Lisa McLeod: What is the poison person costing you?

  • Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Every organization has a poison person; some organizations have lots of poison people.

They’re the people who suck the energy out of projects, complain about routine events and whine about the slightest inconvenience.


For example, I once worked in an office where our boss’ admin was so negative that people often neglected to give the boss important information simply because they didn’t want to deal with her.

Poison people don’t just swallow their poison, they spread it, and it has a choking effect on everyone.

A 2001 study from Case Western University revealed, “Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.”

Workplace studies have documented that it takes five positive comments to outweigh one negative comment.

People are more likely to remember a surly comment from a poison person than they are to remember positive comments from their boss, colleague, or someone they care about.

Organizations often underestimate the power of poison people. They keep them around because of their perceived skills or knowledge.

I frequently hear leaders say, as my former boss did, “So and so is negative, but they’re good at their job.”

Now that I know better, I can see that my boss, and leaders like him are dead flat wrong.

Would my boss still believe that his poison admin was effective if he knew that her bad attitude was causing him to miss critical information?

I doubt it.

Part of the fault was his for not considering the implications of her bad attitude. But part of the fault was ours for not pointing it out.

A poison person’s negativity seeps into the whole group. Sometimes you don’t even realize what a big impact one person is having on an entire team.

Here are three kinds of poison people that may be costing you more than you realize:

Nitpickers: My husband once had a boss who beat people over the head with endless debates about font sizes. He wasn’t a magazine editor; their company sold light fixtures. The result was, by the time his people gave their presentations, they weren’t enthusiastic about their products, they were more worried about getting the type size right.

Subversives: They keep quiet during the meeting but their acid tongues start flapping the second they get anyone alone. They love to criticize in private and fill new people in on the office “history.” They never speak up publicly because then they would have to take responsibility for fixing things.

Eeyores: Their calling card is heavy sighs, beleaguered looks, and endless complaints. They’re always searching for someone who will finally listen to their tale of woe. Being around an Eeyore is Chinese water torture. You’re dying, but it’s one slow drip at a time.

You can’t banish the poison people to their own island, although it’s fun to imagine them sentenced to life with their own kind.

But you can keep them out of your organization, and your life.

If you’re a boss, don’t underestimate how much one person’s negativity can affect your entire team. No one is skilled enough to merit ruining the morale of a whole group.

If you’re dealing with a poison person, don’t engage.

And if you suspect you may be a poison person, get help. You’re sucking the life out of us and that’s hardly how you want to be remembered.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant for companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer.

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