Toxic Skill (noun)
- something that you do well, but brings no life or energy;
- a skill that has overstepped its intended bounds.
I had never heard of a toxic skill until I read Your Vocational Credo by Deborah Koehn Loyd (InterVarsity Press, 2015), and I was immediately intrigued both by her term and the way she described it. For her, working with numbers is a toxic skill–she does it well and knows that it’s an essential skill for her personal and work life, but when she ran her own accounting practice, she says “it nearly did me in” (109). Her flair for numbers that worked so well as a supportive skill became toxic when it overstepped its place to become the main event.
A toxic skill is sometimes also called a “killer skill”–not in the slang sense meaning excellent or awesome, but in the sense of causing physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual damage. In Killer Skills: When Success Traps You, Kevin and Kay Marie Brennfleck give this example:
Beth is a labor relations attorney who does well in her job. She is respected by her clients and other attorneys. Each day, however, she dreads going to work and being in situations that involve rancorous, high-stakes bargaining. Persuading and negotiating are “killer skills” for her. Her clients and colleagues would be surprised to find that Beth battles depression, anxiety, and chronic health issues that are directly related to the stress she experiences in her work.
Some might argue that a certain amount of stress is part of any job. It’s just not possible for every work situation and task to be a life-giving source of joy. Work is draining. But how can you tell if you have a toxic skill, and what can you do about it?
How To Tell If You Have a Toxic Skill
In her book, Deborah Koehn Loyd includes a job timeline exercise to help identify any toxic skills. and makes the following excellent points (pages 107-113):
1. Pay attention to your feelings.
If you feel lifeless or depressed after a specific activity, you might have discovered a toxic skill.
2. Be aware of any sense of shame.
When folks understand that we know how to do something well, they often expect us to do it whether it is good for us or not. For example, I am typically expected to pick up the accounting chores in most organizations I am closely involved with. I do not do this, but I often feel shamed for not participating in the expected way. Shame often causes us to say yes when we should be saying no.
3. Ask yourself, do you keep procrastinating on specific tasks?
It might be a clue when we put off a task until the very last minute, or if the task drifts to the bottom of the to-do list day by day and week by week.
4. Do you have skills that you don’t want anyone to know about?
If we keep a skill a secret so that nobody asks us for help in that area, it’s probably a toxic skill.
And What You Can Do About It
1. Re-focus on your larger purpose.
“Identifying Toxic Skills” is just one of the 13 chapters in Your Vocational Credo, and whatever toxic skills we might have are just part of our work life. As the author asks early in the book (10), “What are you all about? What is your ultimate why?” Re-focusing on that larger purpose helps to put a toxic skill in its rightful place in a supporting role instead of centre stage.
2. Discover your vocational preferences.
Your vocational preferences are “your top two or three motivators” (131)–I think of these as the opposite to any toxic skills, although the author doesn’t say it that way. To identify these preferences that give life, energy, and joy, I appreciate the author’s Vocational Preferences Survey included in her book. Although I’ve been in ministry for years, I learned something about myself, and discovered some new language to name the way I work.
3. Think sustainability.
Based on her research and her own experience, the author cautions against building your work life around your toxic skill, even though it may sometimes be necessary–like her own 18 years in accounting. In their article on killer skills, Kevin and Kay Marie Brennfleck suggest,
While you probably can’t avoid using killer skills altogether, aim for using your killer skills no more than 20% of the time in a given day or week.
4. Develop an exit strategy.
Can you renegotiate your work load? Trade your toxic skill to someone else who finds it a joy? Or do you actually need a different job or ministry? If your killer skill is really getting you down, Kevin and Kay Marie Brennfleck say,
Make a job or career change. No job is worth your health. You will thrive best in a job that minimizes the use of killer skills that drain you, and maximizes using skills that invigorate you.
5. Be thankful.
Even as I write this article, I realize how much it bristles with privilege. Many do not have the luxury of choice. Many have no job at all let alone a job that could be called life-giving and fulfilling. And even what we might consider a “toxic skill” is a gift from God, as the author acknowledges (111).
Does the concept of a toxic skill resonate with you? Do you have one, and what do you do about it? I received a complimentary copy of Your Vocational Credo from InterVarsity Press with no requirement to write a positive review, but I’m happy to recommend this book. Whether you’re discerning a new call or in the midst of ministry, it offers a helpful and practical perspective on vocation.
If you’re concerned about the good, the bad, and the ugly of church employment and how we can all do better, please share this article and consider signing up for my free updates. I’m praying and working for positive change, and hope you’ll join me.