Imagine working for an organization where one of the senior managers insists on yelling at his employees because he believes it’s the surest way to garner the respect of those he leads and now, the front-line managers are beginning to follow his example by yelling at their team members.
Or what about working for a company president whose driven to attract the best talent under the guise of needing their help to make his organization more innovative, only to turn around and demand that they simply do what he tells them to do.
Better still, imagine what it would be like to work for an organization where year-end bonuses are tied to the amount of vacation time you give up, and not on your performance and contributions made to the organization’s collective efforts.
Although these might sound like fictional plot lines for a movie or TV show that satirizes the dysfunctional nature of today’s workplaces, they are in fact the real-life examples shared by one of my readers about the toxic work environment they face every day. And unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are becoming more and more the norm of what employees face in the workplace.
Naturally, there is a tendency to assume this rise in toxic work environments is yet another consequence of the persisting economic uncertainties many industries and countries are currently grappling with. However, the reality is that such assumptions only serve as an excuse for tolerating or even accepting such conditions, instead of taking measures to address the deleterious effects toxic workplaces have on organizations.
Indeed, many studies have shown that toxic workplaces are costly for organizations as a result of the loss in productivity, creativity, employee engagement and retention. What’s more, toxic workplaces can also make talent acquisition more challenging as companies grapple with increasing cases of bad word-of-mouth as former employees share what it’s really like to work for their organization, something that’s much easier to do thanks to the various social media outlets.
So while toxic workplaces might be seen as “business as usual” for some organizations, it’s important to recognize that this doesn’t mean that it’s also good for their business. With this in mind, here are four questions leaders should ask themselves to determine whether or not they are encouraging or facilitating a toxic workplace within their organization.
1. What am I trying to accomplish?
One of the more common examples of a toxic workplace is working for someone who seeks out top people to join their team only to squander that talent due to their using the outdated command-and-control style of leadership. There’s little doubt that these situations can be demotivating for new employees who come to the realization that the dream they were sold about working for this organization was just that.
However, we can’t overlook the negative impact this must have on existing employees as well; of how their hopes that this new employee will bring new insights, creativity and drive to their team are soon extinguished after seeing how little their leaders value the input being offered by these new team members.
What this scenario illustrates is one of the common ways leaders can fuel a toxic workplace. Namely, from a loss of focus and direction by an organization’s leadership on what they’re trying to accomplish; of failing to review whether their actions serve to help or hinder their team’s abilities to reach their shared goals.
Your behaviours and actions inform those you lead of what you value, of what’s important to you and the organization. That’s why it’s critical for leaders to understand that what they communicate not only impacts their team’s performance, but it also influences how their team acts in terms of reaching the objectives of the organization.
As a leader, your goal shouldn’t be to manage people; rather, it should be to enable them to bring their full potential to work every day and helping them to be successful in their efforts.
2. What are we tracking to help us measure and monitor progress?
Looking at the example of how this reader’s year-end bonus was tied to how much vacation time they gave up, it’s clear that this organization’s leadership believes the more face time an employee gives at the office, the more they are contributing to the organization.
But does this really matter to an organization’s success? Should the amount of time an employee is seen at their desk be the most important factor leaders consider to evaluate an employee’s contribution to their organization? Or should their focus instead be on the performance level of their employees and in particular, what leaders can do to improve it?
One of the reasons why such attitudes create the negative atmosphere found in toxic workplaces is not simply because of how it makes employees feel; rather, it’s because of the lack of connection these actions have with an organization’s plan or strategy for reaching its objectives.
Indeed, there have been many stories shared about how employees at various organizations have willingly accepted pay cuts or the reduction of key benefits because they understood such measures would not only deter layoffs, but that it would give their organization the financial stability that was needed to keep it going during these challenging times.
That’s why leaders need to ensure the measures they put into place are not simply those that serve to provide them with some form of assurance and control. Instead, they should be measures which can provide a clear impression of the progress employees are making toward achieving their shared goals.
3. How are we going to accomplish our goals?
As I mentioned earlier, a leader’s actions and behaviours serve to communicate to their employees what goals are most important to their organization. Of course, a leader’s conduct also serves to inform employees about how their organization chooses to go about achieving those goals.
Consider the example of how a senior manager’s belief that yelling at employees instills respect has spread to front-line managers who have started to yell at their team members as well. Not surprisingly, this has lead to a drop in team morale as employees feel more like cogs in the wheel than valued and appreciated contributors to the organization’s efforts. If there’s one clear sign of a toxic workplace, it’s one where employees feel disrespected and undervalued.
While these leaders might be clear about the goals they have for their team, what they lack is an understanding of how the treatment of their employees affects the efficacy of their team’s efforts to attain those objectives. It’s for this reason why an organization’s values are so important; that they need to be more than a list of noble ideas hanging up on a wall. As much as our goals define what it is we’re trying to accomplish through our shared efforts, our values serve to inform and guide both leaders and their employees about the routes they can take to reach their destination.
After all, what distinguishes one organization from another is not simply the goals they set out to achieve. Instead, it’s the approach they take to reach those goals, something that is determined by the organization’s values which define not only what matters most to them, but what they envision as a more successful version of their organization.
4. Why does it matter?
Perhaps the most valuable question leaders should ask themselves is why these behaviours or actions matter. Not simply in terms of their own personal goals or ambitions, but from the context of how their organization – and by extension, everyone who contributes to it – benefits from these efforts.
It’s easy to get caught up in issues which in our own minds might seem significant or relevant to our ability to succeed, without appreciating how they might be seen by those around us. And given the rapidity with which things seem to change and the shorter lens from which we peer out into the future, it’s certainly becoming easier to amplify what would otherwise be considered to be trivial affairs.
By asking this question in terms of that which is bigger than ourselves, we stand to gain a far clearer picture of what’s really required from us – and from those we lead – to ensure a successful outcome from our collective efforts. It also encourages leaders to question what is the purpose behind their organization’s policies and processes, if not to contemplate the vision they have for what they want to create through their team’s shared efforts.
Sure, this might mean that leaders need to give up more than they get in return from those they serve. However, if one understands that the true nature of leadership is not to bend others to your will, but to facilitate their ability to succeed, such measures become far easier to accept and encourage.
Although leaders alone are not responsible for the presence of toxic workplaces in today’s organizations, the creation and perpetuation of such conditions is a direct consequence of their actions – or in some cases inaction – to prevent such negativity from entering the workforce.
By recognizing the part they play in allowing such toxic workplaces to thrive, leaders can ensure they foster a work environment where employees are not only respected and valued, but are directed and driven towards work that creates a sense of purpose and meaning for both their organization and themselves.