Executive Development Blog

Effective Leadership Can Prevent Toxic Culture

Posted by Chad Vamos on Sep 4, 2014 11:10:52 AM


Check out a recent white paper written by UNC's Kirk Lawrence.

How to Cleanse a Toxic Workplace

Just about any manager who has been in the field for a few years has a supply of war stories about employees and supervisors whose presence and/or leadership style can crush a work environment in no time flat. Employees have their fair share of war stories too. For this reason, there has been increased attention in both the government sector and the private sector on senior leaders whose style and behavior are outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. These types of leaders create an environment that destroys morale and employee trust, and ultimately degrades productivity.

toxicWhen a workplace becomes toxic: The warning signs

Types of toxic behaviors include tearing others down, passive aggressive leadership, destructive gossip, devious politics, negativity, aggressiveness, narcissism, lack of credibility, passivity, disorganization, and the resistance to change. These behaviors—individually or combined—can create a toxic workplace environment.

Leadership—or the lack of it—lays at the core a toxic workplace. When a toxic workplace develops on a peer-to-peer level, it is the lack of leadership that allows it to fester. All too often, however, toxic workplaces are created from the top down, when managers or supervisors are the root of the problem. One study found that 37 percent of workers said they had been bullied at work and that the majority of those bullies (72 percent), were bosses.

How toxic workplaces affect employees

Abusive supervision is extremely costly to employers; it is estimated that it costs U.S. employers $23.8 billion annually in the form of absenteeism, health care costs, lost productivity, and more. Abusive supervision lowers employee performance, increases deviant behavior, heightens tension and emotional exhaustion, lowers self-esteem, and lowers job satisfaction. Other outcomes of abusive supervision includes increased intention to quit, decreased organizational commitment, and increased psychological distress. These effects associated with abusive supervision and bullying are not limited to the bully’s victims. A University of British Columbia study found that employees who witnessed the bullying had as similarly high turnover intentions as the victims themselves.

Unfortunately, toxic behavior like bullying behavior appears to pay off in the workplace. A study by Darren C. Treadway of the University of Buffalo’s School of Management found that many bullies receive positive performance evaluations from supervisors and achieve high levels of career success. Bullies succeed because they charm supervisors and manipulate others to get ahead, even while they abuse co-workers and subordinates.

How to prevent toxic behaviors in the workplace

Baird Brightman, a behavioral scientist at Harvard University, suggests a three-pronged approach to preventing the development of a toxic workplace:

  1. Primary prevention
  2. Secondary prevention
  3. Tertiary prevention

The best way to stop the development of a toxic workplace is to prevent it from occurring in the first place (primary prevention). Managers should use the selection process to identify people who are toxic. Brightman suggests that managers use approaches like self-assessments and 360-degree observer ratings to detect toxic behaviors. These approaches work better at identifying toxic behaviors than interviews or reference checks.

The secondary prevention phase helps detect toxic behaviors early in an employee’s tenure with the organization and can minimize toxic behavior. Brightman suggests that leaders direct their HR and talent managers to use education and coaching about toxic behavior during the first few weeks of employment. Coaching can also be used to help employees identify toxic personality types that may be entrenched in their organizations and the actions they can take to defuse them.

Even with extensive screening and coaching, it is sometimes not possible to eliminate a person’s toxic behavioral tendencies. When that happens, it is time to consider tertiary prevention—dismissal. Supervisors must document the steps that have been taken to address the toxic behavior and the communication that has occurred to try to improve the toxic person’s behavior so the dismissal process can be as smooth as possible.

Leaders ultimately bear the responsibility of establishing an environment free from toxic behaviors. Although terminating an employment relationship is never a desired outcome, it may be necessary. Documenting behavior and incidents, counseling on the need to change behavior, and eventually firing the employee may be necessary to eliminate the toxic buildup. When leaders take action and let their employees know these behaviors will not be tolerated, the change to a positive environment can be drastic. On the other hand, if the leadership of the organization is the root cause, employees must be bold enough to address the issue and seek recourse. Toxic workplaces drain employees and lower productivity. If these behaviors are not checked, the workplace can easily drift into hostile workplace environments that have very real legal implications.

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