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Beware the rule followers

Beware the rule followers

The Washington Post has a story online about a study of “toxic” people in the workplace titled; “Beware the rule-following co-worker, Harvard study warns.”

The Researchers were looking to create a profile of the kind of workers that caused problems; “researchers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor crunched data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies to come up with what may be the world’s most detailed personality profile of a “toxic worker.””

A key finding was that the most toxic employees weren’t lazy, but were often hyper-productive which may have been one reason why their toxicity was overlooked.

First, a toxic worker isn’t necessarily a lazy worker. In fact, they tend to be insanely productive, much more so than the average worker.

Housman, a workplace scientist at an analytics firm, and Minor, a visiting assistant professor at Harvard, explain that this may explain why these workers tend to persist in an organization despite their questionable ethics and morals: “There is a potential trade-off. … They are corrupt, but they excel in work performance.”

Other findings included that such people were selfish, and overconfident.  The most interesting takeaway though was that the toxic people were more likely to claim to be steadfast followers of the rules.

Even though it seems counterintuitive, Housman and Minor said that those employees who claimed in the questionnaire that rules should always be followed with no exceptions (as opposed to those who said sometimes you have to break rules to do a good job) were the most likely to be terminated for breaking the rules.

“It could also be the case that those who claim the rules should be followed are more Machiavellian in nature, purporting to embrace whatever rules, characteristics  or beliefs that they believe are most likely to obtain them a job,” they theorized. “There is strong evidence that Machiavellianism leads to deviant behavior.”

Though this study dealt with the workplace, I couldn’t help but see parallels with toxic people in churches.  In many cases, it seems that the people who cause the most conflict and strife within the church tend to be tendentious rule followers, and are often at the center of church activities, taking on more responsibilities than a single person should (and not always with good results).

What do you think?  Have you seen similar things, and how can the church deal effectively with “toxic” people whose efforts, however they imagine them, ultimately cause more pain and strife?






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Cheryl A. Mack

The person to beware is the one who takes the rules, especially the religious rules, to be a purity code. For people like this there is One Right Way to do just about everything. For example, in the religious realm the only valid Bible is the King James; the only valid eucharist is Rite 1, and so on. It can happen on the job as well and some quiet observation will demonstrate the pattern. A purity coder’s talismans vary but the trend toward that which will give him purity and pride of position is the same.

A purity coder does not know his own peril; for the same feeling of purity is often a basis for claiming superiority and then misuse of power. Once a purity coder starts down this slope in his heart, he is done for. Spiritually speaking. Because there is nothing spiritual or pure about looking down on others or marginalizing them.

So it naturally follows that the purity coder is impossible to reason with. Why? Because to him the rules are not just rules–they are the way to purity and privilege. When others change the rules they lose force. He perceives change as threatening. Change, unless it will add to his position and privilege, is seen as catastrophe. Where the rest of us see necessary change as a breath of fresh air, he sees his world crashing down and his position of privilege evaporating. He will not thank you for this.

Leslie Marshall

Most people are able to roll with ‘toxic’ personality types.

Thank God there is a place for people that challenge our [self absorbed] ways –the Church! I say, the more the merrier. A sense of humor works too.

Melissa Holloway

What I’ve wondered is if toxic people are particularly drawn to small churches or if they are just more noticeable in that setting because there aren’t the numbers to dilute their presence.

Neil Paynter

Please be careful about scapegoating the highly energetic and fastidious. Yes, our efforts can be disruptive and unwelcome, but to the inertial, engagement is threatening. I was ejected from an Episcopal parish for doing “too much”. I have since found my energy welcome elsewhere.

Ann Fontaine

The ones who insist that clergy should somehow follow a different standard that laity. “I can do this but you are a priest” —

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