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

Slowly but surely, generalized avoidance creeps into the organization and toxic dysfunction infiltrates its culture.

  1. In a first phase, people maneuver to avoid or limit their exposure to the toxic behavior. As a result, the communications essential for a healthy organization suffer; conversations are either truncated or fail to happen all together. Trust, engagement and collaboration erode. The culture of the organization becomes one of caution.
  2. Without a rapid intervention by the leader, toxicity moves on to the second phase: that of infection. The unspoken standard is set; toxic behavior is acceptable. Toxicity infects the nature and style of communications as more individuals now express their own frustrations with snide remarks, backstabbing, blaming. Self-preservation sets in. This second phase is just a warm up for things to come.
  3. Once a toxic culture has taken root, it becomes hard to reverse. No one remembers who the carrier of the infection was. Every new comer in the organization is now socialized to play the toxic game. Toxicity not only radiates in interactions within the organization but also affects external parties. By the time, suppliers and customers are affected, the organization will experience the economic impact of having allowed a toxic culture to develop.

Intervening early at the first signs of toxic behaviors is therefore paramount. Without any doubt, the responsibility for action falls squarely on the shoulders of the leader with ultimate authority.

Yet, the urgency to act is not always visible when other pressing demands already capture the leader’s attention. Combine that with their own uncertainty about how to address the toxic behavior, and the temptation to ignore the situation is great.

Getting a Clear Picture

As a leader you may be working hard on critical challenges, but remember: toxic behaviors are already at work sapping the foundation of your organization from under you. When leaders feel unable to change things,  taking stock of the many roles they can play in a toxic system can help them get unstuck.

Let’s look at a couple of readily recognizable situations, where leader play multiple parts in the toxic system:

  • In a surprising number of situations, the leader is actually the protector. The cause may be emotional, as in a family owned business where the leader protects a spouse or other family member. Another reason for protection is often economic, where one of the star performer may also terrorize his or her team.
  • The leader can also be the buffer. Consider the leader who spends an inordinate amount of time apologizing to employees for the poor behavior of another staff member.
  • Protectors often behave as avoiders, as if they did not notice any toxic behavior. If so, it is a face-saving device to hide conflict avoidance. Everyone else in the system, however, sees this avoidance for what it is, i.e.,  a failure to do one’s job as a leader.

Confronting Toxic Behaviors

The issue of toxic behavior rarely, if ever, goes away on its own. Leaders must act. For that to happen, both clear thinking and practical skills are necessary. Here are three things the leader will need to succeed in confronting toxic behaviors:

  •  Understand the dynamics within the group (i.e., who is doing what), including facing up to his or her own contribution to toxic behavior.
  • Fully assess the long-term negative impact of toxic behavior on the group’s performance.
  • Develop the skills to hold a critical interaction with the person displaying toxic behavior. When the leader does not possess this skill he or she must seek the help of a coach or facilitator. A lack of experience in this area is often the reason for lack of action or excessive reliance on HR to take disciplinary steps.

When an individual combines talent and ability, and toxic behavior, the challenge for the leader is to address the behavior head on AND to work on repairing the social fabric of the team. Failing to do those, the leader will lose respect from the entire team including the toxic perpetrator who will be emboldened to behave even worse.

Change happens when all parties to the system engage in the solution. When toxic behaviors have become ingrained, we recommend individual and team coaching simultaneously as the path to bring the group’s culture back to healthy interactions.

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