The phrase “toxic workplace” is having a moment. It is popping up on all of the workplace blogs and industry rags. And yes, it’s a serious problem. But no, this isn’t helping.
Tim Denning’s LinkedIn piece A Toxic Work Culture Is Forcing High-Performing People to Quit is one recent example of this trend. He provides a compact definition of the concept:
In a toxic culture, new ideas can’t thrive, people can’t be honest, bullying unfortunately occurs, leaders are given power that can go to their heads and fuel their egos, and an eerie feeling occurs at your company’s town hall/all hands when leaders ask for questions.
Denning continues to explain one unique problem, which is that a particular irony of toxicity is that the very people who do the most are the most likely to bail:
High performers know their strengths and are also smart enough to realize that if they can perform well in a toxic work culture, they can thrive in a Culture First company that looks after its employees.
He goes on to list a bunch of warning signs to management that your workplace might be toxic. And as a credit to the author, they are all solid. But guess what? That doesn’t matter. Because managers in toxic companies aren’t reading articles like these.
No Glass Houses Here
It’s not as if we’re all that much better. We wrote Is Your Workplace Toxic? Definitely Maybe. Plus we talked about toxic, yet effective employees. And we’ve ranted plenty about how too many business treat people like children rather than like adults..
Everybody who is sharing pieces about toxic workplaces is pretty much in the same boat: they know what’s wrong, they are telling individuals to beware, and perhaps once in a while they help someone make the decision to start looking for another job.
But, I doubt that a lot of managers are coming across pieces like 5 Signs of a Toxic Workplace from The Ladders or taking the New York Times‘ toxic workplace quiz and suddenly realizing they are blissfully unaware and leaping into action.
Nope. That’s not happening.
It’s Psychology, Dummy
Why does company leadership create and support a toxic workplace? It’s not because they are sociopaths (at least probably not.) It’s because being ignorant but thinking you have things figured out is a fundamental tenant of modern social science research. It’s even got a name: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.
There are a bunch of other cognitive biases you should learn about. These things ought to be as fundamental to working in the modern economy as “try to never use reply-all” and “Google it before you ask a colleague.” But we can’t get those passed along, so understanding a couple of scientific concepts may be a bridge too far.
Instead of More Articles, More Action
You do have options. The usual recommendations still apply: First: determine if you’re stuck in the asylum, and if so, quit. That’s always worth considering. The grass may well be greener, despite the expression.
A second path to consider is going rogue. You can print out scathing opinion pieces and slide them under the boss’ door. You can go on your favorite anonymous review site or make a throwaway email account. That probably won’t work, but it at least be thrilling.
You can also play pretend. If you worked in a great company where everyone was valued, what would you do instead? Would you speak up instead of saying silent? Would you have a better sense of work-life balance? Would you criticize bad ideas, or ignore meeting requests that didn’t apply to you? That’s a choice as well.
Finally, consider revolution. Okay, so there’s not going to be a Lexington and Concord at the satellite office of your mid-sized distribution and logistics company. But if you’re frustrated, other people probably are too. And it’s a lot harder for toxic sludge to be effective if people are united. Team up to ignore the meaningless paperwork together, or stand up against whatever inane requirement is being pushed down this week.
Or, read more articles. We’ll keep writing them. At least, until businesses treat their people like human beings.
See you next time.