Helping Toxic Co-Workers (Aesop Twist on The Scorpion and The Frog)


Toxic Behavior

I have a great friend and teammate named Kim who was lamenting about the behavior of some people in the workplace. Kim raises some very good points in that people can be incredibly selfish and self centered.  Of course no one is perfect but sometimes their toxic behavior impacts our own behaviors.  If someone hurts you repeatedly, do you still help them?   How do you engage employees that have intent on hurting you to better their own position?  How do you deal with direct reports or even leadership who may be jealous?  How do maintain yourself and be consistent as the person you are choosing to be?

When you are a passionate worker that cares about the work and the outcome of your activities, it is easy to be mistaken for someone who wants to LEAD that work and those activities.   Just because you care doesn’t automatically mean that you want to be in charge.   That being said,  people who are passionate and involved happen to be productive.  Productivity leads to recognition and a so on.   You can easily find yourself in a leadership role that was thrust upon you without your desire to have that role.

The key factor is that you don’t have to be a leader in title to be a leader in practice.   You can always lead from where you are.

While serving active duty in the Navy as a Damage Controlman, I walked the decks as a watch stander looking for dangers to the crew and ship.   In one occasion, the ship was being worked on by welding and pipe-fitting teams which strung toxic gas hoses all through the ship.  As I walked up the ladder way from a lower deck, I quickly realized a faint garlic odor.  That was a sign of danger (they add the odor).   I ran down to my shop and grabbed a gas detecting device to determine how much gas was in the air.  I knew it had to be more than allowed because the odor was so powerful and I could start to feel dizzy.   Once I found that the numbers were high, I immediately yelled for everyone to get out of the closed spaces and get outside.    I ran to the Officer of the deck whom has direct responsibility for the safety of the ship and told him of my concerns.   I said “sir, clear the decks, it is an emergency.”  In that very moment, he looked at me a young Petty Officer many ranks below him and said to watch stander, “do as he says, clear the decks.”    The shipyard workers found the broken and damaged hoses but at that very moment, I was assuming a role by context and nature to protect my ship and crew and to lead from where I was.   Any of my shipmates in my position from my perspective should have done the same.  Most people that noticed the odor while in their spaces and passageway ignored it.   It was later found that if we all ignored the issue, anyone in the immediate area of exposure would have been unconscious within 5-7 minutes.

None of this meant at any point that I wanted the job of the Officer of the deck.  

Changing You

I don’t want to get hurt.  I don’t understand why someone would want to hurt me.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The fact is that it doesn’t make sense because it isn’t logical, it is emotional.

In Aesops Fable The Scorpion and the Frog

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The
frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion
says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream,
the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of
paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown,
but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

Can people change? If someone hurts you over and again by attacking your credibility or backstabbing you by playing office politics or ignoring you, what do you do?  Do you change yourself?

The Frog is Satisfied

This is the part we really need to focus on.  The frog heard the answer from the scorpion and took the chance knowing that the scorpion has a long history of doing scorpion things, like stinging stuff.     The point is that the frog had options other than just accepting the scorpions answer and taking him for a ride.

What if we were to introduce some other characters?   Helping someone doesn’t always mean that you are the actual helper.  You could take that leadership position and lead from where you are and recognize that .. well …you know, over the course of history, the scorpion by its very nature will strike, because that is what they do.   What can I do to help the scorpion get to the other side but not get hurt?

I will save you.. Mr. Scorpion.. !

Introduce another opportunity to help.  I would rather carry the world through the power of the crowd than pretend I could bear the burdens of Atlas.   That is how we get crushed.

If the frog would have simply recognized that he doesn’t himself have the ability to help the scorpion and protect himself, he could have phoned a friend.

Toxic Coworkers

After school, I am gonna find you and beat you up.- 10 year old JayBee, Bronx, NY

We have been dealing with people all of our lives that put pressure on us or create a perception of crises.  These people could be dysfunctional or maybe dysfunctional is normal.  Regardless, we have to make a choice on how we respond and who we want to be as people.  It is our choice to be kind.  Being kind doesn’t mean that we have to be vulnerable.  If you want to feed a shark, you can throw some meat over the side of the ship, you aren’t obligated to jump in the water.

Advice from Dr Paul White  (

1) Realize that the current “crisis” is probably not a crisis (you could see it coming a long time ago) and they will be able to live through it.

2) Remember that if you “help them out” this time, you will be expected to help them out again (because the issue is really their misbeliefs about life and the resulting poor choices they make, and they will continue to do so.)

3) Do not accept false guilt from the dysfunctional person. The whole problem is not your fault and it is not your responsibility to fix the problem or rescue them.

4) Talk with and get support from others whom you believe are functional. You need affirmation that you are thinking clearly and responding appropriately to the situation.  Otherwise, you will start to second-guess yourself and may “give in”, thinking “just this once won’t hurt.”

Now all of this can sound rather hopeless — can’t people change?  Yes, they can.  But they have to decide they want to change.  And often, individuals with severely unhealthy patterns have to “hit the wall” of reality — that their beliefs about life and their way of living doesn’t really work because they don’t match the way the world really works.  Continuing to “help them out” only prolongs their dysfuctional patterns because they are not experiencing the true (and usually hard) consequences of their approach to life.  So the best way to help them is to not “help” them.

At the end of the day, if you want to help and you can’t see a clear path on how to do it and you are feeling as if it is bringing you down, be who you are but call a turtle!