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Facing and Beating Toxic Workplaces

Dilbert cartoon on toxic workplaces and pressure to do something for the company that conflicts with one's personal values
Credit: Scott Adams

When a toxic workplace conflicts with your values

Toxic workplaces come in all shapes and sizes! We all witnessed the dreadful scenes and direct threat on democracy in Congress (US) last week. It was the culmination of a toxic 4-year administrative culture from the leader on downwards. He surrounded himself with anyone that agreed, thereby enabling his behaviour. Those that stood up to him were inevitably removed from their role. Fast forward to today, House democrats and republicans are considering impeachment, again. The impeachment relates to his public role in inciting the violent uprising. This extreme example is an interesting case study (if nothing else), but most of us face more subtle workplace toxicity. 

Let’s bring it into everyday business context. 

Leader is “toxic”

The general manager (we’ll call him Joe) of Company ABC relies on a single personal confidant. A young inexperienced yet ambitious individual (we will call her Joanna). Joanna’s ambition is to move to the top as quickly as possible. As a result, Joe has terminated ten employees. Ten individuals that bravely questioned his decision to run the company under this exclusive partnership.  

Employee concerns and ideas are routinely dismissed but are also interpreted as a direct threat or insult to Joe. He’s routinely heard saying: “I am the General Manager, and you are my subordinate”. Working conditions are such that employees are afraid to speak up and would leave if they felt able to. The company pays well and offers goods benefits, which is quite difficult to replace.

Team member is “toxic”

A bright ambitious 30 something (we’ll call him Ayo) is part of a specialist finance team working on acquisitions. His intelligence often translates into arrogance and impatience with others causing tension and conflict with team members. 

It reaches a point where the team no longer want to work with him and have shared their concerns with the supervisor. She (we’ll call her Ami) doesn’t particularly like difficult conversations and wants a harmonious team environment. Although the company compensation program is good, resignations in Ami’s department are 50% higher than others. HR has noticed the pattern and wants Ami to solve it, now. 

Context set; the question is what skills need to be called upon to solve these common problems?

A framework to deal with toxic workplaces

Picking up the leader scenario first

There are three possible courses of action that individuals in the group can take:

  1. Status quo: keep a low profile, absorb the stress, and remain in an uncomfortable situation.
  2. Escalate the issue: GMs and CEOs report to others, the GM to the CEO and the CEO to the Board of Directors. In other words, Joe reports to somebody. Perhaps pressure from above could be brought to bear? 
  3. Redesign the HR strategy. First and foremost: document-document-document. It is essential to remain totally objective, writing only what is observed not interpreted.

In my coaching experience, the most effective option is approaching HR and working on redesigning the organizational process. This allows achievement of the company’s vision and mission, and ends unacceptable behaviour including terminations. Adopting a tact to express your loyalty to the organization, using concrete and specific examples of the intolerable behaviour, and stating clearly your concern about retaliation is powerful! A great framework for sharing specific factual examples with HR is CCL’s Situation Behaviour Impact Tool (SBI).

SBI Three-Step Tool:

  • Situation: Start by explaining the specifics of when and where something occurred. 
  • Behaviour: Describe what the person (Joe) did? 
  • Impact: State what happened to you/the team/the business results as a result of the (Joe’s) behaviour? 

Using SBI, the specific examples are collected, organized (usually by example type), and formalized into a written report. The team members who believe Joe’s behaviour is unacceptable should act as one and see HR together. Here’s the bottom line: The team must remain professional, stamp out emotional displays, and express concern for the company’s well-being. But above all, the group needs HR so threats of any kind may only serve to worsen matters. 

Of course, if HR is unwilling or unable to remedy the situation – the last resort is a change of employer for the sake of one’s long-term wellbeing.

Picking up the team member scenario next

The team member scenario is the flip side of the coin as it is down to the team leader to resolve, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. Like many people, leaders prefer avoiding tension and seek to create the illusion of harmony. What leaders may not realize is that by avoiding any tension they unknowingly promote silos and internal tension within the team.  A leader must neutralize or minimize conflict, and not allow it to thrive or spread.

So, in this scenario, there are four leadership skills that help manage a “problematic” team member (Ayo):

Four Leadership Traits

  1. Optimal timing: Timing is everything, the best time to take action is when there is objective evidence that Ayo’s track record of behaviours is negatively impacting the performance of others. If everyone around Ami knows she must deal with it and she waits to act, she will lose the respect of her peers and her team. Leadership is about taking action and tackling issues head-on before it’s too late.   
  2. Understand boundaries: Individuals deal with conflict differently, so Ami must ensure she knows the risks and rewards of conflict resolution for Ayo (as she would for all of her team). Ami can help Ayo and others know when they tend to cross the line by engaging with the team; identifying situations that trigger unwanted attitudes; provoking a shift in mindset or shining a light on “you don’t know what you don’t know” situations (i.e.: encouraging self-awareness).  
  3. Respect Differences: Ami must respect Ayo’s unique differences so she can see things from differing points of view. This will help her understand how to avoid future conflicts.  Beyond avoidance, respect will help Ami better understand how to generally manage conflict with him and others. Note: conflicts are rarely binary. Arguably workplaces are more generationally and culturally diverse than ever.
  4. Confront tension: Conflict can provoke an emotive state making it more difficult to manage. So, Ami must confront it and not allow it to fester and grow (because she failed to address the issue with Ayo when it first surfaced). Adversity is big when it is all Ami can see and conversely tiny in light of all else that surrounds her. Eradicating a toxic workplace is about seeing opportunities that others don’t see.

Toxic workplaces now eradicated

Leaders who take the time to actively engage in coaching and learning about individuals on and around his/her team will find themselves dealing with much less conflict, fostering a healthy workplace. Managing a toxic workplace or the conflict within it needs embracing and solving. It is not just about resolving a problem or detecting an opportunity, but it is also a learning moment. Learning about your own leadership maturity as you lead others through adverse circumstances.

Imagine how different the world might be, right now, if every individual was willing to tackle a toxic situation before it erupts!

Your turn

Sign into the Community Member Section or comment below to share your stories, views, tips or tricks for tackling toxic workplaces or leaders.

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