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How to detect and defuse a toxic workplace

A poisonous atmosphere is a sure way to drive out your ‘A’ players.
How to detect and defuse a toxic workplace

There’s a reason dysfunctional workplaces are often referred to as toxic. Similar to a home with a small gas leak, an office that allows gossip, pointless meetings, favouritism, and bullying to go unacknowledged will gradually become uninhabitable.

Early signs that your office is becoming toxic include an increase in absenteeism, uninspired job performance from team members, unproductive meetings, gossiping, and bullying, according to Brandon Smith, founder of The Workplace Therapist and adjunct faculty member at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta.

You’ll realise the situation is dire when all your “A” players start leaving for more agreeable places.

“In general, a toxic workplace has people focusing on the dysfunction, rather than the stuff they’re paid to do,” Smith said.

Here are a few tips for managers on how to detox the office upon the detection of dysfunction:

Evaluate the culture. When workplace culture issues pop up, whether it’s gossiping, backstabbing, or complaining about raises or bonuses, Smith recommends revisiting the company culture. Managers need to figure out what they want the culture to look like, create three to five guidelines, and announce and communicate them to the team.

“As a kid, you probably grew up in a house that had rules, and sometimes you have to revisit those rules,” Smith said. “So many people don’t revisit their culture enough.”

Smith likens revisiting culture to making an appointment with the optometrist. If you wear glasses, you should be going once a year, and because culture is the lens you look through in life, he said, you want to make sure you’re getting the right prescription.  

Once you’ve renewed the culture, about 80% of the staff will step up and assimilate to the clarified norms and expectations right away, according to Smith. The remaining 20% are going to be your coaching opportunities.

Let go of the office troublemaker. If you’ve reset the office culture, and one or two individuals are still causing problems, despite your best efforts to communicate to them why their actions are unacceptable, you may need to consider letting them go.

“If you’re serious about culture, you can’t be afraid to let someone go who keeps violating it,” Smith said. “Because if you keep that one person around, it signals to everybody that it’s not real. It’s like threatening to take a cellphone away from your teenager and then not actually doing it — it’s not going to work.”

Smith acknowledges that it can be scary to let go of problem people, because they often happen to be high performers who have been with the company for a while, but in his experience, letting that person go has always resulted in a markedly improved environment for the remaining team members.   

Find out what makes team members tick. Make a point of having casual conversations with each team member so you can get an idea of what their life is like, both in and outside of work.

Each individual on the team will have different motivations and workplace triggers, so it’s helpful for managers to understand each team member to avoid running into any metaphorical icebergs.

“Once you understand more about the individuals, you can be much better about nipping problems in the bud, and you’ll also start to notice when their behaviour is changing,” said Rachel Lewis, Ph.D., associate professor in occupational and business psychology at Kingston University in London.

Avoid playing favourites. We’re all human, so it’s likely managers will get along better with some team members than others or rely heavily on one or two employees for important projects.

Lewis warned against playing favourites because she said it heightens feelings of unfairness, causing resentment to fester among the team. Often, managers are unaware that they’re favouring some employees over others, so it’s important to take a serious look at your behaviour and consider keeping lists of the times you’ve granted each employee something to ensure things are as fair as possible.

“Managers need to be conscious of delegating things appropriately and evenly and to continue talking to the team about how they feel about their individual workloads,” she said.

Be a consistent leader. Arguably worse than the angry, abusive boss is the highly inconsistent boss, according to Smith, because you don’t know what you’re going to get from day to day.

“You could get a raise or you could get fired — you have no idea what they’re going to do,” he said. “When managers are inconsistent, it creates a lot of anxiety, so part of the boss’s job is creating a stable, healthy environment that’s really consistent.”

For instance, if you announce that team meetings are held every Monday at 9, then have them every Monday at 9.

“When there are a lot of other things that change, people want to know what’s not going to change,” he said.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.