I was waiting for someone to leave a meeting room a few years back. I could only make out their head behind the window next to the entrance. A few minutes had passed since the hour mark. To respectfully alert them that they were interfering with the beginning of my conference call, I banged on the window while imitating the tapping of a watch.
I could see tears streaming down the person’s face when they turned around and saw me tapping on the window impatiently. I waved to tell them not to worry, but I did I feel like a heel. They ignored me, stood up from their seats, and made their way to the door.
I didn’t know this person, but when the door opened, I sincerely apologized and inquired about their well-being.
“Just another typical day,” they responded. “My boss is a jerk, expects too much of me, and I’m tired of the BS. Plus, my team is a bunch of backstabbers.”
Welcome to work in a harmful and toxic atmosphere.
There are five distinct toxic workplace situations, according to Dr. Liane Davey, a psychologist and co-founder of the consulting business 3Coze:
- Toxic policies & processes (scheduling, decision-making, compensation, etc.)
- Toxic culture (the norms – how we as a collective at work behave)
- Toxic bosses and leaders (those who support the team member)
- Toxic co-workers (peers)
- Toxic customers (the firm’s clients)
In an interview, Davey noted that the five groups of toxicity are “real issues” and that being exposed to them, whether through one or several toxins, can pose a threat to your bodily and psychological well-being.
Let’s explore three of the toxins. (See the complete interview below in video format or listen to the interview via the Leadership NOW Series podcast.)
Toxic Bosses and Leaders
There can be multiple levels of toxicity in the workplace due to toxic bosses and leaders. First, there is the immediate “carbon monoxide,” as Davey suggests, “of leaders who are screaming and yelling, the immediate noxious ugliness of leadership.” But those leadership toxins that she compares to “BPA in our water bottles” are what she is most worried about. It’s a clever metaphor that also makes perfect sense.
Davey thinks that managers should have prioritized work. Workplace pressure has become an unavoidable toxin as a result of that alone. She claimed that “leaders are robbing people of the ability to focus on what really matters.” Although it might not be immediately harmful, Davey is sure that “leaders who don’t have the guts or the smarts to prioritise the workload is the number one toxin they emit.”
Davey further stated that the inability to prioritize workload stems from very siloed thinking and operating. “Where leaders are really failing us,” said Davey, “is that the CEO has their priorities, and then each executive around the table hears that, turns that into their priorities, and never comes back to understanding how all of those things align—or fail to align—across departments ever again.”
She made the point that while leaders struggle with setting priorities inside the confines of a team or business unit, they consistently fail to collaborate with other leaders at all levels of the organization to identify shared priorities. Even worse, little effort is made to set priorities in a way that eliminates duplication and makes everyone much more conscious of one another’s behaviour. It is a ubiquitous toxin that makes millions of workers do unjustifiable amounts of extra effort.
Professor of Management Christine Porath of Georgetown University has spent years studying many facets of workplace rudeness. As “de-energizing activities,” Porath frequently describes poisonous conduct. She and her colleagues discovered, for instance, that the impact of one toxic (or de-energizing) peer interaction at work is four to seven times more than the impact of a favourable one. To put it another way, negative behaviour has more power than positive activity.
What’s the net result? You’re probably being drawn in by the Death Star tractor beam of those poisonous peers, which makes you unmotivated, non-collaborative, and overall disconnected from your work. Have you ever tried to avoid someone at work, whether it be in person, by failing to react to emails, avoiding them in chat, or refusing to respond in a forum or Slack channel? Toxic peers can lead to that.
It’s nice to know that Davey practices what she researches and preaches. Concerning her own firm and its Rolodex of clients, Davey said, “I’ve spent the last two years shedding my toxic customers.” Her analysis suggested that despite the significant revenue she was earning from these clients, their lousy behaviour negatively impacted Davey’s overall disposition.
Customers that frequently changed their expectations, made contradictory statements, or changed deadlines without consulting Davey were typical of the poisonous environment in which she worked. By pruning her client list of toxic customers, Davey created an environment that allowed her to fully serve her non-toxic clients in addition to feeling more personally engaged on a day-to-day basis. And her firm is doing better than ever.
This specific toxin is one that frequently receives incorrect diagnoses and treatment.
Ask yourself if you truly need the customer and if they are causing you and your team members excessive amounts of worry and anxiety. Do they merit it? If you “fired the client,” your team could be grateful.
However, most businesses are not in a position to “fire the client,” which does not lessen the gravity of the situation. Any front-line team member’s worst nightmare is dealing with rude, disrespectful, and combative consumers. And let’s not forget about the back-office workers that constantly deal with passive-aggressive clients making unreasonable demands on timetables and deliveries.
All of these scenarios boil down to situations in which leaders should regularly check in with their team members to learn whether clients are negatively impacting morale and performance because of their toxic behaviour.
In the workplace, toxins are inevitable. The trick is how you handle them.