Harmful corporate cultures 'can be rewired to become high-performing, nurturing ones,' says leadership expert
Toxic behaviours are known to damage business performance, affecting a range of critical metrics such as employee productivity, engagement and mental health.
Workers affected by toxicity will not bring their best self to work, and may not want to come to the workplace at all, according to Michael Frisina, a visiting scholar at Hastings Center in New York.
“If you have people waking up in the middle of the night, fearful of coming to work, have real anxiety about coming to work and – worst case – have real depression about coming to work, they [are not] engaged with in work, they don't engage their team members, they don't engage their leaders. And then this cultural dynamic of fear starts to create neurochemical and immune responses to the body relative to this fear and anxiety dynamic.”
This can even lead to diseases as workers’ immune systems weaken, he says.
Previously, Canadian HR Reporter spoke with Kathryn Bird, a partner at Ogletree Deakins in a podcast, about the legalities of a toxic workplace.
Top five toxic behaviours
As a result, there are five toxic behaviours that should be extinguished, says Frisina.
Narcissism: Narcissistic workers lack empathy, have a strong desire to break rules and defy the status quo. They are also likely to engage in manipulation to advance themselves at the expense of others.
Micromanagement: Toxic people also have a hard time letting go and trusting their team members to perform their work. The employee experience under such suffocating micromanagement can be demoralizing, says Frisina.
Setting unrealistic expectations: Leaders setting unrealistic expectations are setting their team members up for failure, he says. This kind of behaviour can leave employees feeling disengaged and hopeless.
Rudeness: Leaders and workers who interrupt others during meetings may be deliberately shutting others down when they feel threatened, and this is a sign of being a toxic person. Toxic people will spread gossip; they disrupt communication among team members and show contempt for others through a lack of basic courtesies.
Behaviour incompetence: Toxic people also display fundamental incompetence in basic interpersonal relationship skills, and this often stems from arrogance and overconfidence in their level of technical skill, talent, and intellect.
“Everything about toxic behavior centres around the selfish self-centredness of the individual,” says Frisina, and while individual contributors can express these behaviours, leaders can be just as guilty.
“Leaders get caught up in their own promotion drive, their own drive to succeed and achieve. And there are some people in leadership positions who actually use their team members to promote themselves.”
In May 2022, a popular radio show was pulled from the airwaves after Jennifer Valentyne, who was previously with Q107 radio, accused one of its hosts and the company of verbal abuse and gender-based discrimination.
Extinguishing toxic behaviour
To extinguish the negativity, it’s important to recognize the behaviour, says Frisina.
“When people behave badly towards someone, they're rude, they are narcissistic in the sense that they're selfish. They make everything about work and everything about being on a team about them, and make sure they succeed individually at the expense of other people,” he says.
“Whenever there's a behaviour that's more self-centered than other-centered, you have the potential for that behaviour to trigger the brain of other people in a way that disrupts their brain from performance, and have them focus on responding to this behaviour in a threat-response kind of a way.”
Employers need to hold perpetrators of these inappropriate behaviors accountable for their actions, says Frisina, author of Leading With Your UpperBrain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence.
“If that person refuses to abide by the values, the purpose statement of the organization, then they risk termination. They should be removed from the organization. Otherwise, what happens is your high performers who have other options, who feel like they don't need to come to work in this [threatening environment] every day – they leave.”
Employee retention is a top priority for businesses in 2023, according to a previous report.
In addition, damaged relationships can be rebuilt “by literally rewiring the brain to replace bad memories with caring experiences,” he says.
“Trust can be built where it does not exist, increased where it is scarce, and regained where it was lost. So, too, can toxic organizations be rewired to become high-performing, nurturing ones.”