Defining a culture of toxicity at work, with applied solution strategies.
Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources describes the toxic work environment: “I’ve heard people talk about it as the result of a boss or even a coworker who is toxic. There can be cultures, like the Trump White House, where tearing each other down is encouraged. Does that count? I just saw it defined as any workplace where ‘the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those cause serious disruptions in the rest of your life.’ Wikipedia says ‘significant drama and infighting, personal battles.’ … I think that’s the problem – if it doesn’t have an understood definition, it isn’t possible to pin down the cause or talk about what to do about it.” The most common situation, perhaps, is where “the boss acts like a dictator and actively punishes people who articulate different views or express disagreement,” Cappelli says. “In addition to people quitting, the big problem for the performance of the organization is that people sit on their hands, they don’t take the initiative to do anything, and they may actually sit back and watch the boss’s ideas fail even when they could be salvaged. Bosses like this usually have issues that no subordinate is going to address. Without an organization that is looking to see what is going on and is willing to intervene, there isn’t a lot subordinates can do except get out.”
With the culture of toxicity defined, and so many employees relating to this experience, what change can we create? The articles on toxic work environments tell us this is a widespread problem. Nearly a fifth of American workers across a wider swath of industries said they faced a hostile or threatening work environment in a 2017 survey conducted by the Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and UCLA. The advisement is to develop an exit strategy, and methodically leave. For those of us who can, it works. We have to carefully leave, swallowing our pride and self-esteem, separating ourselves from the situation with supports in place. The energy of toxicity is simply to tear down another human being's value and abilities.
My question remains, can we make change? When I speak about employee turnover, some leaders tune this out, with attributions to external factors. Where is the accountability? If an employee complains internally, they will often be retaliated against in such a toxic environment. Thus, a negative cycle is reinforced, creating more difficulties for the employee.
What are the implications of not intentionally addressing these red flags of a toxic work environment? In the study, The toxic triangle, Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments, researchers define destructive leadership with the following: We view leadership as a functional resource for group performance; it involves influencing individuals to forego, for a limited time, their selfish, short-term interests and contribute to long- term group goals within an environmental or situational context (Heifetz, 1994; Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994; Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). All significant human achievement requires leadership to unite people, channel their efforts, and encourage their contribution toward the goals of the collective enterprise. Thus, leadership effectiveness concerns how well a group is able to accomplish its purpose (Hogan et al., 1994; Kaiser & Hogan, submitted for publication). In this view, leadership is a value-neutral term (c.f., Howell & Avolio, 1992); it connotes social influence vis-à-vis group performance regardless of the context (Hogan, 2006). Deciding whether leadership is constructive or destructive is a matter of long-term group performance: how well did the team perform relative to its competition in achieving its goals? The test of toxic leadership, from this perspective, is a matter of outcomes; the essence of destructive leadership concerns negative organizational outcomes, and certain processes are more likely than others to lead to such outcomes.
This begs the question, what is healthy leadership? Some argue it is the act of creating lasting, meaningful, opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.
Some regard destructive leadership as an oxymoron and maintain that leadership is by definition a positive force (Howell & Avolio, 1992; Kellerman, 2004). In this view, Adolf Hitler was not a leader. As Burns (2003, p. 29) put it: “Hitler ruled the German people, but he did not lead them,” because he failed to create “lasting, meaningful opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.”
Not all who lead do so with healthy intentions and actions. When the leaders focus is personal power, with an ideology of hate and charisma, this becomes toxic leadership. In order for toxic leadership to become destructive, it needs collaboration with a conducive environment and susceptible followers.
The environment conduces the toxicity of the narcissist leader when it is unstable, unaccountable, not living close to values, and experiencing a form of manipulation to gain control through fear. The followers become susceptible by colluding through their own bad values, or conforming due to unmet needs, low maturity and low self awareness. The outcome is the toxic work environment.
I am excited with recent research in the topic of toxic work environments, to learn there are leaders in the industry pioneering change in corporate culture. As human beings we learn through education, role modeling and experience. We have a need to develop skills. When prospective clients seek my Life Coaching services, I hear them say two things; they want skills & accountability. Many have therapists who listen to them, and this is necessary to be heard. I appreciate the humility of a leader to admit the struggle and need for an outside perspective to help them reset, recharge and rebuild. We all make unhealthy and simply put, 'bad' choices, that negatively affect our lives, the lives of others, and our employees. The best thing we can do is 'own it.' Humility in leadership will bring healthy impact to work culture. Today as a leader, examine the department that has a high turnover rate, low productivity, with increase in errors; and begin to research. The feedback may be difficult to hear, and necessary to turnaround the culture.
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