Saturday, July 4, 2009

Toxic Workplaces

At last month’s IPPA Congress in Philadelphia, I was inspired by Lord Richard Layard’s comment “the highest thing in life is to uplift the spirit.”

Unfortunately, not everyone we work with uplifts our spirits. Harvard Business Review recently featured a short article, “How toxic colleagues corrode performance.” Authors Porath and Pearson have been researching incivility for more than ten years and have found that “common (and generally tolerated) antisocial behavior at work is far more toxic than managers imagine.”

They report that in response to incivility, people:
48% decreased their work effort
47% decreased their time at work
38% decreased their work quality
66% said their performance declined
80% lost work time worrying about the incident
63% lost time avoiding the offender
78% said their commitment to the organization declined

Incivility may be loss of control
Professor Robert Sutton’s “No Asshole Rule” caught my eye in Harvard Business Review’s 2004 article “More Trouble Than They’re Worth.” Sutton received such immense support for his ideas that he published a book on the subject in 2007. He also has a popular blog.

Sutton’s work, as well as Peter Frost’s on toxic emotions at work, is particularly appropriate in a business world increasingly interested in creating more positive, humane organizations — where people are treated well and with respect, and where a positive workplace culture abounds.

What Is Incivility?
Incivility includes glaring, rolling eyes and other unpleasant expressions, teasing, putting people down, treating people like they’re invisible, back stabbing, micromanaging, insulting, belittling, deflating, disrespecting, de-energizing, rudely interrupting, being mean-spirited, nasty, and tyrannical.
Bob Sutton’s ideas are about eliminating the behaviors which bring others down. “The difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.”

Sutton has two tests for spotting whether a person is acting like a jerk:

Test One: After talking to the alleged jerk, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged jerk aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

Implementing the Rule
Sutton suggests a range of ways to deal with such people:
don’t hire them
do not tolerate them just because they are the extraordinarily talented or difficult to replace
deal with them immediately
fire them if they don’t change
teach people to learn how to have constructive positive confrontations
“resist the temptation to apply the label to anyone who annoys you or has a bad moment” or are temporary jerks
“say the rule, write it down and act on it,” make it part of the rules of engagement

Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces
Sometimes fighting back is not successful, and can be high risk. If you have to work with jerks, Sutton suggests these tactics:
create a personal coping strategy
reframe, change your mindset: avoid self-blame, hope for the best but expect the worst, develop indifference and emotional detachment, do not allow their behavior to touch your soul
limit your exposure
build pockets of safety support and sanity: ‘a secret social network’
seek and fight the small battles that you have a good chance of winning’
See also “Neutralize Your Toxic Boss,” Annie McKee’s May 3rd blog post at

Positive Psychology in Action
While reading Sutton’s work, I am heartened by fields such as Positive Psychology and Positive Organizational Scholarship. These fields teach us how to neutralize toxicity and build strong cultures which minimize the possibility of ‘jerk-like’ behaviors. Focused attention on human decency and uplifting and energizing others are ways in which we can, in Lord Layard’s words, “uplift the spirit” of workers and organizations.

By Amanda Horne - July 3, 2009

1 comment:

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