In 2018, Oxford Dictionary made toxic its word of the year. Toxic [work] environment, toxic culture, and toxic relationship were among the top ten ‘toxic’ collocates in 2018.
[Toxic] frequently used in reference to harmful workplace environments and the toll this takes on the workforce’s mental health. From overly demanding workloads to outright sexual harassment, many companies have been exposed as crucibles for such toxic culture this year…Source: Oxford Languages Word of the Year 2018
Business executives, managers, and disengaged employees can create toxicity. Often, it’s all three. But businesses don’t monopolize toxicity. It engulfs charities and churches, too. Some charismatic leaders in mega churches set the tone for toxic workplaces by their narcissism and greed.
Spotting a toxic workplace can be simple, not only from within, but outside. We don’t have to examine turnover statistics, reports, or interview anyone to know Donald Trump’s White House was a super toxic environment. Here are a few signs of a toxic workplace:
- Lack of articulated and lived core values
- Procedures, practices, decisions, made situationally
- Poor communications
- Disengaged employees
Lack of Articulated and Lived Core Values
Leadership is advancing others, not promoting self. Leaders set the tone and create safe workplaces. As John Maxwell says: Leaders never finish alone. They articulate, guide and follow the entity’s mission and values.
The mission is the purpose: why you exist. Values are ethical guidelines the entity follows always. They show you will do what’s right in every situation. My previous boss and former Anglo American PLC’s CEO, Cynthia Carroll, showed this trait. Her values led her to close the platinum mine in South Africa although deaths declined year-over-year: a costly decision with significant positive global effects in the mining industry.
Values are our default position, our North Star. Doing what’s right, period! Values include respect for individuals and families, trust, integrity, transparency, caring, rigor, good stewardship, and accountability.
Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau’s actions showed no ethical guiding principles or core values. Trump pressured his loyal vice president — among others — to overturn certified election results. Trudeau pressured his attorney general to cover up his conflict of interest. Both acted in their best interests. Neither suffered legal consequences; thus, their message to compatriots: Core values are not beacons for decisions — the end justifies the means.
Without consistent application of ethical guiding principles and core values, leaders ignore trust, integrity, caring, good stewardship, and accountability in favor of a particular outcome — a basis for a toxic culture.
Procedures Practices Decisions Made Situationally
Align procedures and practices with core values. Hire people of character, train, develop, and empower them. Accept mistakes as they grow and learn. Don’t micromanage or rebuke people for learning curve blunders; use mistakes to teach and learn.
Values should include providing a safe (emotional and physical) environment. Don’t compromise and “cut costs” associated with core values, like safety, to “save” money when times get tough. Do what’s right and bear the costs!
When leaders and managers create procedures and practices contrary to core values, they confuse, frustrate, and cause disgruntled employees. Employees become fearful, accidents occur, rumors abound as toxicity creeps in. Values’ statements need consistent decisions to affirm them.
Leaders build trust by action. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines trust — the foundation of good communications — as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.” Telling an employee eleven months later about poor performance doesn’t help. Regular feedback shows care and a desire to listen, learn, and help the employee succeed. Employees need positive and negative feedback; positive feedback alone is as bad as none.
Practice the TAP Principle:
- Be transparent: what you see is who I am, which fits with core values.
- Be approachable: effective managers and leaders listen, ask questions, and encourage.
- Be predictable: apply core values always. If you see an error which lowered costs by $100,000, fix it because that’s right.
When the workforce see core values applied consistently, they know who you are and what you believe in practice.
Leaders must respond to employees’ legitimate issues. Share company performance with the workforce. Give them a chance to ask questions about the business, and share their challenges. With best intentions, it’s hard to eradicate a rotten culture:
For the Ford women, harassment endured even though they work for a multinational corporation with a professional human resources operation … members of one of the country’s most powerful unions … a federal agency and then a federal judge sided with them, and even after independent monitors policed the factory floors for several years.New York Times Article, December 19, 2017
The number one reason people change jobs today is for career growth opportunities. Yet, most firms do not engage employees.
Employee engagement is often mistaken for workplace culture — but they aren’t the same thing. Engagement is about meeting employees’ needs in a way that sets them up for high performance. Engagement is the performance aspect of an organization’s culture. … Culture is how we do things around here. It is what makes your organization special and different …Source: Gallup
Worldwide, 85% of employees are disengaged versus 65% in the U.S.. Disengaged employees gossip, spread rumors, which breed toxicity, lower productivity and increase turnover. Any wonder the average length of service of U.S. employees is 4.2 years; 2.8 years for a millennials, the largest generation in the workforce!
To engage employees and eliminate toxicity, hire people of character, train, develop, and empower them. And appoint leaders who live the entity’s values.
How Should Employees Respond to a Toxic Boss
One size doesn’t fit all. Dealing with a boss with a toxic attitude (toxic boss) depends on the situation. Is she a micromanager, a bully, an ignorant and arrogant talker? Let’s look at micromanagers:
- Stay one step ahead: feed them with project updates. Don’t wait for requests.
- Be proactive: provide solutions to improve processes and effectiveness.
- When their projects swamp you, ask for priorities. Tell them you can do their requests, but with limited time, you need their priorities.
- Ask questions to understand requests; playback what you grasped.
- Clarify team member’s role and responsibilities. Micromanagers want to meet your direct reports alone; be present when they meet your staff.
- Understand your results will never satisfy them; they want their way.
- Focus on what you control. Ensure you have a solid red line you will not allow them to cross—ever.
- Form alliances with like-minded colleagues. When micromanagers get what they want, they might trust you. Still, some people never change.
Not everyone will work with micromanagers. Don’t stay, grumble, and accept “this is the only way.” Find a channel to present the toxic situation. That’s what workers in Canada’s Governor General’s office did and succeeded.
What about the bully bosses? Don’t accept abuse. Seek help; but don’t allow them to cross your red line.
Responding in a Toxic Workplace: A Case Study
I interviewed an individual over six months to learn about his toxic workplace. Robert (pseudonym), a vice president in a medium-sized, multi-location corporation, is one of seven reporting to the chief operating officer (COO). Robert’s boss, Bill (pseudonym), a micromanager, reports to the chief executive officer (CEO).
Bill holds weekly meetings with fifty people: Robert’s level (10 people) and the level below (40 people). At these “feedback” sessions, Bill speaks 99% of the time, delve in minutia, often criticizing the second tier for not meeting unattainable, inexplicable standards. Bill doesn’t see the harm in bypassing his direct reports.
He wants everything tomorrow and believes if you don’t have needed resources that’s your problem. You must deliver.
Bill’s approach frustrates Robert because Bill goes directly to his team with specific tasks without Robert’s knowledge. Asking Bill to stop hasn’t worked.
“Why do you stay?” I asked Robert.
“I believe I can make a difference in the bigger picture.” Robert replied.
Robert follows the eight items above. He stays ahead of Bill, anticipates needs, and provides quality information. Robert’s team funnels Bill’s requests to Robert who clarifies them with Bill before he presents results to Bill. In Monday meetings, Robert takes questions about his division, which delights his staff. To date, it’s working.
“Has Bill changed?” I asked Robert.
“No, but we are at peace, and we continue doing our best. We don’t expect him to change, and we don’t plan to leave.” He replied.
The culture remains toxic. Turnover is high, stress rampant, and productivity low. Robert will not accept abusive language or behavior, and is considering meeting the CEO because of the rising stress and poor morale.
Toxic Workplace Caused by Owner/Boss
Robert is an executive with options. What about workers in a small business where the owner/boss creates toxicity? He shouts, distrusts, throws tantrums, demands long hours, and ignores tenets of healthy relationships. These employees have no safety outlet where they believe someone will hear and understand them. I interviewed several such folks. A few of them leave one toxic place for somewhere less bad, but still unhealthy! Others stay because they need the salary to survive. This is a real problem. Besides the eight points above, the other practical answer is prayer.
Toxicity in a Team With Healthy Senior Leadership
This situation should be easier to fix because the basis for a healthy workplace exists at the leadership level. It needs effective intervention to learn the issues:
- Unclear goals: Common goals foster cohesiveness and lowers conflicts. Clear team member’s role and team goals help combat toxicity.
- Lack of trust: Trust in the leader and one another is the glue in a team. People work better in a supportive, trusting environment.
- Poor team leadership: Listen, encourage, and resource the team. Be authentic, humble, and fair.
- Lack of recognition: Thank team members for everyday tasks; engage with team members often. Give credit when things go right; accept blame when they go wrong, .
- Poor communications: Ensure everyone is on the same page. Inspire, motivate, and reassure team members.
Sometimes one person won’t get with the program. Delve deep to find out the cause. Is something happening at home? Often, the employee has valid concerns she won’t discuss because she doesn’t trust you. Maybe the team member needs reassignment to workout her issues. Provide funding for counseling, if needed.
A toxic work environment is harmful to your health. Seek professional help if you feel trapped in your position. But set a red line and don’t allow anyone to cross it. Beware: effects of your toxic workplace will spill over to your home, marriage, and family.
“Leaders” who promote self and take credit for everything are not leaders, but mavericks. Leaders develop and promote others, embed values-driven processes, and set and maintain the right culture in their firms. Research shows firms with positive cultures do better in many metrics. They attract better talent, record higher productivity and profits, have lower turnover, and higher employee engagement. Arrogant, rude, unethical leaders set unrealistic expectations, and create chaos which foster toxicity.
A toxic workplace will cause burn-out at any level. No organization is immune. Toxicity infects businesses, government, charities, and churches. Learn symptoms, identify them early, and work to change the culture. Though some creators of toxicity won’t change, help them even if they must leave the organization.
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.Source: World Health Organization
© 2021 Michel A Bell