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Editorial Team
08 Mar 2019



Anatomy of a Toxic Workplace and the Ensuing Employee Divergence

toxic workplace

The Toxification’ of Elemental Forces making the Cubicles Ugly

An IT employee working at a US government agency in New York sabotaged the company’s entire system of computer programs when he left it on a bad note. Though still fully functional, no one could make sense of the code and this goof-up wasn’t unearthed until he was hired by some other company.

Some do it better than this as they know this is a small world and actions like these will have exact repercussions. One of the employees did it the way Andy Dufresne did in Shawshank Redemption –he was courteous and honoring of the present employer till he found a better opportunity at the competitors and poached all the clients and customers of the old company. Now, that’s better revenge in the truer sense of the phrase having the last laugh.

What Defines a Toxic Workplace: Excesses that Spawn Regulation Overkill

Toxic culture is defined as activities which disconnect people from their work and strip them off of their self-esteem. In words of Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of the book A**hole Survival Guide, a toxic workplace “leaves you feeling like dirt”.

Paul White, co-author of Rising above a Toxic Workplace says – stress emanating from a toxic culture “takes a toll on your body” as also proven by leading studies form the Harvard and Stanford. Such stress cause major problems like digestive issues, immune deficiencies, heart attacks, and stroke which might be imperceptible in the beginning but can wreak havoc later on in life.

In short, a toxic workplace is defined by these characteristics:

  • Inability to commit to operational goals and achieve them.
  • Rarely-yielding decisions and fear-driven problem-solving processes.
  • Weak internal communication.
  • Work and rework owing to huge wastage of time and poor decision capabilities.
  • Self-centered agendas and personal gain motivating interpersonal relationships.

A toxic workplace is the result of a top-down phenomenon attributed by these:

  • Narcissism: If the leadership reeks of narcissism with no wrongs ever coming from those placed highest in command then you are in a toxic culture. 
  • Bullying: Bullying runs rampant and wide in toxic environments. The Workplace Bullying Institute found, 61% of bullies are bosses, 33% are peers, and 6% are subordinates.
  • Overwork: Families and Work Institute survey says that 43% of employees feel overworked.
  • Chronic Stress: An international poll by Monster says 42% of employees leave their jobs due to an excessively stressful environment.

As with the famous cases of Enron and WorldCom — when Jeffrey Skilling was CEO and Andrew Fastow, the CFO, of Enron, they were the conduits of negative workplace behaviors. Labeled obsessive and control freak, they painted employees ‘not creative’ for not completing their tasks with an innovative streak and prepared a creed of back-stabbers. All of this thrown into the mix of constant reorganizations, undisciplined spending, and illegal accounting procedures made them the biggest blunders in the history of contemporary corporate chronicles.

*The Other Take: As major empirical evidence suggests, other than what traditional knowledge leads people to believe, aggressive and demanding behavior of CEO is not only dependent on her but also on the employees who are working in an organization. Bill Gates is famous for his harsh and obsessive behavior regarding success, but Microsoft’s employees are equivalently motivated and competitive and Gate’s leadership style matches with that of the employees.

Where Transparency Fails, Anarchy Prevails:

Toxic culture gives birth to destructive feelings of anger, poor communication, despair, low morale, and depression which, in turn, affect dependent variables like high absenteeism, poor work performance, and increased turnover. Research suggests that emotional mismanagement leads to excessive benefit expenditure compensating for greater use of drug plans, productivity losses, and short and long-term disability programs. All of this cumulatively leads to a negatively impacted bottom line.

A report entitled the Price of Incivility outlines how employees get back at their employers in a toxic workplace. 48% affirm they become less productive deliberately, 47% say they cut down the time they spend inside the premises, 38% reduce the quality of their work, 80% have no control over the loss of time because of the replaying of bad encounters with the boss in their mind, 66% confessed to corrupting the minds of others around to make them negative, 78% reported decreased commitment, and, 12% resigned to get away from it. This deviance causes 30% loss in business revenue which is equivalent to losing $200 billion each year in the US alone.

Toxic culture isn’t an anomaly. Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway in their book Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and their Systems of Powers, interviewed 400 leaders and found 94% of them had worked with a toxic person.

The Antithesis of Toxic Culture: The Corporate Canon

The underpinnings of a toxic culture are hard to ascertain but important all the same. It is difficult to trace the pain points. This metastatic growth can be mitigated with the prescient recognition of problematic personality traits, placement of difficult managers in positions wherein negative behavior is least likely to impact, and coaching difficult people who can be trained.

Often a bone of contention is- in whose court the ball lies? More so, when the CEO and the management seem the most toxic then, the onus passes to the human resources professionals inside the organization.

Here’s how they can ‘detoxify’ the culture of toxins:

  • Positive Employee Experience: ThoughtSpot brings in physical therapist weekly and has arranged for ergonomic mouse and keyboards for the workplace overhaul. Such measures reduce the risk of musculoskeletal diseases and occupational hazards.
  • Voicing Employee Concerns: Most of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For pay heed to their suggestion-box and implement long-term structural changes in the organizational ecosystem. They also have a consistent redressal system for employee disagreements.
  • Transparency: Whether it’s an event happening or a change process underway, it must be communicated duly and effectively. Pre-emptive measures have to be taken to address issues which might blow out of proportion.
  • Work-life Balance: Conscious capitalism is a rage these days and an appreciation of a healthy and positive work-life balance can ease stress. It adds to the employee’s confidence.
  • Organization as a Metaphor for Incubation Labs: Organizations have to carry an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit to push engagement and collaboration between team members and bring new solutions to old problems.        

A dysfunctional system becomes the proverbial vicious cycle as a toxic culture promotes deviant behavior and vice versa. Companies with high People Management Practices (PMP) outperform companies with low PMP.

Riot Games paved a way for its successors by issuing a public apology ‘Our Steps Forward’ wherein it acknowledged the responsibility and pledged changes in its toxic culture. If Riot Games can muster the might, there’s no reason why the rest of the contemporary business world can’t.

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