Get the toxic people out of your life, but welcome the ones who challenge you.

I watched an interesting and thoughtful piece from an American entrepreneur Kim Perell today courtesy of a share on Linked In from one of the best business coaches, trainers, and presenters I’ve ever worked with Mark Jeffries .

Basically the message was “surround yourself with supportive (not toxic) people.”

As someone who has no doubt been considered to be toxic by any number of colleagues over the years this struck me as a rather limiting headline message.

It depends of course on your definition of the term “toxic.” If by toxic we mean destructive, wholly negative, or undermining then this has to be right. People like this suck the life out of organisations and the people in them. The “it’ll never work” and “oh we’ve tried that” brigade.

But if by being supportive and not being toxic we mean – people who agree with me – then I think a smudge of toxicity can be a good thing.

I worked for Margaret Thatcher in one of my past lives. She famously used, if not coined, the phrase “One of Us.” It was even the title of one of her better biographies. I heard her use this phrase, to me and others, on many occasions.

She would not infrequently ask of someone under discussion “is he/she one of us.”

By this she absolutely did not mean “will they agree with me all the time.” Except at the nadir of her career she didn’t like “yes men (or women).”

She equally famously once said “I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.” And she meant it. The people she liked and admired most were those who could argue their case, fight their corner.

i love arument

By “one of us” she meant are they somebody who understands our purpose, our vision, our philosophy.” She was driven by what business people might call a “change agenda.” She was all about change. And her question and criteria for judging somebody, was “do they get it?”

I had another boss, Paul Preston, then Chairman & CEO of McDonald’s UK who like most people in the McDonald’s Family had lots of favourite phrases.

One was “my greatest skill is to surround myself with smart people.” By this he did not mean to imply that he was not smart, he was. But to indicate that he knew different people were smart at different things, and that he welcomed being challenged on areas that were not what he would have considered the ones where he was the smartest in the room. He was a listener and his success was built on drawing support from others.

Paul’s successor was Andrew Taylor and Andrew was a strong upholder of the “One of Us” approach. In fact when I was being tested to see if I was the right material for promotion to his board, one of the people testing me by taking me out on the road and working in the restaurants afterwards told me that this had been the question – “is he one of us?” By this they meant not is he a “yes man”, but does he “get” the business?

As I was the first “PR” type person from the “outside” considered for such a promotion in a business which rates most highly those who know how to run a restaurant and serve customers I was regarded with deep suspicion. They were probably right to do so!

Their concern was whether somebody who came from PR and politics could possibly understand what long shifts in a restaurant were like.

My role was to bring expertise, experience and perspectives that other people did not have. My bosses wanted me to be challenging and to “say the un-sayable,” but they also wanted me to do this as someone they trusted as being “one of us.”

I’ve often quoted what I believe to  be my best ever “reference” which was a note in a Christmas Card one year from one boss. He wrote – “thanks for all your advice in the year, you bastard.” What he had (probably) valued most was me offering advice that he and others hadn’t wanted to hear.

That kind of input could (and frequently has in my case) been taken by people as being “toxic.” But only by those who mistake being supportive for “not disagreeing with me.” Disagreement is healthy in any organisation. It’s when everybody in the room agrees about something you should worry, worry if they have any different perspectives or critical faculties to the table.

There is no point in having a team of people who all think the same way, but it is vital that everybody in the team is heading the same way.

This kind of assessment can and usually is confused by cultural differences across the globe, and even more locally. People of different nationalities, and even from different parts of the same country, interpret such things in very different ways.

I recall the first ever presentation I gave to American colleagues. After sharing an update report on a particularly tricky issue facing our business I was asked to sum up how I felt things were going.

I replied with masterly British understatement “oh they’re fine now.” There was silence. One of the people I was presenting to asked “but you seemed to be saying we were doing the right things, so what’s wrong?” Confused I tried to clarify that I thought what we were doing was more or less, in the scheme of things, probably, maybe… OK.

They were horrified. They thought I meant things were going really badly because I hadn’t enthusiastically punched the air and said how fantastic it all was. As a Brit saying it was fine, OK, not bad… could be worse – means exactly that.

They might have thought my “could be worse” was negative, even toxic. To me it meant we were sort of 9 out of 10.

I only saw a snatch of the excellent presentation referenced here. I’d like to see the rest, so don’t castigate me for taking a line out of context if I have, but I’d agree – get rid of the toxic people and surround yourself with the supportive ones. But don’t confuse being supportive with being submissive.

It’s good advice to surround yourself with smart and supportive people who are not afraid to challenge you.

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