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Rescuing the Toxic Work Culture

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A toxic work culture is easy to discover but more difficult to overturn. For example, according to an article in Wired, a bathroom manufacturer who wanted to encourage shorter bathroom breaks by employees recommended an extremely uncomfortable toilet. As one commentator pointed out, this approach ignores the reasons why employees feel that a bathroom is the only place where they can rest (let alone relieve) themselves.

Rescuing a toxic work culture may require outside intervention when the attitudes leading to high turnover, disengagement, withdrawal, stress, burnout, depression, and anger are widespread and pervasive—and the response is even more toxic and punitive. As the previous example shows, you are not likely to turn around a toxic culture if you entrust the solution to the very people who created the culture in the first place.

Manage Toxic Individuals

Numerous studies have shown that just one bullying boss or employee can spread toxic interactions throughout the organization. Often those individuals are allowed to continue their behavior because they provide short-term profit, are fierce protectors of their specialized knowledge, or otherwise seem irreplaceable to the organization.

To deal with toxic individuals in a toxic work culture, you need to:

  • Examine your core values. Companies that emphasize profits, fierce internal competition, and winning over all else develop a culture that rewards toxic individuals—those who take credit for the achievements of others, treat every interaction as a competition, demand unreasonable work hours, micromanage, and belittle others. SMaRT strategies and outside guidance will enable you to build a culture that rewards an entirely different set of core values.
  • Establish a company-wide (or team-wide) policy demanding, at the least, respectful and collaborative behavior. The policy should include clear consequences for violations.
  • Build a process for recognizing complaints. One cause of bad behavior is a feeling of helplessness in face of an indifferent company. If individuals are educated and supported in ways to more effectively express their complaints, leaders have a better chance of quickly catching and turning around individuals and situations that lead to toxicity.
  • Develop leaders who are prepared to confront bad behavior immediately. SMaRT strategies assist in dealing with team challenges, including discriminatory behavior and the stress that can lead to acting out, but leaders benefit from individualized training to develop the awareness and skill to employ those strategies.

Ease Unpleasant Work Conditions

An unpleasant work environment is not necessarily the result of a toxic work culture, although it can become one if the unpleasantness goes unrecognized. Sometimes tasks are boring, repetitive, and unpleasant but must be accomplished. Leaders may be stressed to the breaking point by volatile and uncertain times and demands that are outside the company’s control. In those situations, insistence on regular breaks and vacations, recognition of even small achievements, and extra rewards may help to mitigate the unpleasant effects. Your employees will handle unpleasant situations more robustly if you:

  • Face the situation realistically. Admit that the work conditions are bad. Avoid telling people that things will improve unless you are actively helping to ensure that improvement.
  • Seek solutions. It is highly unlikely that yours is the only company or team in your industry to experience unpleasant work conditions or tasks. Find out what strategies have worked for other companies or teams. For example, you might control unpleasant manufacturing odors through new air purifying technologies or relieve repetitive stress injuries through changes in the manufacturing process. You might find that frequent skills training or modifications to vacation schedules help prevent errors or inattention on the job.
  • Involve the people affected. Involvement—especially if it leads to solutions—gives the people facing the situation some sense of control. Moreover, they are likely to come up with solutions that have a greater effect on their productivity and morale. For example, you might favor adding more team members as a solution to boring work but the team would appreciate cross-training to give them the ability to rotate in and out of tasks.
  • Strive for flexibility. During the coronavirus, it quickly became apparent that employees working at home were stressed by added responsibilities in child care, inadequate work spaces, and forced isolation. Companies that recognized those challenges accepted that a transition period was necessary and the productivity might suffer, and adjusted their expectations accordingly. Companies that were unwilling to adjust or provide much needed support merely added to the unpleasant work conditions.

TIP: If you burden people with restrictive rules, they become resentful and disengaged. For example, if you dictate every step in how a project must be executed, you prevent people from working in the way that is most productive for them and squelch helpful innovation.

Revitalize a Stagnating Workplace and Workforce

A Harvard professor has stated: “We were brought up in an industrial-era model of not only management but schooling, where we were taught to sit still, listen up, don’t make noise, write down what the teacher says, and then spit it back. That isn’t terribly useful in making great employees or great managers today.”

A stagnant workplace lacks any opportunity for employees to grow; indeed, it creates blockages to employee growth and therefore raises the level of frustration. To turn around a stagnant workplace:

  • Define the problem. Make sure that the feeling of stagnation is one shared by others in the workplace rather than you alone. You may be the one who needs a change; but if the entire organization feels stagnate, you should search for the root cause: confusion over goals, lack of leadership, lack of opportunities to learn, and so on.
  • Ask for input. Here again, you involve the people most affected by your company’s stagnation, including employees, stakeholders, and customers.
  • Develop an innovation process. You may have people ready with exciting ideas but they are lost as the individuals try to push their ideas through multiple levels and obstacles, including a lack of resources and times. Encourage ideas and experimentation by providing a clear, easily accessed path through the company maze.
  • Make one change. Rather than trying to transform the entire organization at once, aim for one change and celebrate its success. With even the most minor change at first, you invigorate the culture, work through your innovation process, and expand the definition of what is possible.
  • Provide opportunities for education and collaboration. When diverse groups come together, they spark connections that one individual alone might not see. When you learn and share SMaRT strategies for team building and problem solving, you create a safe and supportive environment where people are willing to put forth and try out new ideas.

TIP: Some people are innovators, others are implementors; some are leaders and some are followers. They all have a role in innovation and their contributions should be recognized.

Plan Ahead to Confront the Problems

If your company has a toxic work culture—it shuts its eyes and ears to complaints about toxic individuals, unpleasant work conditions, and a feeling of stagnation—you may feel that your only alternative is to suffer the situation. Before you reach that decision:

  • Document everything. Complaints that are specific and verified have a much greater chance of being heard and dealt with, whether by your immediate boss, your company, or whatever regulatory agency you consult. Documentation also lessens the chances of retaliation.
  • Confront as a group. A group is often heard when an individual is ignored. The group should come prepared with documentation, solutions, and possible next steps. An outside expert (see below) can help with this preparation.
  • Concentrate on your team. You may not be able to change the company’s toxic work culture but you can change your team’s culture. Their resulting enthusiasm, increased productivity, and lower turnover might prompt the company—or other teams—to review and turn around their toxic practices.
  • Bring in an outside expert. When you are stressed by a toxic work culture, you are not always able to recognize or take advantage of options. You (or the company as a whole) may need help to rebuild trust and manage toxic individuals, unpleasant conditions, or a sense of stagnation. Consulting with an outside expert enables you to move faster toward the positive culture you want. Make use of the SMaRT strategies for communicating with bosses to convince the organization of the value of an outside perspective.
  • Walk away. Grit and gumption are fine characteristics, but ultimately you may decide that leaving is your best option. In any case, you will gain confidence from having an exit strategy before you begin any confrontation

TIP: Realistically, whistle-blowing is an expensive and frustrating process that may take years to resolve. However, whistle-blowers in the past detected over 40% of existing fraud whereas company safeguards revealed only 34%.

Key Takeaways

A toxic work culture is often rooted in toxic individual bosses or employees, unpleasant work conditions, and stagnation. As a SMaRT leader, you have many proven strategies at your command and the resources and advice of JB Partners.  

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