Clean up the toxic work environments

Clean up the toxic work environments

Covid has brought us many problems, a few benefits, if we look for them, and a dig in the ribs about one subject in particular – authority. Never before in my lifetime has authority taken such a whacking. Partly due to the (sometimes wrongly) perceived incompetence of governments in dealing with the virus, partly because it was already on the slide, authority became a byword for protest and a victim of its own self-satisfaction. Boss becomes beast; leader becomes legless. Trust is written into a total incomprehensible legal document; truth is ‘what I say it is’.

In all this people have to lead and people have to follow. They are doing so, of course, and they will do so again, but presently with little enthusiasm and certainly not enough to make business work well. The big group where such despondency is seldom seen is the tech start-ups. They have politics, like every business, but their race to launch, and then IPO, keeps them on their toes. A refreshing reminder that such is possible, even in an ‘authority downturn’.

Incompetence leads to toxicity
What was the biggest single thing that made authority so vulnerable? Toxic environments – any environment in which people hate working. Authority also lost its grip by being incompetent – probably the biggest single creator of toxic environments. There are many others. From misleading expectations to downright wicked employer-employee behaviour, people have been expected to work in circumstances that felt little better than prison.

When good labour is in short supply power moves from the master to the mastered. Black lives matter and so does every other life. Is your environment toxic? “Of course not.” Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? The question is “Do you know?” Judging by the number of people we get through the door, in tears over their workplace, may I suggest you look again?

Practice being decent
There are good employers – those who make an effort to see their employees’ point of view and who take the trouble to ask about working conditions in a secure and sensible way. They are still in the minority, even when businesses have a declared policy of good behaviour. It’s not a matter of policy but of practice. And practice is how we deal with each other, minute by minute. It’s not even a matter of kindness, though kindness is never wasted. It’s a matter of decency, decency towards one another, decency towards every living creature.

Decent behaviour may be trained, but decency is ingrained from childhood.

Rules: interpret properly, not follow blindly
Let’s start with your job. Do you think you know what your job is? If so, what is it that you are supposed to accomplish? That won’t be an issue of Job Description or of Standard Operating Procedure. They are there as guidelines, certainly, in the same way that moral rules are there to indicate what is expected of you. But once you start writing moral rules as legal texts they lose their value and become challenges to avoid. Confession can become an endorsement of sinning. Thus the written rules of employment are something to be interpreted, not legalised.

Two people come to work for you. The first does precisely what his job description says, nothing more, nothing less. The second sees how he can interpret his brief to give you more than you are asking for. When you have to let one of them go, which do you say goodbye to? If your answer is the second – and assuming you are not working on a nuclear bomb – you have a toxic environment. If your answer is the first, you have a team. And if you don’t agree with me, ask any football coach. Rules are there for the guidance of good people.

Is your workplace toxic?
Want to find out how your environment rates? Then ask these questions of each member of your workforce. Words in italics are for your guidance, not theirs.

Do you know what your terms and conditions of employment (not SOP) are? If they run to more than one page you may be being cheated.

Do you have the resources to do your job? – your own qualifications and skills, those of the people who work with and for you and the other resources you need to make a decent result of your work?

Do you know who you report to? If more than one person, who matters most? A matrix organisation requires careful handling – and if handled carefully, why not just let people seek help from the helpful rather than from a dotted line?

How do you get on with your significant boss? Does s/he treat you decently? You can answer this, and all the other questions we are asking you, truthfully. If you have criticisms of your boss you may make them. They will be shown to him / her but your name will not be disclosed as the source of them. The same is true of any praise you have for him / her.

What is the culture of your business? Is everyone scrapping for political advantage? The culture of a business is always a reflection of the boss – or bosses.

Do people communicate clearly? Do you understand what is being said to you? If not, are you given an adequate chance to get clarification?

Do you think that fellow workmates generally speak the truth?

The answers – whatever they are – will give you food for plenty of thought. Implement what is possible, explain what isn’t. Free your people – they are all capable of making your business a resounding success.

Suggestion for next Executive Committee Meeting Agenda:

ROTTEN – Root Out The Toxic Environments Now