How to Manage the Toxic Workplace

Friday, August 9, 2013 - 08:03

By Leon Gettler

Are you getting all the work but little thanks? Do you have to put up with people’s annoying behaviour every day? Is your boss bullying, or micromanaging? Are people in your workplace repeatedly getting blamed when things go wrong? Do bullies have a cosy relationship with those in power? Are people continually quitting? Do you now dread coming into work?

If you answer yes to any of the above, chances are you in a toxic workplace. They’ve been around forever but the pressure on organisations now to survive and boost profits in this new economic order of uncertainty will be more intense, and are more likely to create toxic environments. How do managers transform the toxic workplace?

Writing in, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University in the USA, says there is a bunch of standard management practices that can change things. “One is to let people make decisions. Two is to share the economic results with employees, through profit sharing or gains sharing. Three is to share information. Secrecy breeds fear. It also signals to people that you don’t trust them or think they’re not competent to use the information. Give people data. They can’t make decisions without data. Four is to invest in people. Spending money on training is a great way to say, ‘You are important to me.’

He says managers have to do it because the company suffers if they don’t. “First, you need to decide why you want to reform,’’ he says. “The reason should be that companies with engaged work forces actually do better. Companies with loyal customers outperform their competitors. And loyal customers come from having loyal employees, who want to provide a high level of service and creativity. When you understand that you really do achieve competitive advantage through people, the rest follows. Every time you make a decision, ask yourself a very simple question: Is this decision consistent with the view that people are the most important differentiator in my organisation? If the answer is yes, you are doing the right thing.”

Human resources specialists say managers need to identify the causes of the problems by gathering information. If people aren’t forthcoming, an anonymous employee survey or focus group can go a long way to uncovering what people really think about the workplace. It then needs to be followed up with an action plan.

The Harvard Business Review has three recommendations: perform one-on-one, confidential interviews with employees. Give them the space to vent, and then engage them in solving the problems they’ve raised; help employees think through the issues, but don’t tell them what to do. Allow employees to take personal responsibility for making things better and finally, make a pledge to turn complaints into commitments. You gain employees’ trust by showing them you are listening and making changes based on what you heard.

Psychologists Elizabeth Holloway and Mitchell Kusy say managers should not make the common mistakes of preparing the paper work to fire and avoiding confrontation. What they need to do instead is set concrete rules: no bullies, prima donnas, kissing up or kissing down. They need to implement systems of rigorous performance appraisals, leadership development and 360 degree feedback.