De-toxing the Workplace

Posted by jlubans on December 13, 2016

Good question.
When I last wrote about the toxic workplace, I suggested I’d be back with some more ideas on how to deal with a poisoned work atmosphere.
In the last week, the BBC posted a review article,
How should firms deal with a 'toxic employee'?”
and defined toxicity as “everything from selfishness, bullying, rudeness, being overly-domineering, or even just being constantly too loud and opinionated...”
The article includes ideas for how a leader should cope with this prevalent problem. It also includes the obvious free advice, “Don’t hire them.” OK, we won’t.
Many of us who work in traditional organizations – the kind with HR departments and its rules and regs, org charts, personnel files, labor lawyers, middle managers, unions, etc – often find ourselves inheriting problem employees, the organization’s tar babies.
Everyone knows who the toxic people are but no one has been able to do anything with them. But there are reasons for that, not just dereliction of duty by a supervisor.
For the youngsters out there, one of the first tests you will have as a new manager will be the toxic employee. How will you deal with the negative comment, the negative posture, and the nay saying, often in public? Will you postpone to another day or will you enjoin and stop it? Will you pass or fail?
I’ve reflected on my own career and the toxic people I had to deal with – believe me it’s a long list. (I should mention that the list includes some people I did not “like” but that does not qualify them as toxic. If someone questions a program I am promoting, that does not make that person toxic.)
It’s not been a happy reflection. More of “Why did I not do what I should have done?” than nostalgic war stories of how I single handedly de-toxed an organization. “Why did I not do what I should have done?” applies as well to the competent, non-toxic colleagues with whom I had differences.
No one could surpass my discovering, promoting and working with star employees. I was the best boss ever. But, I have to admit; I was less than the best when it came to stemming jerkitude.
Why was this and what would I do differently?
It comes down to conflict resolution. Do we constructively confront conflict or do we avoid, accommodate, or compromise? Or, worse, do we, ourselves, respond in toxic ways and counter gossip and rumor with gossip and rumor and build cliques to off set the enemy cliques? Do we stop talking to a toxic person, giving her the cold shoulder in hopes she will take the hint and leave?
One of the BBC article’s key points is that the supervisor has to give feedback to the toxic person. She has to have a sit down, face-to-face talk about the behaviors to "make the behaviour explicit, and break it down, monitor and measure it, and offer course-corrected feedback".
I have seen this work. No, it was not a miraculous turn around from problem staffer to star staffer. Nothing like that. What mattered was that the staff in that department saw that the behavior was no longer tolerated, that the worker was being held accountable and that there were consequences for bad behavior. The supervisor’s taking disciplinary (and fair) action raised the department’s morale and minimized the influence of the problem staffer. Staff were no longer interrupted and made to listen to monologues on how awful and unfair the workplace was, etc. The department’s productivity improved.
That new supervisor modeled a method to de-tox a long-term negative situation. It took courage and confidence and it took support from higher ups. It took understanding the problem employee’s job and making clear what was expected and attainable. And, it took time, a lot of it, to monitor progress. This sort of work is among the most difficult and most important we do as managers.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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