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What is Workplace toxicity?

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

This is an edited excerpt from an article that originally appeared 5/21/19 on Knowledge at Wharton

The article can be accessed in its complete form here.

Defining Toxicity

People are so hungry for connection and community. They’re desperate to escape toxicity. Organizations are primed to make a difference. They are bright spots in an increasingly negative and noxious environment

Arriving at solutions is difficult when there’s no clear definition of what the problem is. “What’s the definition of a toxic workplace?” asks Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources. “I’ve heard people talk about it as the result of a boss or even a coworker who is toxic. There can be cultures, like the Trump White House, where tearing each other down is encouraged. Does that count? I just saw it defined as any workplace where ‘the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those cause serious disruptions in the rest of your life.’ Wikipedia says ‘significant drama and infighting, personal battles.’ … I think that’s the problem – if it doesn’t have an understood definition, it isn’t possible to pin down the cause or talk about what to do about it.”

The most common situation, perhaps, is where “the boss acts like a dictator and actively punishes people who articulate different views or express disagreement,” Cappelli says. “In addition to people quitting, the big problem for the performance of the organization is that people sit on their hands, they don’t take the initiative to do anything, and they may actually sit back and watch the boss’s ideas fail even when they could be salvaged. Bosses like this usually have issues that no subordinate is going to address. Without an organization that is looking to see what is going on and is willing to intervene, there isn’t a lot subordinates can do except get out.”

Bosses as dictators are one thing, but often the problem is a boss who either doesn’t see a toxic environment developing, or sees it and underestimates its severity and the toll it is taking on productivity, turnover and the health of workers.

“I suspect much of the time they are unaware,” says Wharton’s Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations, information and decisions. “Because our experiences at work are so profoundly shaped by the power we have, it very well could be that high-power people see the behavior and don’t perceive it to be a big problem, while lower-level people see it and perceive it to be extremely stressful. There is often a perspective-taking failure in the workplace. As people gain more power they fail to take the perspective of those with less power.”

A manager should be prepared to react quickly to a potentially toxic situation, and it’s smart to “err on the side of reacting too quickly but to do it in a trust-but-verify model,” says Reed. “And if it’s a serious problem in terms of psychological well-being and productivity, then something has to be done.”

One of the best strategies, he says, is for everyone to “come together as a group to create a new community norm about which the group agrees, and say, ‘We are going to call out this behavior and signal that this is not the culture we are going to accept and promote in our work environment.’ It takes some courage to do that, because it causes short-term pain to have those conversations, but it makes it harder to sweep things under the rug.”

Such a “peer review” method is a powerful way of articulating what the norms are, Reed says. It illustrates “social proof,” one of the “Six Principles of Influence” identified by psychologist and marketing expert Robert Cialdini. “When communities come together and tell you something in a common voice it’s very compelling. It’s a diverse set of voices telling you the same thing, so you perceive it as more credible and it’s not a top-down kind of thing.”

What the top leadership can do is to cultivate an atmosphere in which risk and failure are not only tolerated, but also celebrated. “If you want to be creative you have to generate ideas, and a lot of ideas won’t be good,” says Schweitzer. “If you stifle creativity and stifle important voices, people won’t speak up because they won’t want the attention that follows when others challenge and criticize their ideas. How do you fix that? Change the rules around how you hold meetings: Impose a no-interruption rule, have senior leaders speak last, promote anonymity as people share ideas, ask someone to play the devil’s advocate to channel opposing ideas in an endorsed way.”

“Trying to track down the question of whether there is a real increase in toxicity is missing the point – the perception is clear that there is.”–Americus Reed

Creary notes that HR is good at setting policy around respectful engagement and other factors that alleviate toxicity, but it matters that workers see everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, engaging each other in ways the organization values.

“It starts at the front desk with the person who engages with anyone who comes in and out,” she says. “Then, consider the most senior people – how do we see them engaging with people lower down and with each other? If we see respectful behavior between the top and bottom, it is easier to enforce at middle management. The way desirable behavior gets baked into culture is to create artifacts, whether it’s signage, or rewards and recognition programs that recognize people who model this behavior well. The goal isn’t to just reward people who bring in a lot of money, but also to reward people who engage respectfully.”

Much is at stake for just about any employer. A toxic workplace not only discourages creativity, but also increases turnover and stress, “so it is a very costly experience,” says Schweitzer. “And if any of those people experience anything that crosses the line into harassment they are more likely to sue rather than settle with the organization. So it’s risky

and costly, and there are some managers who believe that the way to manage people is to intimidate them by bluster or fear. I worry that the current president models a leadership style

that endorses yelling at people and calling people you disagree with derogatory nicknames. This is not the way to generate creative ideas, maximize performance of your team, attract the best talent, or reduce turnover. It is the hallmark of a manager who lacks other tools.”

In a study of six organizations spanning six industries, employees characterized as highly thriving demonstrated 1.2 times less burnout than their peers, Porath and Gretchen Spreitzer wrote in “Creating Sustainable Performance: Four Ways to Help Your Employees — and Organization — Thrive,” published in 2012 in the Harvard Business Review. High thrivers were 52% more confident in themselves and their ability to take control of a situation, wrote Christine Porath an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace

in “An Antidote to Incivility,” published in HBR in 2016. They were also far less likely to have incivility “drag them down a chute of negativity, distraction, or self-doubt,” she said. “One of my friends, a talented life coach, likes to ask people faced with adversity, ‘What are you going to make this mean?’ … How you interpret a situation is crucial. How much are you going to let someone pull you down? What useful lessons might there be for you in the situation?”

According to Porath, research shows that about 50% of our happiness is based on brain wiring; 40% stems from how we interpret and respond to what happens to us; and 10% is driven by circumstances like whether we have less power and whether we’re more or less dependent on the job or the offender.

“In large part, you really do get to decide how you interpret incivility, the meaning you assign to it, and the stories you tell yourself,” says Porath. “You also get to control whether it makes you feel bad or not. It may not be realistic for you to ‘toughen up,’ but you can choose not to worry about what was said or done to you. If you’re thriving, you’re less likely to worry about the hit you took or to interpret words or deeds negatively. In fact, you’re more likely to craft an interpretation that validates yourself and your behavior.”

One intriguing body of recent research involves the concept of respectful inquiry: encouraging leaders to ask employees questions and listen intently to their answers. “It sounds simple and perhaps even obvious, but it’s a rare form of commanding others because it moves beyond merely being respectful and courteous. It involves relinquishing some control and thus is a huge sign that you trust other people,” says Wharton management professor Andrew Carton. “It’s empowering.”

Respectful inquiry is a multi-purpose tool because it accommodates three basic needs that all people have: control, competence and belonging, argue Niels Van Quaquebeke and Will Felps in “Respectful inquiry: A Motivational Account of Leading Through Asking Questions and Listening,” published in 2016 in the Academy of Management Review. “This increases peoples’ sense of autonomy and meaningfulness at work,” says Carton, adding that although the idea is preliminary, it is thought-provoking and actionable. “This latter issue, an idea that is actionable, is important because it involves moving beyond simply imploring leaders to be more respectful and gives them a concrete suggestion on how to improve their organizations’ culture, one small step at a time,” he notes.

Research shows that people are better able to improve at what they do when they are given feedback that involves a specific behavior – for instance, saying, “please try to be more punctual for our Monday meetings” rather than offering general guidance like “please try to be more conscientious.” This kind of concreteness is all the more important when it comes to soft skills, says Carton.

Although there might be a lot of toxicity in the air right now, very few workplaces are irretrievably toxic. Addressing someone behaving badly at work in a kind, concise manner makes the offending co-worker change his or her behavior in 75% to 80% of cases. Another 10% of those behaving badly will know there’s a problem but don’t know how to stop, and they might need coaching or intervention. And then there is a small number of people who just don’t get it, and those are the people who need limits and rules. And if those are the people in authority, sometimes you are the one who has to leave.

It’s important for those who feel wronged by a toxic co-worker to ask themselves whether they are over-reacting, and to not let resentments fester. One unknown at the moment is how much toxicity is being generated in the workplace, as opposed to how much is seeping in from outside the office via politics, general social upheaval, and the ugly tone of social media. Is there a way to insulate the workplace as, potentially, a safe haven from the greater societal ills making themselves apparent right now?

Is incivility a bug? – "it’s contagious,” says Porath. “And you can catch it anywhere – at work, at home, online or in your community. So, yes, I think it’s seeping in from outside the office.”

But “the organizations that are able to build stronger, more respectful communities will gain competitive advantage,” she says. “People are so hungry for connection and community. They’re desperate to escape toxicity. Organizations are primed to make a difference. They are bright spots in an increasingly negative and noxious environment.

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