Editor’s note: this post originally published February 17, 2011.
No one sets out to create a toxic environment. Yet when a workplace culture evolves on its own with little attention given to relationships and employees aren’t held accountable for rudeness or disrespect, the mood at any organization can turn poisonous. The results: loss of productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and high turnover. Don’t miss the signs. Is your workplace in danger?
Take this quiz and see.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
- “Sure, we tell some off colour-jokes, but everyone laughs, so I know there’s no problem. We need to have some fun at work” (agree/disagree).
- “The best way to improve people’s performance is to point out mistakes” (agree/disagree).
- “I know we don’t have much conflict because I never hear about it” (agree/disagree).
- “I keep conversations with staff members short and to the point. I tell them what they need to know and make sure they do what they’re supposed to” (agree/disagree).
- “Every workplace has gossip. Everyone loves to gossip, and it can spice up the workplace. Besides, you really can’t stop it” (agree/disagree).
- “Everyone has bad days sometimes. When I have one, I shouldn’t have to pretend otherwise” (agree/disagree).
- “People whine and complain. Some people are just negative, it’s best just to tune it out” (agree/disagree).
- “Around here, profits (or results) are most important. It doesn’t matter so much how you get them” (agree/disagree).
If you agreed with three or fewer of these statements, toxicity probably hasn’t become a problem at your organization, but you can still make some improvements. If you agreed with four or more, conditions are ripe for your workplace to become toxic.
Getting it Right
Use appropriate humor.
The fact that everyone’s laughing doesn’t necessarily mean people find a joke funny. Out of pressure to fit in, most of us sometimes laugh at disrespectful talk. Jokes or remarks with racist or sexist overtones can expose businesses to costly and damaging human-rights complaints. People work best when they’re comfortable. Create fun that’s respectful to everyone. Make sure people feel empowered and safe to speak up when they witness offensive behaviour.
All too often, we point out people’s mistakes but forget to pat them on the back for doing well. If they only hear about what they’re doing wrong, pretty soon they’ll stop wanting to do anything. Public criticism, sarcasm and joking about mistakes will improve neither your employees’ performance nor your relationship with them. Such powerbased “feedback” is associated with bullying and will turn your environment toxic. Instead, talk to employees about their performance consistently and respectfully so that they’ll want to improve and don’t feel diminished or inadequate.
Solve conflicts proactively.
The vast majority of employees keep quiet about problems. Why? They worry that things will get worse if they speak up, they don’t know to whom to talk, or they don’t think they can change anything. Moreover, harassment and bullying produce fear-based workplaces where putting up and shutting up become the norm. Don’t wait for your employees to approach you. Ask questions about how things are going at work. Early intervention is the best way to resolve conflicts.
One of the greatest causes of toxicity is the stress workers undergo when they lack control over their work. Bosses who use power for control harm employees, teams and the bottom line. Respectful leaders empower teams with information and dialogue, rather than stifling communication. Treat your employees as partners rather than as subordinates. Make inquiries, listen to the answers and use that information to develop your relationships with employees.
Any malicious, insulting, maligning or unsubstantiated rumour about a co-worker or the organization is a form of workplace gossip. And gossip alone can create a toxic workplace. Indeed, it’s a type of workplace bullying. The best way to counter it is to talk about it. Speak to employees about the harm and destruction it causes the workplace. Introduce practical strategies for dealing with it. For example, tell an employee that what he or she is doing is gossiping and that you don’t want to participate. Refuse to pass the rumours on, and walk away.
Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” A leader who yells, screams, throws things or announces, “I’m in a bad mood, and everyone just better stay out of my way” sends employees the message that rudeness and intimidation are okay. We’re all obligated to apply emotional discipline and manage our emotions at work. If you’re susceptible, anger-management strategies such as breathing or positive self-talk can help. When you’re angry, focus on something positive to keep your mood from infecting your workplace.
Cut out the whining.
Negativity spreads like wildfire, creating unrest, conflict and apathy. Co-workers will start missing work just to get away from it. Make sure employees understand that whining and complaining benefit no one. The best approach, both for you and for them, is to take action, speak up and do something about workplace problems and concerns. If you have employees who are consistently negative, sit down with them individually, give examples of their behaviour and let them know how it affects you and others. If there’s a work related reason for the behaviour, try to resolve that underlying issue.
Every organization has to be concerned with the bottom line, but if you teach employees to get results at any cost, no matter whom they need to step on or discredit, you’ll create a culture in which cut-throat competition and mistrust predominate. Ensure that every employee feels valued and motivated to do the best possible job. Sit down with your team, set realistic goals and support employees to help them succeed. Hold everyone accountable for contributing. Then celebrate success together.