Toxic Workspaces

As Aristotle puts it, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” However, millions of corporates find it hard to give their employees a healthy work environment as they are persistently occupied by a toxic triangle that often spread throughout the organisation, creating entire climates of abuse and causing distraction to some employees. This toxic triangle is often made up of three things, bad leadership, culture and work environments. More often than not, these three co-exist in most corporates and are the drivers of most employees experiencing breakdown. Mostly, employees who are trapped in toxic environment are always subjected to various incidents that ultimately lead to a serious breakdown and inability to achieve organisational and personal goals.

I recently ran a LinkedIn poll  and it shows that toxic environments and manager behaviour are the biggest drivers of people wanting to leave the organisation, where 50% of the respondents had already left their organisation a year ago from a mind and heart while physically still working for the organisation. They are just there, feeling trapped by their circumstances and just waiting and hoping to find the next opportunity. The results are not really shocking as they are motivated by different things. It could be fear of losing income or benefits and sometimes not looking hard enough for the next opportunity. Or it could be due to the cycle of self-abuse that people face. They know that the environment is not good for them yet they are not doing enough to get out of it. Then you simply have those that rather thrive in complaining than breaking the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, toxic managers leverage such insecurities to push their narrative and convince people that they cannot thrive without the organisation.

Furthermore, apart from toxic working environment and having questionable managers, people also physically remain in organisations while their minds already left due to the fact that they do not possess the necessary qualifications and skills to do anything outside the organisations they work in. Others have only worked in that particular role for a short period of time and do not want to be seen as though they are job hopping whenever they apply for different roles in different organisations. In some cases, people tend to ignore the toxicity around them, and rather look to discern from those fostering the toxic work culture. Some employees, who are often referred to as workaholics, become bound to a job they believe it cannot be done without them. However, that is generally not the case. The job will indeed continue without them, it is just difficult to break from their comfort. Another reason could be that employees may be trapped under the loyalty cage, where they feel the organisation in itself is great and offers great benefits, but the immediate leadership is unbearable. Those employees tend to get stuck as they struggle to find something that duplicates what the organisation offers and continue to rather live in the world of silently suffering the management style. Their need for the benefits outweighs their suffering.

As such, the consequences of toxic work environment can be demoralising and impacting to how much employees are willing to give and if ever as an employer, will you see them apply discretionary effort in their work. Or are you simply sitting with a bunch of people ready to pounce at the first competing opportunity while they waste company resources and sponging off your time. The question is how leaders can trigger change to the said behaviour. The following are four aspects corporates can think through and try in an attempt to change toxicity and improve productivity in the organisation.

  1. Identify the things that make people leave the work environment with their mind and hearts, while they are still physically present with the organisation.

In identifying the reasons that drives people from wanting to leave the organisation, you can firstly look at providing a safe haven for employees for engagement purposes, where they will be willing to detail incidences of damaging behaviours and other aspects, such as pay gap and lack of skills, which discourages them to give their 100% on the job. In identifying that, you need to be having open communication platforms, engagement sessions, and internal surveys to understand the core issues. Employees take up space and give 50% productivity when they are no longer engaged and simply waiting out for the next opportunity. It is therefore important that we constantly look at means and measures to assess how our employees feel about their work, their manager and the organisation at large. Some of the things you can look at are:

  • What has been some of the past engagements with employees and line managers in relation to the work environment.
  • Identify things that have been addressed in the past but they appear to surface again and again and has not really served their intended  purpose,
  • Also, ask the question, why have they not been effective. What are the main contributors?
  • Try to figure out how far or how big is the issue that needs to be addressed.
  • Assess what are the pattern of behaviours from both the complainants and the respondents.
  • Leaders need to always reflect

Leaders must always have the self-awareness to notice when they are being the issue as far as toxicity is concerned. As a leader, one need to always reflect on the patterns of interaction with his/her employees. That way they will begin to notice the kind of problems they are creating for themselves and the organisation. Self-reflection will also help in remedying the situation and help share the same set of standards as you wish for your organisation. Always remember that Introspection leads to greater awareness and faster learning. Leading by example cannot be delegated. As a leader, make sure to discuss frequently your expectations, often citing specific examples. It is wrong to assume that people are on the same boat as you. You need to set an example of what needs to be done, and naturally people will begin to adopt patterns of a good behaviour.

Sometimes as a leader you find yourself being clear on what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. But the people needing to carry out the instruction fail to deliver it according to your expectations. How you engage back to them with that feedback is critical in their understanding of you and your way of doing things. Often we are in the middle of deadlines and may not necessarily have the capacity to explain it nice and slow, and out frustration, we start insulting the intelligence of others. This in itself is problematic as you are slowly disabling people in how they think and do things. If any learning is to be carried over as leaders, we must know and understand how to carry people with us and transition them into it. Pulling people along or simply doing it yourself, tends to have the opposite effect and sends mixed signals. People tend to just give up or send you work they know you will change or decline anyway, so they stop making an effort. There is much to be learned in reflecting on one’s own style of leadership and if there are recurring issues, ask why you are experiencing them in a simple manner. Perhaps partly is the employee’s lack of effort and partly its how you engage them on it.

  • Workshop the required behaviours

Many employees get away with creating and fostering a toxic environment because they lack context. Because humans are naturally teachers of pattern recognition, they tend to imitate and normalise what they think works and gets results out of people. In some instances, what they see and observe from their leaders. They come to understand that the type of social abuse is a way of doing things in the organisation. Leading by example is referenced so many times, but not many people understand what it means to put it into practice. A culture is defined by how people behave and do things, and if over time those bad habits, traits and behaviours are not addressed and worse, even being displayed by senior leaders, then it becomes difficult to route it out expertly. The adoption of it begins to spread all the way down to how employees interact with each other. If for example name dropping gets things done, then that becomes the culture of getting people to comply; and being associated with that person starts making others invincible and they forget their manners when dealing with others. These are toxic traits that if not addressed quickly and frequently, can start eating away at people who genuinely want to make a difference because they want to, not because someone said so. It removes the freedom to challenge and contribute meaningfully. Those favoured always shout the loudest and they get listened to even though their contribution is sub-standard. Employees subtly start bullying each other and victimisation becomes the order of the day.

To avoid this, training of all employees constantly irrespective how long they have been in their roles should be an ongoing intervention. Clear policies and guidelines should be in place that clearly outlines the expected behaviour. Real consequence management needs to be done and people need to be listened to whenever they raise issue of a bad culture.

  • Superiors to line mangers need to take responsibility and protect the people

In many instances people look to HR to solve a problematic manager, probably because they believe HR holds the key to reform, discipline or drive the change in behaviour for people. Though that may be true in some instances, it is the manager’s superior whose responsibility is to manage line managers as we would expect it to be the case with any employee. This especially where there is enough evidence, feedback, engagements and series of events that can serve as testimony that a problem exists. But in many cases, the manager’s superior defers this responsibility as well and in worse cases, completely ignores it. That ignorance can be motivated by various reasons such as the manager in question is a top performer, have influence above their own leader, or they are simply scared to confront them. Regardless what those reasons are, the people who continue to suffer are the ones that must endure this behaviour daily and as such, the company continues to face criticism while the risks linger with every avoidance of dealing the issues. 

Managers often present the view that it’s the employees that are the problem, this is because they have the advantage of being close to senior management where they discuss and air the issues they have been faced with at the bottom. It becomes their narrative that drives the conversation. It is very important to understand your manager’s shortcomings and have them trained to help you drive management behaviour in terms of what the expectations are. They need to be able to build into their acumen of how they manage people and their environment. A Leader who has the people in mind and who genuinely wants to stop toxic management and culture from progressing in the company, might want to find creative ways to use the information at hand to start a conversation. This will also help in making an assessment of how deeply the traits of this manager are rooted and are they influenceable or fixable. If not, and given that they are one of your top performing managers, how do we move the management of people away and work on transitioning them into an individual contributor without impacting their delivery or scope of work. These and other many effective measures can be employed wherein you end up protecting both the company and the talent, instead of continuously looking the other way. Difficult conversations are tough and much tougher to have higher up in the organisation. This especially when the main delivery sits with the person in question. Leaders of those who are at the fore-front therefore tend to struggle a lot to address the issues stemming from management style as they themselves are threading carefully to not lose the confidence of the person delivering on their behalf as well. This however can never be the reasons to undermine the hostility employees face from the manager in question. We can still favour people and maintain good relations when we give them tough feedback about themselves. Avoiding it or always taking their side sends the wrong message and change will almost never be realised.

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