Believing People Want to Do Well: Searching for Hidden Greatness Even in Toxic Behaviours

By Sarah McVanel

Having conducted or lead a team that has engaged in over 100 team consultations, I can tell you that I can count on one hand the number of people who set out to deliberately and systematically tear down other people, their team, and the organization.

Yet, how often are we pointing fingers? There’s got to be a “bad apple” to sus out, right?

Nope. This only serves to create further damage, distracting us from the real and root issues; the very opportunities to “fix” things and find sustainable solutions.

I know what you’re thinking. “But you’ve never met Shiela/Kwasi/Alex!” Well, it’s true I haven’t, and it’s yes, there are a handful of people that deliberately toxify the people and environments they work in.

It’s just not as often as we casually assume and assign blame to.

When you think of Shiela/Kwasi/Alex, can you say with certainty that they were toxic to the core? That their intentions were intentionally, premeditatedly and deliberately destructive? (If so, I am so, so, so very sorry. You do NOT deserve that.)

Instead, I think you will find this:

Very few people make it their mission in life to harm and hurt others.

(To be very clear, I am not saying toxic behaviours are never present; this needs to be dealt with decisively. It’s tricky. Read on and let’s explore this together.)

The rest of us are doing the best we can, and sometimes our capacity is low. In those times, we may not:

  • make the best choices
  • ask for help
  • look at the resources we have available
  • have the energy to find solutions
  • feel hopeful and optimistic
  • give the benefit of the doubt

Sometimes we can bounce back quickly, other times for a litany of reasons, we stay low for a while. However, being malicious is rarely the intention, it’s often frustration, roadblocks, a lack of resiliency, not talking through key issues, and other heavy “stuff of life”.

So what can we learn from this?

It’s very easy to lose hope when we’re in the middle of an interpersonal conflict storm that things will get better. This isn’t about “taking it” if you’re being disrespected and treated poorly; feedback is essential to letting someone know that their behaviour isn’t acceptable or aligned to expectations (yours, the team’s, the organization’s).

I have an idea that will give you the motivation to take action: Assume they don’t know the impact of their actions and words.

At first, this may seem unkind. “Hey Sarah, aren’t you assuming the worst in someone?” Actually, it kind by way of empathy: you shift to a state of curiosity as to why, right now, their baseline of “doing the best they can” is lower than their normal best. If you have any chance of recognizing their greatness behind the icky stuff, we need to draw on even a tiny reserve of empathy.

Unless you have confirmation that their behaviour is deliberately problematic, assume there’s a solution yet to be co-created.

Jumping to judgement and dolling out “jerk” cards like samples in a Costco will create way more problems in the long term.


  1. Tunnel Vision– the longer issues go unresolved and assumptions set in, it leads you to see more of what’s not working in them, and be less likely to see evidence to the contrary (check out the Ladder of Inference for a framework for this process)
  2. Toxic Scorecard– as the data “mounts” about their deliberate and increasingly problematic behaviour in your eyes, you get farther and farther away from a lower pressure conversation bridge, “Hey, can we talk?” (It’s like that Seinfeld episode where he couldn’t remember the name of the person he was dating, but it got past the point he could ask her, leading to a very comic end of that episode; in real life, unresolved issues are the opposite of funny.)
  3. Learned Helplessness– seeing that you don’t have any control over how someone treats you or behaves can create learned helplessness; if you really don’t see any possibility that things will be better, why would you try?

Where to start?

I want to offer you this if you’re feeling completely helpless to make things better:

  • Look for any small sign that things are or could be better
  • Understand the situationsince some scenarios are better than others
  • Examine the resources available
  • Ask for helpto revolve longstanding issues
  • Lean on people you trust (without gossiping as it impacts how they see the other person)
  • Acknowledge yourself by simply trying to make the situation better
  • Feel gratefulyou were not the one contributing to this negativity as they are likely hurting
  • Remember that the future is not written yet
  • Seek to understand that you have learned
  • See how, or hold the faith, that you will have gotten strongerand more equipped from having been through this
  • Reflect on a timethat was even worse than this and what you leveraged that helped even a little
  • Think of a situation in your work life that was harder and remember how you got through it
  • Remember you always have choices

I will leave you with this.

  • This experience canequip you with greater empathy for the people who are struggling (when someone comes to you for help as that trusted person).
  • This experience canhelp you notice when someone finds themselves in a stuck position from you having been there yourself.
  • This experience canhelp your future self by resolving this now and when you experience something like this in the future, you will remember how you took charge (and no doubt made progress in improving things).
  • This experience canhelp you look first at the circumstance versus jumping to an assumption it’s a personality and behavioural flaw.
  • This experience canhelp you cool your jets as it’s no fun to have to go back and apologize and challenging to break from an unwavering position.

On this last point, let me remind us, humans, that it’s perfectly normal to find ourselves in the grips of cognitive dissonance. Where we have such a strong stand, that it creates psychological discomfort to change it; it takes a lot of humility to say that we are wrong and we have a different way of seeing things. This can stop us from finding a sense of “me and you” and perhaps a more resourceful way of managing a relationship or situation.

Curiosity, empathy, and, I believe, greatness, are always present. It’s not just a gift to the person receiving this understanding. It is a gift to you.

Let us know your thoughts or experiences on this topic in the comments below!