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The Toxic Workplace

Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplace

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I recently took a call from a female executive, called Georgina, who was known to me. She had decided to move on from her role, having ‘had enough’. Nearly three years of conflict and tension with her boss had taken its toll and she was no longer prepared to devote any more of her life and energy to the situation. It was a bold move, as she was the main breadwinner. But one of her children had just recovered from a serious illness and the experience had given her a different perspective on life, highlighting what was really important.

It is a familiar story and reminded me of the quote by Henry David Thoreau: ‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it’. Georgina had recognized this and decided to check out. 

Over the course of 15 years or so, I have mediated or facilitated hundreds of one-to-one and team discussions involving thousands of people. My experience suggests that there are usually three strands that are consistent and interconnected when significant difficulties surface. These are organizations systems, line management capability and employee responsibility. I refer to these as the Toxic Triad. Colleagues can successfully work through interpersonal difficulties but if the organization has a weak systems infrastructure, difficulties are likely to resurface. For organizations to be truly toxic free, robust systems must be put into place that support the organizations strategy.  I describe each level as follows:  

  • A toxic organization exhibits low levels of trust, has misaligned organization systems and incapable line managers who work hard to preserve their status at all costs. Employees are unwilling or fearful to take responsibility for their actions;
  • A toxic line manager lacks the competence required to fulfil their role. Their ethical deficit is characterized by a pattern of behavior which includes a demonstrable lack of regard and compassion for the well-being of team members
  • A toxic employee is prone to seek opportunities to sow discord and division. They can be characteristically uncivil and are more likely to pursue retribution rather than forgiveness. Their delivery of results can be questionable. They may also endeavor to keep their furtive actions against colleagues away from attention.

Corporate culture is a hard thing to get right. It grows and evolves over time and is the result of action and reaction. Whether officially recognized or not, an organizations culture determines a whole range of behavior indicators. It is recognized that a workforce that reports high levels of employee satisfaction will be able to perform well, even where pockets of negativity and destructive politics exist.

A toxic workplace is likely to feature narcissistic behavior, offensive and insulting leadership, threatening behavior, harassment, humiliation. Mobbing, ostracism, incivility and bullying amongst employees. A toxic workplace can be a source for physical and mental imbalances that could lead to high levels of stress and burnout and have negative psychological effects on employees health. High levels of work pressure can be generated which lead to counterproductive work behavior.

A toxic workplace is unlikely to meet the needs of employees and the demands it places on physiological resources decrease the capacity of employees to meet their targets and reduces collaboration amongst peers. A high level of toxicity in the workplace environment is likely to increase workplace stress whereas a low level of toxicity decreases workplace stress. This has been confirmed by a range of empirical studies. The effects of workplace stress include absenteeism and lower productivity. There is also evidence to suggest that employees suffering from workplace stress are likely to engage in behavior that is poor for their health such as smoking, drinking, poor diet and a lack of physical exercise.

The factors that can contribute towards workplace cultures becoming toxic include:

  • A lack of adequate, appropriate or essential resources to carry out job functions
  • Colleagues who feel no requirement to moderate their behavior
  • Overdemanding line managers
  • An unhealthy focus on monthly or quarterly profit delivery
  • Obdurate executives or senior managers
  • An expectation that employees will work way beyond their contracted hours as a matter of course
  • Line managers who are pre-occupied with status and power rather than organization objectives
  • Leaving direct reports out of the decision-making process or line managers taking credit for ideas generated by more junior members of staff

I was recently invited to help a dysfunctional team of Neonatologists. The team were responsible for providing care for premature babies born from 23 weeks onwards. I was struck by the size of the babies I saw as I was given a tour of the ward by one of the consultants. There was one member of the team who was described by colleagues as a polemicist, who was exceptionally difficult and capricious. He was about three years from retirement and a chart had been secretly put up by colleagues to count down the days until this would happen. Team members would take turns to mark off each week that passed. One colleague described how she would cry herself to sleep at night as she reflected on the encounters of the day. She wanted to leave but family commitments kept her bound to the organization. She described how she couldn’t wait until the day came when she could leave and ‘never see those bastards again’ and how she loved waking up when she didn’t have to go to work. Sadly, 30 years since she completed her training, she felt as if she had wasted all the years she spent at medical school. I witnessed how, red faced and teary eyed, she shook with fear and trepidation as she recounted her story to me. Stories such as this one is the reason why I decided to devote myself to helping those who were experiencing incidents of difficulty in the workplace. It is a vocation. Situations of conflict and tension exist in teams in almost every organization. As you read this, you can probably think of a toxic team in your organization right now.

Solutions

First, organizations should provide psychological support to prevent the emergence of a toxic environment and maintain physical and mental equilibrium among employees. Second, training sessions should be arranged to ensure that employees are well prepared and equipped to manage and work in different scenarios. Third, organizations should ensure that intrinsic and extrinsic reward seeks to enhance toxic free behavior. Fourth, organizations should invest in professional support that allows culture to diagnosed and long-term remedies put into place.

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