The U.S. Capitol Riot of January 6 has been decried as an attack on democracy. Whether or not all agree with this, there is no question it was a most unfortunate event, leading to loss of life, injuries, and extensive property damage.

It was grounded in what many identify as a dysfunctional political system. There is no question that the polarization of American politics has had a role in increasing animosity between the parties. There is much work to be done to heal these differences to improve the U.S. democracy.

What about the role of the leader? What does the head of an organization have to do with the level of toxicity in the organization?

Everything!

As the world’s largest economy, one can also think of the United States as the world’s largest corporation – with the President as the head of that organization. When thinking about it this way, all the signs of a toxic organization have been visible for some time.

Toxic and dysfunctional organizations are identified through indicators such as low morale and low engagement. This leads to high turnover of employees, managers, and executives. Ultimately, this leads to the organization not being successful at conducting its affairs.

When the actions of the head of the organization demonstrate and reinforce toxic behaviours, it begins to appear throughout the organization.

It Starts at the Top

Egocentric leadership and confrontation versus cooperative behaviours at work often lead to 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 is important for managers and decision makers to lead by example to avoid reinforcing dysfunctional work practices which foster a toxic environment.

For a short time, this can be tolerated – organizations are resilient. But if the behaviour at the top continues, those who hold their ground against toxic behaviour are punished, are fired, or choose to leave. Over time, increasing numbers of people in leadership roles begin to replicate and reinforce the toxic behaviour of the top leader. It becomes ‘the way business is done’.

What is a Toxic Organization?

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, creating 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 happens. 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.

What the U.S. Capitol Riot Can Teach Us About Toxic Organizations

In the Absence of a Framework, Individuals Pursue Self Interest

In many modern organizations, there are no common framework consistent language about how work is delegated down the organization, or about how work flows across the organization. As a result, people are left to their own devices to determine how best to carry out their work. For example, people in one part of an organization often depend on output from others for success in their own work. Yet if these two people have a different understanding of their roles with respect to each other, how can they be successful in their collaborative work? This common framework, or language of collaboration is critical for aligning organizational workflow, making it more likely that individuals will do and collaborate on work that is in the best interest of the organization overall.

Managers Lead by Example

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

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, and their creativity will wane. Over time, the organization will lose opportunities for building the business and improving workflow processes.

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. In addition to recognizing when work practices or employees are becoming driven inappropriately, the most effective managers are cautious not to reinforce negative dynamics in the organization.

What if You are the Head of the Organization?

As the head of your organization, you may be setting clear context for work, demonstrating the right example, and delegating appropriately. But beware! Toxic behaviour can take root whether the leader is the Manager of a front line team, the Director of a function, or the Vice President of a Department.

Unfortunately, most organizational measurement systems are focused solely on results. Are the margins there, is the profit adequate, did we get the sales, are we at the right level of quality? Of course, these are important measures. But if that team leader is getting results at the expense of the team the results will be short term.

The results will not be sustainable. The stress on the team will lead to lower productivity. It can even lead to more severe consequences for the health and safety of team members.

As the head of the organization, you must also have good knowledge of the input measures. Measures such as manager effectiveness, employee engagement, support system effectiveness and managerial leadership need to be understood so you can identify those leaders that are not carrying out their duties appropriately. The members of each team know full well whether their leader is creating a toxic work environment.  You need to ask the questions, preferably through anonymous, third party tools.

The bottom line is accountability in organization. As the head of the organization, you are accountable for everything that happens in the organization. Results are not enough. You need to be sure that you are achieving the results in the right way. The bonus is that if toxic behaviour is eliminated in your organization, you will create a dynamic that will result in increasingly improved performance.

With higher morale, more engaged employees, and everyone focused on the right work, even in turbulent times, you can grow and prosper.

Originally published in Human Experience – Engagement, Performance, Rewards & Recognition, January 2021, HR.com