Humans are social animals, and the energy and trust they build from social interactions have long been the bedrock of successful team building, collaboration, and the creation of exceptional outcomes. In the workplace, connection arises when people engage in something bigger than themselves, have a sense of belonging to the organization, and share its values and mission with people they trust.
Unfortunately, just one toxic individual can destroy the connections that exists within a team, a department, or even an entire division. Toxic people often use threats, bullying, fear, manipulation, intimidation, and embarrassment to get their way and control others.1 In organizations, the effects of these negative behaviors not only poison workplace relationships but can spill over into -- and damage -- employees' personal lives, too. If one toxic employee's actions are left unmitigated, a toxic culture can spread throughout the organization, leading to employee dissatisfaction and lower employee engagement.
In the wake of a pandemic that reduced the sense of connection within many companies, organizations need to work harder than ever to get ahead of potentially toxic behaviors and help their people come together. The following strategies are essential to that process.
Create a policy.
Communication and transparency are critical for dealing effectively with toxic behavior. Managing toxic behavior is much easier when an organization has a clear policy that outlines what is (and is not) acceptable behavior. (SHRM's template document on workplace bullying is a good example of this type of policy.2)
Walk the talk.
Nearly every organization has a mission statement and declaration of values that hang on the wall in its lobby, near HR, or in another well-trafficked area. It's easy to for a company to make this declaration but much more difficult to actually live up to it -- let alone get all employees to do the same. Peer-to-peer employee recognition coupled with a tangible reward is the gold standard among strategies for encouraging employees to live the company's values. Public appreciation not only confirms the desired behavior but also motivates others to follow suit.
Ask employees to flag potential toxic behavior and other engagement challenges and offer feedback on their leaders. Such surveys should not be administered only once a year but should be used often as part of an ongoing process to identify potential issues so they can be addressed immediately.
Leaders at all levels should look for signs of workplace toxicity. For example, when a manager is asked how things are going in their department, responses that feature more "I" than "we" or that point a lot of fingers at others are red flags that warrant a closer look.
Conduct frequent check-ins. As opportunities to provide effective feedback and coaching to the person responsible for toxic behavior, check-ins are critical to managing it. They're also useful for finding the root of the problem when the source of the toxic behavior is unknown.
Have a conversation.
Whenever any issues or concerns about workplace toxicity arise, HR must create a safe space in which employees can discuss their concerns without fear of retribution. It's vital for leaders to listen to and seriously consider the information their employees share with them.
To create a workplace that puts employees at the center, an organization must not hesitate to address toxic behavior from anyone (whether leader or employees) within its ranks. Left unchecked, toxicity will thrive and can have a huge negative impact on a company's success, brand, engagement, and sustainability. To ensure its success, the organization must prioritize creating a culture of connection.
1Amy Morin. 2017. "Study Reveals How Damaging A Toxic Boss Really Can Be." Forbes website, January 15, www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2017/01/15/study-reveals-how-damaging-a-toxic-boss-really-can-be/?sh=1860be8c6249.
2SHRM. Undated. "Workplace Bullying Policy." SHRM website, www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/tools-and-samples/policies/Pages/cms_018350.aspx.