Your employees should feel secure at work, but factors like the pressures of earning profits and the ever-expanding workday can result in a toxic culture.
As the leader you have the most power and influence--which means your potential to create a toxic environment yourself is high. You need to motivate the troops, but the recent controversy over Amazon's workplace culture raises a question: When does a tough-love attitude cross over to abuse?
In an post on Knowledge@Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania business school's blog, Wharton management professor Gregory Shea says leaders can turn toxic through the "misguided belief" that being tough and unforgiving is a productive way to manage every employee.
"Leaders can get confused between being demanding and being inappropriate in how they handle someone," Shea tells Knowledge@Wharton. "I can put a lot of pressure on you to perform well, but there is a place where this is no longer putting pressure on you, this is about hating you, or undercutting you, or diminishing your control."
Your position of power over your employees can be an intoxicating role. Shea says leaders might believe they are pushing employees to perform better, but they go over the line. Even worse, leaders can succumb to the pressures to succeed themselves and can displace their aggression inappropriately toward employees.
A good rule of thumb that your culture has turned toxic is the emergence of abusive behavior. Shea says you need to be self-aware. If you find yourself saying or doing things like, "I'm doing this for your own good," or telling an employee "you're an idiot," or "flinging papers down," you're being abusive and promoting toxic behavior. "That's not [the worker] being toughened up, that's about [you] getting control," Shea says.
Toxic and abusive behavior comes in many forms. It is subjective, so you need to realize how your actions are being perceived by others.
"It can be psychological, it can be emotional, it can be physical," Shea says. "Obviously in extreme cases it would be hitting, but it could also be people who feel physically intruded upon, who feel there is no safe place to go."
The cost of a toxic environment is high
The cost of a toxic culture is not just hurt feelings. Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor of management, and Christine Pearson, professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, conducted a study on the impact of abusive and uncivil behavior on employees.
Porath and Pearson, who interviewed and surveyed 14,000 CEOs, managers, and employees for the study, found that incivility demoralizes people. Employees subjected to incivility "markedly loosened bonds with their work life." Nearly half of employees "decreased work effort" and intentionally spent less time at work, while 38 percent "intentionally decreased" the quality of their work.
Further, 25 percent of employees who had been treated with incivility admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers. And 12 percent left their jobs due to uncivil treatment. "Companies we've worked with calculate that the tab for incivility can run into the millions," Porath and Pearson write in a separate article in Harvard Business Review about their findings.
Toxins roll downhill
Even the employees who are not feeling specifically targeted or marginalized by a toxic environment will be negatively impacted. "Just being around it, witnessing it, hearing it, would have very similar negative effects--in taking people off track, a lack of commitment and potential retention issues," says Porath. "In a toxic workplace, it's about having to live in that environment, even if you are not the one always experiencing abusive behavior."
The benefits of civility
Work is a stressful place where the stakes are high, so formalities and kindness can be the first things you forget. But with the costs being high turnover, low morale, and poor customer treatment, you have a vested interest in showing civility in the office.
This isn't just a campaign to be nicer, though. Treating employees with civility has benefits. Recently Porath published a paper titled "The Effects of Civility on Advice, Leadership and Performance" in the Journal of Applied Psychology, based on her study of a biotech company. She found that employees sought out other employees who were perceived as civil for advice. Also, the more civil the person, the more likely they were to be seen as leaders within the company.