Time’s up for Toxic Workplaces

by Jul 31, 2020

Harvard Business Review recently ran the article, Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces, that explores abusive workplace behaviors, and emphasizes the need for organizations to create safe work environments for their employees.

These types of articles are always great for sharing with a boss who just won’t listen when you tell him or her that the bad behavior needs to be addressed.

One interesting point I saw in this article, however, that doesn’t necessarily resonate with my experience, was that abusive supervisors’ performance suffers after inflicting abuse. The researcher/author states that after inflicting abusive behavior on subordinates, supervisors feel a loss of social and self worth and, in turn, their performance suffers, as reported by their own employees.

We often find that those who engage in abusive conduct at work are forgiven by their employer precisely for the opposite reason, they are extraordinarily good at the technical aspects of their jobs and seen as fantastic performers.

The author does go on to say, however, that those who care about their own worth and employee well-being are able to significantly improve their behavior. Those who have psychopathic tendencies (up to 10% of managers according to the author) are not able to change.

This part is in line with my experience as an expert coach of toxic leaders – most do want to change. In fact, they’re often appalled at how they’re perceived once I explain it to them. (Check out this case study, and this one, if you don’t believe me.)

Some other important points made by the author include the following:

Abusive conduct happens in work environments that enable abusive conduct. Supervisors and managers have an important duty to eliminate toxic behavior, and they set an example for their team. If supervisors and managers stand as bystanders, instead of stepping in to stop toxic behavior, employees will remember that response and believe this behavior is tolerated.

Toxic work environments are harmful. It’s no shock that abusive work climates damage motivation and self-esteem. In turn, it takes a toll on performance, productivity, and relationships. Overall, employee emotional and physical health are severely impacted by abuse at work. (Here’s a ton of articles on workplace bullying and PTSD, for example.)

Organizational norms play an essential role in how employees respond to toxic behavior. There is a much higher chance of employees standing up to workplace abuse when they know their organization values integrity and equity. A workplace that honors its core values every single day sets the tone for their workforce.

I close with these three tips:

    1. Abusive conduct needs to be addressed in organizations. And, supervisors need to be educated and trained on the negative impacts of toxic environments and how to combat them.
    2. Employees need a place to safely and anonymously report their concerns and experiences.
    3. Organizations need to set and follow their core values, and communicate the behavioral guidelines expected of employees. Accountability is key.


About Catherine Mattice Zundel

Catherine Mattice Zundel, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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