Nimble Work Management
We all have seen examples of toxic behavior.
It’s the manager who loses his temper or the smart ass who makes denigratory or discriminatory jokes. (Just joking, he says with a broad smile, relishing how it stings.)
It’s the negative time wasters who consistently waste other people’s time with their moans and complaints. Or the guy fixated on promotion who takes credit for the work of his subordinates.
Sometimes it’s just one individual, other times the whole of a company’s culture is toxic.
Any level of toxic behavior creates a toxic work environment. For the person on the receiving end, but also for anyone observing it — you know you could be next. And that has significant effects on individual, team, and company performance.
No one wants to be on the receiving end, and no one wakes up in the morning thinking “let’s put on my most toxic behavior hat, today.”
Yet most people, any company’s best assets, have experience with it.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
So how can you make your company fit for humans and steer it away from the many dangers of toxicity?
Let’s take a look.
Toxic behavior is behavior that causes physical, mental, or emotional harm or distress for someone else – that may be the person at whom the behavior is directed, but also someone observing the interaction.
Social psychologists have taken a keen interest in toxic behavior, particularly in how bad it is for mental health.
Toxic behavior in the workplace even drives companies into bankruptcy.
And the press loves salacious stories about toxic workplaces. Maybe you’ve read some of the stories about Amazon’s working conditions.
Toxic behavior takes many forms. It can result from the toxic traits of a single individual or it can permeate a company’s culture with multiple permutations.
Let’s look first at toxic work environments and cultures.
A company’s culture is the expression of the values, corporate standards and practices of the company together with the actual attitudes and behavior of the people who embody and use them.
The culture can be a force for positivity or for toxicity.
Leaders set the scene.
Their behavior, not their words, informs everyone about what’s acceptable and what you need to do to thrive in the company. It attracts like minded individuals, and sends others scattering for cover.
Toxic behavior creates a lack of trust at every level of a company or institution.
It affects everyone. From the leaders, to middle management, to the workers and the consumers of the company’s products.
Here are two examples of toxic cultures that didn’t end well.
One of the most famous examples of a failure caused by toxic culture was the bankruptcy of energy trading company, Enron.
The executives ran the company on values that promoted corruption, greed and deception.
They spread their values by encouraging aggressive trading and slack ethical standards of accounting. The toxic work environment led to ever lower standards and ultimately to fraud.
The toxic Enron culture was aided and abetted by the lax auditing standards of Arthur Andersen, Enron’s accountants. They failed to expose Enron’s fraudulent practices which ultimately led to the failure of Arthur Andersen itself.
A second well-publicized example is Theranos, which went into liquidation in 2019.
The company’s leadership peddled a medical device that delivered unreliable results. The company’s leaders enforced a toxic work culture of extreme secrecy about the falsification of medical results, telling lies to the public to boost their own monetary gain.
Questions from workers brought swift retaliation such as instant dismissal.
In November 2022, Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was convicted of fraud and other crimes arising from those practices She is going to prison.
Most companies do not suffer from blatantly unethical and illegal toxic behavior by its leaders.
By far the majority of companies have sound values and standards. And that includes you, of course!
Even so, toxic behavior usually starts small, seemingly insignificantly. Something you shouldn’t make a big deal out of.
Trouble is, that leaving it unaddressed sends a message. That it’s somehow okay.
And that allows the behavior to spread. To the point where it becomes the norm.
Of course, you want to avoid that.
So let’s see what types of toxic behavior by individuals you want to look out for.
Here is a long list of common toxic behaviors. Even so, it is by no means exhaustive.
Anything I missed?
Being subjected to any toxic behavior induces stress.
Employees may feel hurt, may fear going to work or even dread losing their jobs.
Fear and other unpleasant emotions degrade performance.
Stress and fear negatively affect our abilities to make sound decisions, stifles our creativity, and dampens enthusiasm for every element of work life.
Quite simply because our brains need to be in a pleasant, positive state to unleash creativity, openness to change, innovative thinking, and everything else needed to do a good job.
Many leaders find it hard to kill off toxic behavior. They manage to stamp out one behavior, only to find another one rearing its ugly head.
It feels like fighting one of the many headed mythical monsters. Like the water snake Hydra with its seven heads or Cerberus, the three headed dog Cerberus from hell.
Still, it can be beaten, and here’s why you want to put in the effort.
Experiencing stress on a regular basis, leads to chronic stress, and everything that entails, like burnout and depression. Which in turn leads to higher absenteeism and higher costs.
Ultimately, it leads to a workforce in survival mode, which you experience as an unmotivated workforce with low morale.
Here’s a story illustrating a chain of events you want to avoid.
The legal department of a company was given a goal of saving costs.
As a way of doing so, they took up tearing apart any worker who made a claim against the company.
One person didn’t take it lying down.
Fred, a night watchman, angrily told other employees that the company dismissed him and refused to pay compensation for his broken leg. And that they argued he should not have gone into the area where lights did not work, despite the fact he had long been expected to do so.
His colleagues were well aware of the contradictions in the rules and what they were expected to do.
They started ‘working to rule’.
It led to unprecedented sick leave claims and an assembly line brought to a virtual standstill for weeks, causing a big loss of revenue for the company.
High absenteeism, higher medical expenses claims, high employee turnover, with its accompanying increase in recruitment costs, lowering of productivity and decrease in creativity are all ways which could hit the bottom line of your company.
And that’s not all.
People with options will vote with their feet — they’ll leave for greener pastures.
Leaving you with the ones that thrive in a toxic environment or have learned to tolerate it by disengaging.
That means less productivity, lower profits and more misery for you as a leader.
Even if you don’t want to coddle your workers, you can see it’s vital for the bottom line that you at the very least prevent them suffering any kind of toxic behavior.
So what can you do about it? Do you even have to do anything about it? If you’ve read this far, you already know the answer, but let’s make it even more explicit.
Many people see toxic behavior as the problem of and between individuals.
That’s why you can find plenty of information about how to deal with the narcissist, the critic or the manipulator.
And sure, there will always be toxic individuals. People that need firm boundaries set by their co-workers and managers.
But when the toxic individual holds any power (hierarchical or other), those around them may not feel free to set those boundaries.
That’s why it’s important that a company, through its leaders, does what it can to discourage toxic behavior too and provide a safe way for their employees to raise concerns.
Recognizing toxic behavior can be a difficult task.
The responsibility for monitoring behavior is usually allocated to the human resources department or, if there is none, then to a particular director.
Whoever gets the role, they need to receive the right sort of information.
The best kind comes as direct observations and comments by individuals about their work environment.
But for that kind of real and crucial feedback to trickle up, staff need to be confident that their opinions will be taken into account.
They also need to trust their managers won’t silence their comments and feedback, or have a direct line to whoever is responsible and has the clout to do something about it.
Your HR department may take the lead here by adding opportunities for comments and frank discussions through dedicated performance reviews.
Many firms use 360 feedback to help understand employee performance. It usually allows junior employees to give anonymous feedback on their bosses.
Other signs indicating there’s trouble under the surface include, but are not limited to: silent workplaces, absenteeism, falling productivity, complaints, and high turnover.
Essentially: when people fall silent and vote with their feet in droves, you can safely assume their experience is way less than stellar and they don’t feel heard.
Here’s what you can do to turn the tide.
The very best way that anybody, but particularly a leader can influence the workplace environment is to exemplify the traits and habits of a good leader.
A great leader looks to make sure that the right systems and processes are in place to create a positive corporate culture fit for humans.
Promote an atmosphere of trust that makes for a healthy thriving workplace by:
A good leader sets a personal example.
That means walking the talk of a positive, helpful and hopeful workplace.
It means being open and friendly to all, treating everyone with equal respect.
Talk kindly to your staff and thank them by publicly recognizing their contributions. (You already do that, don’t you?)
It also means intervening when you see something going on that could be construed as toxic.
No need to make a big deal out of it. Simply call it out: “That’s not how we do things around here.”
Only make a big deal out of it when the same person (or team) repeatedly gets it wrong. Be seen to do so — regardless of who it was (or perhaps especially when it was someone in a position of power). And follow up to ensure that suitable action is taken to put things right.
One of the worst things about toxic workplaces is that employees feel helpless with no control over their work life.
So encourage more junior management, such as departmental managers or admin staff, to become more aware and to build a positive culture in their area.
Recognize that it’s hard to hear ‘No’ and it takes guts to say ‘No’.
Even more so when you’d have to say it to a superior.
So be clear on what’s acceptable and what’s not. And that you expect everyone, victim or observer, to set and guard these boundaries.
Teach them how to do so in the most effective way: without naming or blaming or getting all worked up. A training in nonviolent communication will go a long way towards this end (and not just this end).
And for the more extreme or overt cases, point out that it’s easy to gather evidence to build a case if you need it. Most people can record on a mobile phone or ask the victim for a printout of an offensive email. They just don’t think of it.
To detox any work environment and establish and nurture a culture welcoming to and supportive of everyone, a top-down approach is crucial.
Remember that it is you and your fellow leaders who everyone else looks to for cues about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
So set the tone, and be seen to fix (persistent) transgressions.
Remember that better creativity, enthusiasm and productivity results from a happy, positive work culture from top to bottom. It starts with the culture at the top and works its way down to the bottom line.
So, you see, you can make your company fit for humans and steer it away from the many dangers of toxicity.
Make it a point to do so. And be seen to do it.
Think of the fantastic satisfaction you feel when you walk into your workplace and it has a friendly feel, buzzing with creativity and productivity.
Feel the reward when an employee comes to you with an idea for improving things, trusting you to act on it.
It’s leadership, teamwork and trust that makes for a workplace fit for humans.
So, set the example and reap the rewards of a thriving workplace.