How to Identify and Resolve Workplace Toxicity

Workplace toxicity transcends physical workplaces, and it occurs across remote and hybrid settings. Age does not play a factor. Contrary to the common belief that ageism is the leading cause, reverse ageism is rising, and the younger generation is striking back at, the older workforce. These toxic behaviors are causing massive rifts across the multigenerational workforce and adversely affecting employees’ well-being and organizational performance. A leader should take this cultural issue seriously and adopt three strategies to improve workplace culture.

Understanding Toxic Workplace Elements

Daniel (2020)1 wrote extensively on some toxic workplace elements. The factors which the author has attributed include the leader’s individual factor, situational factor, and organizational factor. Isaac Song encourages leaders to purchase the said article if leaders are interested to know in depth.

The individual perspective. Organizational leaders are typically intense and highly driven individuals. Any HR Leader worth their salt has worked with at least one leader with a pure “Type-A” personality – an efficient, forceful personality and passion for meeting and exceeding goals, which often pays off. It is the inherent nature of most businesses that individuals are rewarded solely for achieving their goals, despite the destruction and demoralization of people along the way. Leaders operating without regard for others often successfully navigate the social and political organizational environment and achieve high-performance ratings. The situation above suggests that a functional perspective is associated with the use of bad behavior, and it continues as it further reinforces the “result at all costs” strategy.

The situational perspective. Though unintended, there could be several good reasons why a person would choose to be abusive at work. Individuals who strive to get a promotion, wield influence, and acquire resources would use competitive behaviors to get ahead. These behaviors might be the most “rational” of all forms of workplace aggression, given that seeking to be successful through the achievement of promotions, rewards, and influence are generally accepted as “reasonable” workplace motives. In addition, the reward system may contribute to the problem. If an organization promotes an employee who has succeeded by manipulating or harming a colleague, it is inadvertently condoning the behavior and incentivizing others to do the same.

The organizational perspective. The examination of abusive misconduct thus far focuses on individual and situational factors. A third way to consider it is to think about how it might be completely functional at the organizational level. If it is, it raises these questions: Could bad behavior result from ordinary people operating in organizational circumstances that selectively elicit lousy behavior from their natures? Is there some aspect of the “DNA” of organizations—the guiding principles by which companies exist—which tends to promote uncivil behavior resulting in toxic situations? What role does the organizational system play in creating conditions that help to make the conditions ripe for abuse and misconduct?

Combining them all. Putting all three factors together, leaders can easily observe how organizations functioning as a purely rational system might cause a leader to mistreat their employees. Focusing on productivity and profitability does not require civility, empathy, or kindness. To put things in a story mode, if a young employee landed the promotion opportunity and got to wear a chief hat, the said young employee might not necessarily have the skills to manage their authority (read more here). Stress over KPIs will make a person more aggressive; if that makes meeting goals easier, the subordinates will likely suffer. Sadly though, the situation will probably not be addressed unless the organizations start to look into the process of obtaining the result.

There are 3 factors that is in play for workplace toxicity, from 3 different perspective.
There are 3 factors that is in play for workplace toxicity, from 3 different perspective.

Combating Toxic Workplace Elements

Leaders reading this are primarily interested in combating toxic workplaces. In general, Isaac Song proposes three strategies to counter the factors above. The three strategies are zero-tolerance campaigns, amplifying employees’ voices, and last resort actions.

Zero Tolerance Campaign. To begin the process, leaders should engage with HR and line leaders to capture employees’ feedback on observed behaviors that can be categorized as abusive. Ideally, this feedback should be in the format of an anonymous survey to promote a better response rate and shield vulnerable employees from retaliation. This will help leaders to diagnose and understand the problem accordingly. Once a baseline has been established, a “zero-tolerance campaign” should be launched across the organization, with a focus on multiple fronts: mandatory training, implementation of a new policy, organizational pledge to reduce toxic behavior, line leader’s self-assessment of abusive behavior and setting in goals for zero-complaint for all line leaders. This will allow line leaders to start self-introspection and create a powerful psychological effect called “cognitive dissonance” that helps put things into the desired perspective. Read more about cognitive dissonance here.

Amplifying Employee’s Voice. The collective employee voice to communicate their views to organizations and influence matters that affect them at work is one of the most influential voices that leaders must listen to (read more on how to capture and measure it here). However, employee voices will only be heard if employees perceive organizational support. Without perceived organizational support, employees are less likely to voice out and will leave when things don’t align with their views. This is one of the primary causes of turnover in many organizations. With that in mind, addressing workplace toxicity without employees is pointless. Leaders should actively engage employees and empower employees to amplify their voices. The anonymous feedback channel used in the zero-tolerance campaign can also be used to voice their concerns and report abusive experiences without fear of retribution. Leaders should also invest in systems and processes that capture and publish advocacy ratings of every leader to help boost transparency, which will provide feedback to abusive line leaders.

Last Resort Action. When all else fails, we have to take this last resort action. This action is inspired by reading from this journal2, where employees are more likely to change jobs when they are subjected to workplace bullying. However, leaders advocating to stop workplace toxicity should flip the script and enforce this on the abuser instead. However, leaders must remember that this is a legally binding decision and should be exercised with extreme care. Some steps lead up to the final destination: termination of employment. Depending on the country in which leaders are located (surprisingly, Isaac Song’s blog is getting a lot of international readers these days), leaders should engage with legal and HR to determine the best steps in disciplining stubborn, abusive line leaders.

Reference

1 – Daniel, T.A. (2020). What Causes Toxic Workplace Situations? A Focus on the Individual, Situational, and Systemic Drivers. In: Organizational Toxin Handlers. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-51685-7_3

2 – Rosander, M., Salin, D., & Blomberg, S. (2022). The last resort: Workplace bullying and the consequences of changing jobs. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 63(2), 124–135. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjop.12794 

*Edit 30 July 2022 – Grammatical errors.

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