• Terry Dockery

FIXING A TOXIC WORKPLACE

Updated: Apr 15

A toxic workplace is just what it sounds like--unhealthy for humans. It’s a place where caring about others and fairness are not core values of the organization. This manifests itself in people chronically feeling unsafe and afraid, especially about being honest. 

This goes beyond the standard “put your best foot forward and don’t acknowledge your struggles” business culture here in the US--the dictum to “act like everything is okay” when it clearly isn’t is palpable. This results in leaders making faulty decisions based on bad/dishonest information, and it hurts financial results. 

What causes this? There are two main causes of this and other kinds of conflict: 1) Different values and priorities, and 2) Miscommunication, especially ambiguity about goals and roles. Your values and priorities are very important since they drive all your decisions. That’s why it’s so important to have clearly stated and enforced core values in your organization. 

For example, there are many examples of companies that either didn’t have clearly stated core values or didn’t enforce them which lead to very damaging financial results. One of the latest is the Wells Fargo debacle in which salespeople were rewarded for blatantly cheating customers. One of their unstated core values must have been “Cheat people to make money,” eh? 

When two people have different values and priorities, very often the best course of action is for them to go their separate ways. To try to change someone’s core values and priorities is a monumental task, and most times it makes more business sense to “change PEOPLE” than to try to “CHANGE people.” 

Going back a step further in the causal chain, a toxic workplace can only exist if it is enabled and supported by the person with the most power in the organization, i.e., the CEO. This person should be held accountable for empowering the leaders below them in the organizational chart to treat employees badly. Executive coaching is unlikely to remedy this kind of egregious leadership flaw; oftentimes it make more sense to replace the CEO (as Wells Fargo did). 

If a workplace is only just becoming toxic, the problem may be reversed by executive coaching for the CEO and other leaders and top-to-bottom clarification of the organizational goals and roles. Make no mistake, ambiguity is the enemy here. When goals and roles are ambiguous, people do the best they can by assuming facts not in evidence. Since different people assume different things, this becomes a fertile plane for all kinds of conflict to ensue. I’ve been in many conflict resolution meetings in which people discovered they were in “violent agreement” once we clarified the situation. 

High-Performance Habits

1. Hold your leader accountable for a toxic workplace, and replace them if necessary.  2. Make sure your core values are clearly stated and then enforced through your performance management system.  3. To reduce conflict, clear up all ambiguity about strategy and tactics, especially roles and accountability.

Copyright Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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