Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Toxic Workplace by Kusy and Holloway (Book Review #55 of 2015)


Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power

I stumbled across this book while trying to make sense of my workplace. This is the first book I've seen that takes a detailed look at what to do with a dysfunctional organization member and prescriptions for preventing future misbehavior. Like most business-related books, the prescriptions seem common sense but so few organizations implement them. A prerequisite for this book would be Crucial Conversations, as the authors promote some similar best practices in communication when alerting the toxic member to his behavior and how best to communicate to bring about results.

I looked at this book primarily through the lens of church discipline, as I found it quite relevant and I recommend this to anyone who reads the IX Marks literature. The authors surveyed managers and lower-level employees at hundreds of organizations to get feedback on "toxic" individuals and how they'd been dealt with. The result is a convincing argument about strategies that don't work, some of which seems counter-intuitive. Leadership intervening or confronting the person is not nearly effective as peer intervention. Firing the person, all else constant, will not solve the problem. There are cogent explanations that just to "expel the immoral brethren from among you" is not enough because you have to deal with the structures that were constructed both to enable and avoid the toxic personality. The entire culture of the organization has to be addressed. You have to build a culture with clear mission and expectations about negativity and acceptable behavior, so that everyone can be evaluated against clear standards. Exit interviews are crucial with anyone leaving your church to help identify organizational weaknesses that can be fixed.

Who is truly "toxic" or what is a "toxic environment?" Workplaces where illegal activity, like sexual harassment, are obvious but not the focus of the book. Toxic people are defined as having characteristics of intimidation, using subtle putdowns, negativity, shaming, and cynicism to assert their will on others. There is a "passive hostility" that everyone is aware of and would rather just avoid. He or she can be distrusting and territorial, often micromanaging if she's a manager, and taking an interest in other peoples' business as though its his own purview. There is a narcissism about them as well. The toxic are even willing to sabotage team efforts if things are not done to their liking. The authors find that, remarkably, the toxic individual is usually truly "clueless" of his or her toxicity. Most have lived their lives without anyone having the uncomfortable conversation with them about their behaviors.

Toxic people are often enabled because they are never confronted, or there exists no standard by which to confront the person. Many are kept on because their work is "necessary" and management is willing to put up with the toxicity so long as there is productivity. The authors write that this is a false choice-- while that individual may be productive, the overall effect on the organization is likely negative, hence he or she should be replaced with someone who could do the same job without the negativity. The authors don't mention professional sports, but after reading Michael Lazenby's biography of Michael Jordan it is clear that he is a toxic individual. I thought about him, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, and others who were MVPs of their sports and often loathed by coaches, owners, and teammates for their toxic attitude. But in some cases, like Jordan, the toxic individual truly is the best at what he does and one cannot argue with a 72-win season. Toxic individuals often have "toxic protectors," a small group of loyalists who either fear or truly like the individual or at least seek his favor. Sometimes the structure of the organization or the lack of explicitly-stated values also protect the toxic.

I think there are times when I am the toxic individual. I know too much or perhaps am the "wet blanket" that extinguishes someone else's bright idea. There are individuals who I may think are toxic but many others seem to like. There are some in other departments who my own department interacts well with, but whose own department thinks are toxic. It's a bit tricky to put a finger on. But toxic people are generally avoided by others and eventually drive the "best" and most talented out to other organizations, leaving only the toxic in the organization. By the time management confronts them, if at all, it's too late-- the structures and defense mechanisms in place will still lead to organizational decay.

I most appreciated the comment recorded by the manager of a government agency, who stated that he bucked the stereotype of not being able to fire government employees. The manager set clear standards and values for his department by which every subordinate knew he or she would be evaluated. This allowed him to deal with problems and fire those who were unwilling to meet the standards could either quit or be fired. Simply restructuring, moving a person to a different position or changing the work assignments, was ineffective by itself. You must have a known system of values or the problem behavior will continue.

Part II of the book deals with how to change the culture of the organization, and communication strategies with the toxic organization member. The organization needs to include its values on the employee review form (what, conduct regular performance reviews?). "Respect" should be on the list of values, but management should also allow employees/members to state their own values and determine which values should be included on employee evaluations. (My government office actually has this, but some departments have abandoned doing them.) There need to be set rules for how feedback will be shared in the future.

The authors discuss team development surveys and 360 degree evaluation. If using 360 degree evals, do them with utmost confidentiality, with info kept even from the supervising manager. The authors have cautions about using a consultant; a consultant can help guide your organization through change (the authors are such consultants) but you cannot outsource dealing with toxic employees to a consultant. Above all, termination should be a last resort-- do the heavy lifting of changing your organizational culture and let the toxic person decide either to reform or leave. Research found that the toxic individual actually changed for the better, at least for a while, and many left when they decided they didn't like the reform. The authors discuss "renewal" and moving forward after a toxic individual leaves-- there needs to be a healing process and a time to deal with the various organizational weaknesses that were exposed. Like most business books, there are charts and diagrams for holding these types of discussions and formalizing a strategy.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has the power to influence an organization to which he is a member. It gets a bit wordy, but is very thought-provoking. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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