the Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, who was a key figure in the Wars of Scottish Independence during the late 13th and early 14th centuries and popularized in the 1995 film “Braveheart,” directed by and starring Mel Gibson as Wallace.

Amy Cuddy, (3) the social psychologist, bestselling author, and top TED speaker is about to release her new book called “Bullies, Bystanders, And Bravehearts”based on years of extensive research.

In her article “Calling All Bravehearts: What Is Social Bravery and How Will It Help Us Put An End To Workplace Bullying?”, Cuddy discusses the concept of social bravery and its critical role in combating workplace bullying. She explains that social bravery involves standing up against bullies, supporting victims, and fostering a culture of respect and inclusion. By understanding the psychological dynamics at play, individuals who recognize the bullying behavior can develop the courage to act as “Bravehearts” and choose to intervene rather than passive bystanders, which can significantly reduce the prevalence of bullying in professional environments.

Cuddy says: “Social bravery is not always glorious. Sometimes it’s even thankless. The bravest things won’t necessarily turn you into a hero in everyone else’s eyes. It’s speaking up on behalf of others in uncomfortable moments. It’s having difficult or painful or scary conversations. Each of us can learn to become a braveheart, and others’ socially brave acts remind us of that. We can do better, and we can do so together.”

Beyond calling out bullies, Bravehearts empower the target and dismantle the bully’s power dynamic. They provide emotional and practical support to the victim, preventing escalation and often nipping bullying in the bud before it gains traction. By intervening early, Bravehearts foster a safer, more supportive environment. Their actions demonstrate the strength of courage and compassion in combating negativity and injustice.

7. The Upside of Overcoming Toxicity

Dealing with toxic people is like enduring an emotional obstacle course triathlon. It is exhausting but incredibly strengthening. Surviving these encounters builds resilience, allowing you to bounce forward quicker and not let negativity weigh you down. Handling toxic behavior successfully teaches you to navigate conflicts with the calm of a Zen master and the assertiveness of a seasoned negotiator, crucial skills for both your personal and professional life.

You become adept at reading emotional cues, managing interactions smoothly, and spotting toxic behaviors early, so you can nip them in the bud before they spiral out of control. Each time you overcome a toxic encounter becomes a personal growth opportunity, teaching you how to thrive even in the most challenging environments.

(1) (Chödrön 1994, 83–84). Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan-Buddhist. She is an ordained nun, former Acharya of Shambhala Buddhism, and disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Chödrön has written several dozen books and audiobooks and is the principal teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.

(2) Garry Ridgeis the former CEO of WD-40 Company, renowned for his empathetic leadership and focus on positive workplace culture. Under his leadership, WD-40 saw significant growth and achieved 93% employee engagement. Ridge is proud of this culture, where tribe members bring brilliance, joy, dedication, and fun to work every day, all around the world.

Garry is also an author and speaker, sharing insights on leadership and organizational development.

(3) Amy Joy Casselberry Cuddy is an American social psychologist, author and speaker. She is a proponent of “power posing”, a self-improvement technique whose scientific validity has been questioned. She has served as a faculty member at Rutgers University, Kellogg School of Management, and Harvard Business School


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