Detoxifying the Workplace Means Confronting Deep-Seated Problems

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

The “toxic” managers or employees ruining morale at some workplaces are symptoms of deep-seated problems organizations need to address, consultants say.

“Number one, it trickles down,” Jody Foster, a professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 8. “That’s true in teams as much as in whole organizations—if you have a toxic or destructive leader, he or she tends to hire like-minded people, and before you know it, you have a toxic workplace.”

In a toxic workplace, “harassment, bullying, gossip, rumor mongering, overt or covert discrimination” can flourish, workplace psychologist Ilona Jerabek told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 8. Subtler problems such as “perceived lack of fairness from a manager” can take their toll too, she said.

The problems that aspects of a toxic corporate culture can cause companies have been on full display recently with a string of high-profile accusations of sexual harassment at Fox, leading it to force out executives and well-known personalities, and a major controversy over diversity at Google.

Once a toxic culture has taken hold, “there’s a simple but not easy” way to transform it, Rex Conner, author and owner of workplace consultancy Mager Consortium, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 8. In his view, the root of workplace conflict is in “subjective work processes,” or policies or procedures, all of which can be interpreted differently by different people.

“People are subjective beings, but you want your policies, procedures, and processes defined by observable performances,” he said.

To get rid of the “fuzzies” of subjectivity, Conner said that one should “look for the holes in the processes and fill them in” so that various managers and employees don’t all “have to do it their own way.” By eliminating subjectivity from such questions as “how people perform, how they’re evaluated, how they’re paid, and how they’re recognized,” organizations can go a long way toward reducing internal conflict, he said.

On the individual level, too, clarifying matters helps, according to Conner. He recalled having a boss who told him he was “not a team player.” An employee in that common situation could ask the supervisor, “What are you observing me do?” The supervisor should follow up with specifics, such as that the supervisor is unhappy with the subordinate’s not being on time for meetings or rolling his eyes at things co-workers say, Conner says.

Avoid Hiring or Promoting ‘Bad Bosses’

Foster views the solution a little differently. When the problem is a toxic manager or executive, that person’s supervisor, or the board of directors in the case of the CEO, “have to be aware that person had issues when hired,” she said. Therefore, it’s advisable to avoid hiring such people in the first place, by allowing the interviewer to follow his or her instincts about candidates and doing “due diligence” on the candidates’ track record.

“It’s always much harder to get rid of” toxic people once they’ve been hired, she said, and their toxicity can spread like a virus, causing problems throughout the organization.

Like Conner, she pointed to the importance of clear policies and procedures. An organization may be creative and free-wheeling, or it may be structured and hierarchical, but either way, it should “document the type of culture they are trying to create,” she said.

Within organizations, bad bosses tend to arise because “people get promotions based on their technical skills, without any regard to whether they have people skills, Jerabek said. If a toxic manager is promoted in that way, she said, he or she “can spoil the atmosphere so the team falls apart.”

Psychological testing can weed out such people and prevent them from landing positions where they can do harm, Jerabek, who is president and chief executive officer of Montreal-based PsychTests, said. Some of the personality types that can generate a “toxic atmosphere” around a bad manager are “Machiavellian” (constant schemers), narcissistic, self-absorbed, egotistical, sociopathic, or psychopathic, she said.

Unfortunately, when interviewing a narcissistic person who will become a bad manager, many people are fooled because “narcissistic people are manipulators and can be charming in an interview,” she said. Yet apart from outright psychopaths, narcissists are the “most dangerous” type of people to be managers, and when they turn their wrath on an innocent subordinate, they can “destroy” the person, she said. To avoid being fooled, recruiters should check references and ask careful questions, she said.

Once a problematic person is already hired or promoted, training or psychological help may work if the issue is one of a good person who just lacks appropriate people skills and is willing to change, Jerabek said. But the narcissists and other “bad apples” tend to be unwilling and unable to change, she said, so the only solution may be to show them the door.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

For More Information

PsychTests offers a "Work Integrity" test designed to ferret out tendencies that might make someone a bad manager at https://testyourself.psychtests.com/testid/3977. A sample report for companies is available at http://archprofile.com/corporate/sample_reports/report_honesty.html.

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