I have never worked in an organization that is dominantly toxic, but my experience includes handling many toxic “pockets” within large organizations. Many times, trying to resolve has involved sitting down with a group of employees and their supervisor (accused of being abusive) and letting employees have their say. Before the meeting, I would spend considerable time with the supervisor trying to reach agreement on the best way he/she should handle the meeting. Usually, when the discord reaches this level, the situation is so serious that employees set aside some of their fear as continuing to work in such an abusive environment is not acceptable.
The employees usually make their concerns known collectively, often by reporting them to HR and sometimes in a jointly signed complaint or petition. Some hesitant “meeting of the minds” may be achieved at a meeting (if reconciliation seems possible) but in most cases, it would not last and the supervisor would ultimately be removed from the job. The whole process can be protracted and when the supervisor is at fault, significantly affect the lives of the employees and workplace efficiency.
How can we avoid festering of these toxic pockets? Why does it usually take so long to resolve – if ever? These are some of the main reasons I am familiar with:
- The supervisor’s boss does not recognize there is a problem and refuses to get involved
- The supervisor’s boss backs up the supervisor, even without knowing what is going on
- The supervisor and his/her boss blame the employees and may focus on disciplining and terminating “bad attitude” employees. “Bad attitude” can include employees with medical problems or disability – anything that gets in the way of the work!
- HR does not get involved early enough – probably should have been aware earlier and taken a stand, assuming an appropriate level of HR expertise and empowerment
- There is no effective dispute resolution process, with teeth, in place
- The supervisor is not competent to supervise employees and, probably, his/her boss also
Could the problem be because we are hiring the wrong type of employees? Have we been hiring troublemakers who conjure up complaints and stir up ill will against the supervisor? I think that is unlikely. The players (supervisor and employees) are generally good people. Often the supervisor was an excellent employee in a non-supervisory role, but totally unsuited to be a supervisor.
We can hire the greatest new employees, enthusiastic and with great skills, but once they enter the “zoo”, they quickly become demoralized and either leave or play along, keeping out of trouble the best they can. We may seek great employees outside, but it may mean little if we do not have an environment that supports having the best and meeting their expectations
Another major problem, common in many companies, is that supervisors and managers do not receive appropriate training, their bosses are similarly lacking in leadership and management skills and in the absence of role models the players resort to being “tough guys”, often overreacting and being more notable as bullies than benevolent bosses.
What is the Solution?
The real life toxic management situations I have described above are the ones that have deteriorated the most. At the same time, there may be many more developing problems and examples of management ineffectiveness throughout the organization. They are all affecting business results and need to be addressed. In so many organizations, ineffective managers are empowered with hiring decisions, required to conduct performance appraisals and directed (often by HR) to implement employee engagement strategies. To ensure basic organizational effectiveness, I believe the following requirements must be met:
- Effective dispute resolution processes are in place and experienced HR specialists empowered with overall responsibility
- All managers/supervisors should receive appropriate management training and be assessed as competent to fulfill basic job requirements e.g. employee relations, dispute resolution, performance evaluation of reports and making hiring decisions
- HR would have overall responsibility for management training and for follow up to ensure continuing HR related effectiveness of new managers
- Managers/supervisors who do not achieve an acceptable level of competence would not be allowed to continue in their management position
What do you think? If more emphasis is placed on the competence of management, toxic situations should be minimized, employees will be more motivated and the best are more likely to stay and be committed. Do you think management competence is a major problem in many organizations? Do you agree that unless managers are competent, particularly in people management, we cannot hope to move towards achieving employee engagement and true employee development? Can we realistically hope to be productively working together rather than constantly dealing with various levels of conflict and the related inefficiency?
Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.