Mihalicz_The Toxic Organization

Egocentric leadership and contrary versus cooperative behaviours at work often lead to unhealthy or “toxic” organizations. Productivity and creativity are replaced by inefficiency and a destructive culture motivated by self-interest and a lack of shared vision. As the number of disgruntled employees grows in relation to workplace stress, it’s important for managers and decision makers to lead by example in an effort to avoid reinforcing dysfunctional work practices which foster a toxic environment.

What is a Toxic Organization?

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The “toxic organization” is essentially understood to mean an organization in which there is a negative spiral of dysfunctional working relationships. From key leadership down to frontline employees, the toxic workplace affects everyone. Egos may get in the way of sound decision making, power struggles and intense competition between individuals may stifle the pursuit of common goals, or other dynamics can set up a negative spiral.

In the toxic organization, leadership tends to focus too much of their time building their own self-interests, making interaction with subordinates unproductive. Departments are often at odds and recognition and appreciation are rare. Work-life balance is a concept acknowledged but not practiced. Generally, the emphasis is on what went wrong instead of what went right, which creates an environment that damages the emotional, physical and financial well being of employees. Put simply, toxic leadership promotes a toxic culture.

Moving Towards A Healthy Organization

The Importance of the Right Organizational Framework

Healthy organizations have productive working relationships where work is conducted in an open and transparent way, inspired by a culture of trust. In other words, if someone says something will happen, it will happen. There are well-defined frameworks in place defining the “rules of the road” so that everyone understands how to perform and how to relate effectively. Think of driving a vehicle, and the importance of understanding what a red light means or the purpose of a lane. Imagine how difficult it would be for vehicles to interact in a public street without rules – it would be sheer chaos. The same is true in organizations.

In the Absence of a Framework, Individuals Pursue Self Interest

In many modern organizations, there are no generally accepted principles about how work is delegated down the organization, or about how works flows across the organization. As a result, people are left to their own devices to determine how best it can be done. If I am the Director of Finance and I rely on someone from another department to do my work, yet we have a different understanding of our roles with respect to each other, how can we be successful at doing the work? The right framework is critical for aligning organizational workflow, making it more likely that individuals will do and collaborate on work that’s in the best interest of the organization overall.

Managers Lead By Example And Behaviours Become Imbued In The Organization

Managers play a significant role in discouraging or supporting the toxic organization through their behaviour. If subordinates are told that family and work-life balance is important, and yet the manager works a 60-80 hour week and through body language and innuendo appears to expect the same from the team, what is the message? This can cause subordinates to feel inadequate if they are unable to keep the same schedule. Managers lead by example – whether positive or negative – and these behaviours, while not written down or formalized, become imbued in the organization. If expectation are that employees are available during evenings and weekends, over time, these expectations become part of the organization’s culture.

Recognize and Discourage Dysfunctional Work Practices

Managers need to recognize and discourage dysfunctional and destructive work practices. People are not robots, and despite best efforts, will not be at their best if they are constantly overworked or under-valued. If dysfunctional work practices become standard operating procedure, people are apt to burn out:

  • They will not be as responsive,
  • Their creativity will wane,
  • The organization will lose opportunities for building the business and improving workflow process.

As a result, overall operational performance declines, whether it’s to find that new product, reduce cost or most importantly, provide an opportunity for people to focus in on the value added work that is so critical to organizational success.

Toxic organizations can be avoided. Aside from recognizing if and when work practices or employees are becoming driven be negativity, the most effective managers are cautious not to reinforce negative dynamics in the organization.