The popular and snarky meme site someecards.com has a full library of quotes capturing the tortures of work life. One such quote captures the impacts of toxic workplaces: "It's gotten to the point where I am working here to pay for the prescriptions I now require to cope with working here." Though the message is delivered with the tongue firmly planted in the cheek, it is not far from the truth for too many employees.
The workplace and the work we do there is often a source of stress in our lives. Layer on the toxic actions of a bully, or an unwelcoming work environment, and work then becomes a negative influence on employees' well-being. The now ubiquitous research finding from Gallup reveals that nearly 70 percent of workers have a negative experience of work as measured by employee engagement levels.
With the alarming number of sexual misconduct allegations revealing our naive belief that this base behavior was a rarity, harassment of mostly women by mostly white, straight men have cast a longer, darker shadow across the place we spend most of our waking time. This is yet another nasty layer of stressors that employees must endure in the name of business. The workplace has become an unnecessary battlefield. Men like Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, or Kevin Spacey, are reminding us that their type of poison turns cultures into toxic messes.
Who, though, is at fault for this messiest of messes? Is it the perpetrators whose behaviors are allowed by a quick turning of the head? Or the managers' and employees' denial of their misdeeds? Perhaps we are now only beginning to understand the psychological damage bullies or sexual harassers have on employees?
Entrepreneur and author, Piyush Patel, explains in his upcoming book, Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work, that everybody "plays" a role in the success or demise of a company. And Patel believes this includes how the culture is shaped. I agree with Patel: All employees have culpability in the turning of culture into a toxic one. However, the degrees of responsibility are not equal.
In a conversation with Patel, he shared with me some signs that your workplace is on the unfortunate road to toxicity: infighting, gossiping, withholding important truths, looking out for one's own best interest, or having an imbalanced view on the role profit plays in the health of a company. These signs, or behaviors, are not relegated to management alone. They also apply to employees. And they also are indicative of the lack of value placed on human dignity and the importance of healthy, productive relationships.
We all deserve to work in an environment that allows every person to contribute their best. But this comes with an unspoken expectation: We all are also responsible for preventing or ending behaviors that undermine the success of the organization and its people.
From my conversation with Piyush Patel, he shared example after example of ways to prevent toxic cultures. The most powerful one is this: be observant. Pay attention to the little details--good or bad. Those details are telling a story that may not be obvious. "Reinforce the meaning of the little details and their value," says Patel. I'd add this--take action. We can no longer be bystanders to the slow demise of our own workplace culture and climate. The implications for employees' health, to the quality of work, and ultimately to the levels of the company's success are on the line.
Together we choose if the workplace battlefield wins over doing fantastic work alongside talented professionals. Every action or inaction linked to a behavior that diminishes the full capabilities of any person is cause for a response from you or your colleagues. We are experiencing the devastating impacts of not standing up to bullies or any other type of perpetrator. It hurts deeply. At this point, the only way forward is through the mess. As Ryan Holiday says, "The obstacle is the way." We can no longer look the other direction. A positive experience of work is everyone's responsibility.