A few years ago, I was waiting for someone to leave a meeting room. Through the window adjacent to the door, I could only see the back of their head. It was now a few minutes over the hour. I politely knocked on the window—miming the tapping of a watch—to indicate that this person was infringing on the start of my conference call.
When the individual turned around to see me impatiently tapping on the window, I could see streams of tears running down their face. Feeling like a heel, I waved to not worry about it. They brushed me off, got up out of their seat, and walked to the door.
I didn’t know this person, but when the door opened, I asked, “I’m really sorry, are you okay?”
“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 life in a toxic workplace environment.
Dr. Liane Davey—psychologist and co-founder of consulting firm 3Coze—points out that there are five different toxic scenarios in the workplace:
- 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)
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During an interview, Davey pointed out that the five classes of toxicity are “legitimate issues and that if you’re facing these dimensions, be it one or multiple toxins, it can truly become a threat to your physical and mental safety.” Let’s delve into the latter three toxins. (Watch the interview in full below.)
Toxic Bosses and Leaders
Toxic bosses and leaders can present several layers of toxicity in the workplace. First, there is the immediate “carbon monoxide,” as Davey suggests, “of leaders who are screaming and yelling, the immediate noxious ugliness of leadership.” What she is more concerned about, however, are those leadership toxins that she considers to be “like BPA in our water bottles.” It’s an interesting metaphor and one that makes complete sense.
Davey believes leaders have failed to prioritize workload. That itself has created an inescapable toxin: workplace pressure. “Leaders are robbing people of the ability to focus,” she said, “to understand what matters most.” While it may not be acutely toxic, Davey is adamant: “Leaders who don’t have the guts or the smarts to prioritize 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 pointed out that while leaders are bad at prioritizing within the vertical of a business unit or team, leaders are atrocious at working together across the organization to outline everyone’s priorities. Worse, effort isn’t given to align the priorities such that redundancies are eliminated, and everyone is much more aware of one another’s actions. It’s a pervasive toxin, one that causes inexcusable superfluous effort across millions of employees.
Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor of management, has researched various aspects of workplace incivility for years. Porath often refers to toxicity as “de-energizing behaviors.” For example, one piece of research that she and her colleagues conducted found the effect of having one toxic (or de-energizing) workplace peer relationship is four to seven times greater than the effect of a positive one. Put differently, toxic behavior is more potent than good behavior.
Net result? You’re likely getting pulled in by the Death Star tractor beam of those toxic peers, which results in you becoming disengaged, non-collaborative, and generally feeling like work is a de-motivating experience. Ever try to avoid someone at work, be it face-to-face, not answering emails, avoiding them on the chat, or refusing to respond in a discussion forum or Slack channel? That’s what toxic peers can cause.
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 behavior negatively impacted Davey’s overall disposition.
Customers who were constantly changing expectations, saying one thing and then doing another, or shifting deadlines without consultation were emblematic of such toxicity in Davey’s work life. By pruning her client list of toxic customers, Davey created the 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 particular toxin is one that often goes misdiagnosed and unaddressed.
If you are a small to medium-sized business that is consultative, ask yourself if you really need the client if they are causing you and your team members far too much stress and angst. Are they worth it? Your team may thank you for ‘firing the client.’
Most organizations, however, are not in a position to ‘fire the client,’ but that does not mitigate the issue at hand. Rude, offensive and belligerent customers are the bane of any front-line team member. And let’s not forget about back-office staff who deal with passive-aggressive customers placing unfair demands on deliverables and timelines all the time.
All of it amounts to scenarios in which leaders should frequently check in on their team members to understand if customers are causing issues with morale and performance due to their toxic behavior.
Toxins in the workplace are unavoidable. How you handle them is key.
Check out my book, “Lead. Care. Win. How to Become a Leader Who Matters.” Thinkers50 #1 rated thinker, Amy. C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School, calls it “an invaluable roadmap.”