How to Handle Toxic Salespeople (and you’re always going to have them show up)

“Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons.”

—Travis Bradberry, Clinical psychologist, author

Poisonous salespeople will make their way onto your team. Count on it.

If you’ve been around the block at all in business or organizational leadership you have been exposed to some of these people and the toxic waste that emanates from them. This type of person definitely shows up and they often do some work, but sometimes you wish they hadn’t shown up, especially if you are trying to drive a positive and collaborative culture. They tend to be very vocal about anything they deem to be “wrong” or “flawed,” and they have no challenge dumping negative on you and anyone else on the team.


As we quoted above, Travis Bradberry suggests that some of these special people are “blissfully unaware” of the adverse impact they have on those around them and others seem to gain pleasure from creating chaos.

I have come to believe that the actions of people that fall into this bucket usually originate from a faulty belief system. They actually believe that their negativity is the proper way to express what they are thinking or feeling. Certainly scripting can have a lot to do with their “negative nelly” ways, however, they have also adopted beliefs and attitudes and operated in cultures that either never corrected these habits or cultures that fostered and worsened them. In this chapter we aren’t going to spend time analyzing WHY a person has become toxic, I’m simply going to give you a few simple guidelines to follow that may help you improve the nature of the connection. The good news is, I, and many other experienced leaders, have had success doing a bit of reprogramming with toxic attitudes with positive results. Here are a few methods you can apply to a relationship with someone who is a bit toxic.

Rise Above the Situation

The very first thing I want to do is to rise above the situation or scenario. You have to recognize that toxic people are a little “nuts.” Once you have identified them as being a little sideways it is easier to remove emotion from the situation and deal pragmatically with the person or scenario. You definitely don’t want to feed into or feed the chaos. (That may be what they want you to do) If they are spewing negative, simply choose not to react to it. You may choose to thoughtfully respond to it by using one of the other methods bellow, but don’t react to it and engage in their negative thrall. By engaging them you are expanding the toxicity, and even validating it to some degree. In plain words, don’t get sucked into their game. They will want to wallow in their pool of toxicity and they want company. Don’t jump in the toxic pool with them.

Establish Boundaries

While I have suggested that you don’t “react” to a bunch of toxic waste, there is definitely a case for speaking up with a reasonable response. If a person in your organization is dumping negative for the sake of negative, then you may have to let them know that their behavior is not okay and their conduct may hurt them in their career. Negative people, by nature, want people to join their pity party. That can include their peers, you and anyone else they can infect. If toxic connections become energy vampires then you may have to separate them away from impressionable team members and even distance yourself from them when necessary.

Ask Them to Become Part of the Solution

We mentioned that people in the toxic bucket tend to wallow in their malaise and they have a habit on focusing on whatever they think the problems are. They talk about those things and rehash them over and over. There is a very effective method you can utilize and it can potentially neutralize their toxicity. You may want to try it. Sit that toxic person down, allow them to do a little dump of their problem(s) then simply ask; “It sounds like you have put a great deal of thought and energy into what you think is wrong or broken. I would assume, logically, that this also means you’ve placed an equal amount of energy into how these issues or problems can be fixed. Can I ask for your help in identifying several solutions we can focus on?”

You’d be surprised how many of these negative or toxic people immediately shift into a more positive and creative place. It is possible that they’ve been marginalized or ignored for so long that that nobody has asked them for their honest opinion. It is also probably that no leader has asked them to collaborate in a solution based thought process. By asking them to become part of the solution you are challenging them to jump to a very different place in their mind. This method doesn’t work 100% of the time (no method does) but you will find that it is one of the quickest ways to begin to improve a connection with an unconstructive person.

Challenge Them to Recognize Perceptions

If you have risen above the scenario (not sucked into it) and you’ve also established that it’s not okay to spread negative for the sake of negative, you have established a platform that can enable you to engage them in a constructive way. Asking them to become part of the solution is the next step in the process and it can do wonders to move a person from a toxic connection to a real and viable connected team member.

However, sometimes all of those steps fail to curb the bad behavior and you must challenge them to recognize the trail of perceptions they are leaving in their wake of toxicity. This may be the last step you take just before you disinvite them from being part of your organization. If you have applied the methods above and nothing has changed you may want to begin to ask them a few tough questions. When dealing with a toxic person like this my session questions may sound something like this, asking their permission first:

“If you were doing or saying things that could affect you career adversely, would you want me to make you aware of it?”

This is a great way to start the conversation as 100% of the time they tell you that they definitely would want to be aware of such things. You have their permission now, but more importantly, you have their attention. It is at this juncture that you may want to state the obvious and then begin to inquire about what they think may be underneath the toxic behavior. Often, this person has had tough breaks in their business or personal life. Perhaps they’ve been down in the dumps for so long that they don’t actually know how to think or act optimistically any longer. In addition, they most likely haven’t had a strong mentor they trusted to help them think differently.

“You have said (or done) things that have created a perception that is less than positive to the team. In response I let you know about our cultural boundaries and also suggested that we shift into a discussion of possible solutions to some of the things you’ve been vocal about. My perception, and the perceptions of others, are that your behavior has remained counter productive to the objectives of the team.

Can I ask if you are aware of how you are currently being perceived and can you also share with me where you think some of this is coming from?”

This is a HUGE open-ended question and also a very real question. This type of question may end the coaching session quickly (if they’re completely closed off to an open and honest discussion) or it can drive a great conversation. You can become that strong mentor that can influence them to think and behave differently. Without going any deeper into the psychology of why people behave toxically, and without diving into more complex methods of reprogramming, I wanted to offer these basic approaches. Our focus of this content is to first recognize where they are at initially and attempt to cause the best possible connection as rapidly as possible.

Here’s a gentle warning. Regardless of how skilled you think you are as a leader or coach, you may or may not be able to turn a toxic person around. You are (most likely) NOT a trained behavioral psychologist (as I am not) hence you must develop a few logical and proven protocols to negotiate your way through a toxic scenario and dispose of it quickly, one way or another. Obviously, the objective we want to remain faithful to is the goal of moving as close to a real and honest connection as soon as we can, and certainly recognize when we can’t.

I hope this blog article was beneficial to you. Whether it was or not, I LOVE comments!

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Joe Buzzello is a nationally recognized expert on direct selling and sales leadership. He has built legacy sales teams and experienced unprecedented success in individual and business-to-business markets as well as the network marketing industry. Joe has held executive level positions for Fortune 500 companies, but he has never strayed far from the art and science of selling, which he loves. In early 2014, Joe began writing, speaking, and coaching through his platform, and The CAP Equation©. Please visit Joe at:

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