These Workplace Toxins Can Hurt Your Happiness
A few years ago, I was waiting for someone to come out of a meeting room. Through the window adjacent to the door, I could only see the back of their heads. It was now a few minutes past the hour. I politely knocked on the window – mimicking the sound of a watch – to indicate that this person was violating the start of my conference call.
When the individual turned to see me tapping impatiently on the window, I could see streams of tears streaming down his face. Feeling like a heel, I gestured not to care. They pushed me away, got up from their seats and headed for the door.
I didn’t know this person, but when the door opened, I asked, “I’m so sorry, are you okay?”
“Just another typical day,” they replied. “My boss is a jerk, expects too much of me, and I’m sick of the BS. Plus, my team is a bunch of backstabbers.
Welcome to life in a toxic work environment.
Dr. Liane Davey, a psychologist and co-founder of the consulting firm 3Coze, points out that there are five different toxic scenarios in the workplace:
- Toxic policies and processes (planning, decision-making, compensation, etc.)
- Toxic culture (the norms – how we behave as a collective at work)
- Toxic bosses and leaders (those who support the team member)
- Toxic colleagues (peers)
- Toxic customers (the company’s customers)
In an interview, Davey pointed out that the five classes of toxicity are “legitimate issues and if you’re dealing with those dimensions, whether it’s one toxin or multiple toxins, it can really become a threat. for your physical and mental safety”. Let’s look at these last three toxins. (Watch the interview in full below.)
Toxic bosses and leaders
Toxic bosses and leaders can exhibit multiple layers of toxicity in the workplace. First, there is the immediate “carbon monoxide,” as Davey suggests, “leaders screaming and screaming, the immediate noxious ugliness of leadership.” What worries her most, however, are those leadership toxins she considers “like the BPA in our water bottles.” It’s an interesting metaphor and one that really makes sense.
Davey thinks the leaders haven’t prioritized the workload. This in itself has created an inescapable toxin: pressure in the workplace. “Leaders rob people of the ability to focus,” she said, “to understand what matters most.” While not hugely toxic, Davey is adamant, “Leaders who lack the courage or intelligence to prioritize workload are the number one toxin they emit.”
Davey further stated that the inability to prioritize workload stems from very siled thinking and functioning. “Where the leaders really let us down,” Davey said, “is that the CEO has their priorities, and then every executive around the table hears that, makes them their priorities, and never comes back to figuring out how all these things align…or never again align between departments.
She pointed out that while leaders are bad at setting priorities within the vertical of a business unit or team, leaders are atrocious at working together across the organization to set everyone’s priorities. Worse still, no effort is made to align priorities in such a way as to eliminate redundancies and everyone is much more aware of the actions of others. It’s a pervasive toxin, causing inexcusable overwork for millions of employees.
Christine Porath, a management professor at Georgetown University, has studied various aspects of workplace incivility for years. Porath often refers to toxicity as “de-energizing behaviors.” For example, research she and her colleagues conducted found that the effect of having a toxic (or de-energizing) relationship with a peer in the workplace is four to seven times greater than the effect of a positive relationship. In other words, toxic behavior is more powerful than good behavior.
Net profit? You’re likely drawn to the Death Star tractor beam of these toxic peers, which makes you disengaged, uncollaborative, and generally makes you feel like work is a demotivating experience. Have you ever tried to avoid someone at work, whether face-to-face, by not responding to emails, avoiding them in chat, or refusing to respond in a discussion forum or a Slack channel? This is what toxic peers can cause.
It’s good to know that Davey practices what she seeks and preaches. Regarding his own business and his Rolodex of customers, Davey said, “I’ve spent the last two years getting rid of my toxic customers.” Her analysis suggested that despite the significant revenue she derived from these clients, their poor behavior had a negative impact on Davey’s overall disposition.
Clients who constantly changed their expectations, said one thing and did another, or changed deadlines without consultation, were emblematic of such toxicity in Davey’s professional life. By trimming his list of toxic clients, Davey created the environment that allowed him to fully serve his non-toxic clients in addition to feeling more personally engaged on a day-to-day basis. And his business is doing better than ever.
This particular toxin is one that is often misdiagnosed and untreated.
If you’re a small or medium-sized consulting business, ask yourself if you really need the client if they’re causing you and your team members too much stress and anxiety. Are they worth it? Your team can thank you for “returning the client”.
Most organizations, however, aren’t able to “fire the customer,” but that doesn’t alleviate the problem. Rude, offensive and aggressive customers are the bane of any frontline team member. And let’s not forget the back-office staff who deal with passive-aggressive clients who constantly place unfair demands on deliverables and deadlines.
It all boils down to scenarios where leaders need to check on their team members frequently to understand if customers are causing morale and performance issues due to their toxic behavior.
Toxins in the workplace are inevitable. How you manage them is key.
Check out my bookLead. Care. To earn. How to become a leader who matters.” Thinkers50 #1 ranked thinker, Amy. C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls it “an invaluable roadmap.”