September 5, 2019

Why your office culture may be toxic—even if you don't realize it

Daily Briefing

    In Harvard Business Review, Walmart EVP Celia Swanson describes how leaders unknowingly enable toxic work cultures and lists three ways they can confront it.

    Your guide to a healthier, happier workplace

    The toxic strategist

    Without proactive measures, Swanson writes that it can be easy for leaders to be unware of the on-the-ground culture. For Swanson, the issue came to a head after she hired a woman to help develop marketing strategy.

    The woman was "brilliant strategist," Swanson writes. "Her results were powerful; the campaign was simple yet highly relevant," she writes.

    Given the results, Swanson considered the hire a success—until another team member told her that the strategist was "incredibly hostile" with other employees.

    Swanson learned that the strategist's behavior had been an issue for over a year, and had gotten so bad that "many on the team were considering leaving," she writes.

    Swanson, who was completely unaware of the problem, quickly fired the strategist.  

    But, the "crisis" didn't end after the team member left, Swanson writes. "Though I was able to convince the team's top talent to stay, it took years to earn back their trust," she says.  

    In retrospect, by not looking beyond the strategist's results, Swanson realized that she enabled her behavior. Similarly, by not speaking up, the rest of the team allowed the strategist's toxic behavior to continue, uncontested.

    "Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every individual—no matter their org-chart status—to step up and lead by example in a toxic workplace culture," she writes.

    How to confront toxicity

    Swanson used this experience to develop strategies that help teams identify and prevent toxicity in the workplace.

    1. Identify the role you play. According to Swanson, a toxic work culture can only form when employees are enabling the toxic behavior. Those employees, according to Swanson generally fall into two main types: passive enablers and active enablers.

      Passive enablers are usually unaware of the toxic behavior. "They often mean well but are blinded by 'achievement mode' and are focused on driving results," Swanson writes. "They get to a point where they simply don't look further than they should."


      Active enablers, on the other hand, notice the toxic behavior but fail to confront it. "They can be hesitant to speak up about what they are experiencing because they think they lack the status to bring a complaint forward or fear that there will be repercussions," Swanson writes. Sometimes active enablers assume someone else will confront the toxicity or "rationalize that the situation may not be that bad, or delay action to wait for more proof."

      However, active enablers can play a critical role in identifying and stopping toxic behavior, according to Swanson.

      "[T]hey are typically in the trenches of the problem and can best describe and document the situation," she writes.

    2. Take action. Fortunately, Swanson writes there are steps passive and active enablers can take to confront toxicity at work.

      Instead of focusing solely on results, passive enablers should develop a strategy for looking into how results are achieved, Swanson writes.

      "The best way to do so is by being visible to their teams," according to Swanson. "[S]cheduling 'walking around' time in the office, dropping by to say hello or having one-on-one meetings gives you practical tactics for demonstrating trust while verifying the actions and results of their team," she says.

      Active enablers on the other hand should acknowledge that, as an employee, they have an obligation to identify and call out toxic behavior. "[T]hey can start by finding someone they trust who can offer advice on how to handle the situation or has the authority to take action," according to Swanson.

      After her experience with the strategist, Swanson's team developed a formal engagement improvement plan that opened communication lines amongst employees from the top down.

    3. Foster cultural health. Leaders can actively encourage a healthy workplace culture by demonstrating and communicating that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, Swanson writes. Doing so demonstrates to employees "that their concerns will be heard and taken seriously," she says.
    4. "Making the decision to speak up against a toxic culture is one of the most difficult decisions employees may face in their careers," Swanson writes. So it is critical that leaders foster a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up.

      "I am grateful to the colleague who finally brought their concerns to me and am glad that I was able to move quickly to limit further damage," Swanson writes. "The experience taught me how important it is to empower everyone in an organization to hold organizations accountable" (Swanson, Harvard Business Review, 8/22)

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