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Cut Out The Cancer

Little or no question exists in everyone’s mind that cancer is a terrible scourge on modern society. However, is cancer limited to the human body?  I contend that the term “cancer” can also refer to toxic employees or managers who negatively affect an organization.

In addition to the traditional medical definition of cancer, Merriam-Webster has a secondary definition: “something evil or malignant that spreads destructively.” The damaging effects of a toxic employee can spread throughout an organization in a manner similar to a devastating cancer’s spreading throughout the human body.

This article will concentrate on toxic or cancerous managers, as they are the ones least likely to be removed from an organization. Superiors often view mid-level managers as having significant institutional knowledge and therefore as being valuable resources to the organization, and relatively untouchable. However, if a mid-level manager has exceptionally poor management skills, ones that suck the life out of the rank-and-file workforce, then this manger could be an unrecognized liability. His or her toxic/cancerous habits could have a huge undesirable effect on employee retention. Employees are much more likely to quit a bad boss rather than the company. In an article titled “Seven Characteristics of an Energy-Draining Boss,” Sabrina Son lists the following traits that can affect productivity and retention:

  • Lacks communication skills
  • Doesn’t set clear goals
  • Doesn’t show respect for his or her team
  • Can’t stop micromanaging
  • Never says thank you
  • Only sees the glass as half empty
  • Is disorganized                                                                                                               (Son, 2016)

Many of these attributes can easily remain hidden from senior management, particularly when the middle manager “throws employees under the bus” to protect himself or herself.

Earlier, I mentioned that employees often quit a boss rather than the company. If the manager is particularly bad, employees may resign en masse or in quick succession, leaving the project exceptionally vulnerable. In many cases, lost resources of this magnitude far outweigh any institutional knowledge the manager may have. This would qualify as a situation where a cancer has metastasized through a significant portion of the organization.

One important analogy between human and organizational cancers is that cancer cells in the human body feed off of good cells, often in a parasitic fashion. Bad bosses can feed off of good employees, drain their positive energy, and adversely affect the project.

Quality organizations need to recognize when cancerous situations exist and accept when the time is right to surgically remove the deplorable managers. Stay tuned for “No Fear of Reprisal,” a look at methodologies for recognizing and control such bad behavior.

Harris Asbeil is a principal at Vital Knowledge Group, an organization committed to developing business leadership skills.


(n.d.). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cancer

Elejalde-Ruiz, A. (2015, September 18). Toxic workers a drain on the bottom line, but you can spot them, study says. Retrieved from Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-toxic-workers-northwestern-0920-biz-20150918-story.html

Knowledge@Wharton. (2015, August 12). Is Your Workplace Tough — or Is It Toxic? Retrieved from Wharton School of Business: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/is-your-workplace-tough-or-is-it-toxic/

Son, S. (2016, February 27). 7 CHARACTERISTICS OF AN ENERGY-DRAINING BOSS. Retrieved from Tiny Pulse: https://www.tinypulse.com/blog/sk-characteristics-of-bad-boss






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