Hundreds of work environments are what the millennials call “toxic”. It has been baffling me for over twenty years. I have experienced this personally as I consulted with several companies. Of course, these come in varying degrees of toxicity depending on the leadership of the function. Depending on where it starts, the toxicity can cover the entire company or just an isolated department.
I spent a few days thinking about this topic. I came up with at least five pitfalls that result from a toxic work environment. This article is not to blame the source of the toxicity. Chances are, most leaders are not aware of the culture they are creating. Of course, there are a few of them that are aware but don’t care. These leaders are driven by numbers no matter what the cost. They want to shine in front of their superiors.
Most of the time employees are placed in a position of leadership but are not properly equipped. It’s like promoting your best salesperson to be a sales manager. A few months into the job, he starts failing to be a good manager. A few months later, we start criticizing him for not being a good manager. A year later, he quits.
We failed to provide him the tool to be a great leader. We lost a good salesman, and we damaged the position of the sales manager. If we do not learn from our mistakes then we are bound to repeat them. We will continue promoting people to leadership roles and not equip them. We may get a few naturally talented leaders now and then. However, in most cases, they will not know how to lead their team. They do not know what they do not know.
The following are potential results of a toxic work environment.
- Fearful employees instead of respectful team members
We create a work environment driven by fear. It’s not a healthy and sustainable environment. Leaders need to earn respect. Employees that respect their leaders would do anything for the company even without being asked.
There was an instance years ago when this particular company had a demanding CFO. He would shout and embarrass his staff resulting in a very high department turnover. He would go further and demean employees from other departments. He acted like he was higher than the CEO. He acted like he had power across the entire organization.
One day, an employee from another department was walking into their gorgeous office in BGC. As she usually does, she had her bag in her left hand, and the other hand was holding her favorite coffee tumbler.
That day would be different from the previous days she reported to work. As she walked past the main entrance to the office, the CFO met her in the hallway. On each side of the hallway were cubicles of employees. They had an open space set-up.
Even before she could greet him with a gentle ‘good morning’, the CFO shouted at the top of his voice. They were earshot of every single one of the eighty-four employees. The CFO was blaming her for an inaccurate report submitted to their regional office. The employee stood in shock as the CFO continued to verbally attack her. The CFO even went to the extent of attacking her character. A few minutes after the unrelenting attack, the CFO left and stormed into his office.
The office staff rushed over and tried to console the victimized employee. She was devastated and embarrassed. She was in tears. A few minutes later, they all realized that she was in shock and could not move. They called the office nurse to take a look at her. The office nurse accompanied her to a nearby hospital. She was in such a shock that the hospital nurse had to gently pry off her fingers from the tumbler she was holding.
The next day, the truth came out. She was not at fault for the report. She was blamed unfairly and humiliated. As we expected, she resigned after a few days.
2. Employees feel like they toil instead of enjoying their work
I worked briefly for the IT function of a manufacturer of local electric fans early in my career. I was still very new in the field at the time. At first, I did not notice that most of the employees were waiting for 5 pm and salary days. It went on every single working day.
One day, over lunch, I got into talking with a Systems Analyst that joined the company a year before I did. I was less than three months at the time. I was still all fired up to work. Joel, the systems analyst, seemed happier on break times than on his actual working hours. It was common in most of the other departments.
I asked him how his work was. He said that it was okay and it pays for the bills. That sentence got stuck in my mind for a few months. As time went by, I started to understand why Joel said what he said.
Managerial positions went to employees favored by the executives. The people they promoted were not great leaders. They were just great at sucking up to the executives. A few were placed in management roles based on their relationship. If they had the skills of a good leader, that would not have been too bad.
Since these leaders did not get their posts because of their leadership skills, they imitated what they saw from other leaders going up the ladder. They also placed people they favored into management positions. The cycle never ends. It’s the employees that suffer because the senior executives did not correctly select nor train their leaders.
It’s the employees that suffer due to poor leadership. At the end of the day, they feel that their work is simply a toil they have to get through. Employees were not trained. Training was viewed as an optional expense. Employees felt no sense of purpose nor fulfillment. The attrition rate was about 70% a year.
3. Employees are lost instead of driven by a Vision
People need a purpose to drive them. They need a vision to rally behind. In the absence of purpose, the job just seems like another boring job. Employees do not feel that their job is a means to a greater good. They do not feel that their job is helping the company reach its Vision. There is simply no purpose for their job and the company.
There is this family-owned retail company I know of that has a vague Vision. The business was started as an idea by the founder and gradually grew to a reasonable size. However, as it kept growing, the attrition rate was holding steady at a high percentage.
When you ask them about their vision, it’s to be the biggest company in their industry. That’s it. It’s not even a unique and compelling vision. For one, it’s self-serving. Visions are bigger than the company. Visions are designed for the greater good. The company only plays a role in achieving that greater good.
Since their vision is self-serving, the employees could care less about the Vision. They would quietly say, it’s not their company anyway. They cannot link their personal purpose to the vision of the company. Often, they would say, ‘So what if the company is growing. Only the owners are benefiting’ The Vision has no meaning to them. The company might as well not have a vision statement.
4. Compliance instead of loyalty
I had the opportunity to become the Quality Manager for a Bank. One of the functions of the Quality Manager is to audit functions and employees. Together with a team of five other process auditors, we would schedule the audit of various functions of the Bank.
It was interesting to note that employees comply with company processes not because they know it’s the right thing to do. They would comply simply because the company expects them to. Their leaders remind them to comply with policies.
Their leaders do not take the time to explain that adhering to the policies benefits them and the customers. The policy is there to protect them. The policy is showing them the boundaries that should not be crossed. It’s much easier for an untrained leader to just bark ‘follow the rules or else.’
What they don’t realize is that loyal employees will not intentionally break policies. They know it’s for their protection and the customers. They don’t break or bend policies out of loyalty to the organization.
5. Selfishness instead of teamwork
Back when I was in the IT field for a large bank, I was assigned to an important project. We were in charge of migrating the Bank systems at the branches. We can only do this after banking hours. Since branches cannot go down during working hours, we need to plan this well. The hardware and software were delivered to the branch in the late afternoon. We would unpack them and remove all existing hardware.
Our team then positions the new hardware, test runs the new Banking system, connects to the mainframe at head office, and tests everything. After the hardware is ready, a second-team comes in to train the users.
By midnight, when everything was re-tested, we would pack up the old hardware. We label them properly and send them to our warehouse for storage.
We were converting 4–5 branches a night every night for the next few months. This was hard work. The coordination needs to be impeccable.
Right after the last branch was migrated, the team took a rest and reported to work around noontime the following day. As we reported to work, our Division head congratulated us. One of our team members decided to report to work early. He personally reported the accomplishment to our VP. The interesting part was that he exaggerated his contribution to the project. Since there was nobody else in the room with him, nobody corrected his story.
Throughout the project, this particular team member had the least contribution. He would not deliver his tasks and we ended up reassigning them to someone else. He was simply a bystander. However, he was smart and quick enough to take more credit than was due to him.
It’s unfortunate that in those days, our leaders only listened to the first messenger of the news. They had not given enough thought and insight to what he heard. The VP did not bother to validate the story. As expected, this demotivated the people who worked hard for the project. Credit was sucked by someone else simply because he could get away with it. Our VP, not knowing better, allowed him to get away with it.
Let’s not allow ‘toxic’ work environments to kill the motivation and drive of our loyal employees. Let’s make sure we develop the people we put in leadership roles. Let’s make sure that they understand that true leadership is not about lording others. True leadership is about leading, serving, and developing our people. We need to provide them the tools necessary to grow the business and service our customers.
Going back to our cause. Let us build a nation of servant leaders from all walks of life. If we can accomplish this then our companies, our organizations, our society, our government would be in better hands.