Confronting Toxic Behaviors in Organizations

Why do organizations tolerate dysfunctional interactions that destroy trust? And what prevents leaders from confronting toxic behaviors effectively? In this short clip, Elizabeth Holloway, PhD in Psychology, provides a useful introduction to understanding how toxic behaviors persist.

To access the complete presentation, click here

Our Viewpoint on Toxic Behaviors in Organizations

As Dr. Holloway argues toxic behavior relies on a system with different players. Identifying the participants in a toxic situation can help everyone gain clarity about the dynamics at play and decide for themselves what is the right course of action, whether as a leader or as a participant.

The players:
In her presentation, Holloway identifies three players in a toxic behavior system as:

  • The perpetrator,
  • The protector and
  • The buffer,

For good measure, I will add the notion of:

  • Avoiders.

In fact, once a pattern of toxic behavior is entrenched, everybody in the organization becomes an avoider to some degree. (As we will see later this often also applies to the leader.)

The glue:
What holds the situation in place is fear. Most of us have no expertise in confronting toxic behavior. Besides, in many instances the person calling out the toxic behavior gets labelled the trouble maker. So no one thinks they have anything to gain through confrontation.

The Making of a Toxic Culture

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Empowerment—DOs and DON’Ts

When pressure mounts at work is usually when leaders speak most of empowerment. In truth they are looking for greater initiative.  With high expectations to see an impact on performance, few things rile leaders more than advocating for employee empowerment and seeing  little employee initiative in return.

Left frustrated, leaders often rationalize this “apathy” as the sign that something is wrong with employee motivation: disinterest, laziness, stupidity, stubbornness, or the like. In isolated instances character “flaws” could be valid explanations, but if this perceived “apathy” is pervasive, something else is necessarily at work.

Trust — the Missing Link

When I look at situations where employees lack initiative, a strong correlation usually reveals itself with what leaders themselves are doing . Fundamentally a lack of engagement stems from the absence of trust in the leader. Trust builds from many different aspects, but two are critical for leaders: they must be trusted as leader and as a person.

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Overwhelm: a Dangerous State for Leaders and Organizations

Individuals, teams and entire organizations can easily slip from working hard in a productive manner to a state of overwhelm that generates diminishing results. Some even confuse overwhelm with results. The flawed thinking goes something like this: “we are so miserable; it’s got to mean we are productive”.  In reality overwhelm  is a state of ineffectiveness. The challenge for leaders is to understand the signals of overwhelm correctly and then refuse to accept it as a normal state of operation.

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Culture of Accountability

Alan Mullaly explains how the executive team at Ford Motor Company changed to a culture of accountability.

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Viewpoint on Creating a Culture of Accountability

True accountability needs a culture of trust and openness and it is up to the leader to put in place the following necessary conditions: safety, clarity of purpose, trust, and an environment where responsibility is valued. Talking about accountability without such conditions in place will cause people to go into a mode of self-protection rather than initiative.

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Candor in the Workplace

Candor in the workplace as Jack Welch describes is the necessary lubricant for organizations to run well. What prevents candor is fear.

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Viewpoint on Candor in the Workplace

In our experience, candor grows when leaders have established the following prerequisite conditions: safety, trust, clarity and transparent accountability.

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