A toxic workplace is usually a closed system, an “echo chamber,” where a group only listens to themselves, avoiding the influence of outsiders or information that disagrees with what they want to hear. The toxic system has powerful antibodies, people who are part of the poison, who will do whatever is necessary to protect the status quo. Anyone who disagrees is quickly isolated so the system can protect itself.
Unhealthy organisations of any size can become closed and toxic, and the presence of collusive and co-dependent relationships are rife in this context. The image of the “emperor’s new clothes” comes to mind with everyone knowing the leader is naked – but no one willing to speak up for fear of being made an outcast.
This sort of group collusion is a subconscious, repetitive pattern of thinking and behaviour between people as a way to manage their fears about things they don’t know how to resolve. French psychologists refer to this as ‘folie a deux,’ the sharing of a delusional system by two or more individuals. Followers take on a ‘tribal’ functioning that can be emotionally, spiritually and physically draining for everyone involved. In these situations, there can be a moral disorientation that makes the corruption of espoused values rationally justifiable.
When there are few ‘checks and balances’ from people outside of the closed group, unethical behaviour gets easier to achieve. When someone is doing something unethical, it is done in secret, covered up, or rationalised and defended as ethical. Just because someone talks about ethical behaviour, does not mean they are behaving ethically. It is not uncommon for people to talk one way and walk another.
A toxic workplace can bring out the worst in each of us. Whatever weaknesses of character we have buried deep down can be brought to life in such an unhealthy organisational hothouse. A minor personality flaw can become a terminal, contagious disease particularly when power is centralised in a leadership role in a closed system.
When we are stuck in a toxic system it is a soulless experience with a tangible negative business impact: productivity is reduced, sick days increase, employees are less engaged and initiative disappears.
In response to the obvious challenges of toxic, unhealthy and unproductive workplaces members of The Colloquium Group pioneered early doctoral research into leadership health and wellbeing, as well as employee engagement. In 2006 Associate Professor Stephen Smith completed a five-year global meta-analysis into employee engagement and healthy sustainable leadership. This study was conducted as part of post-doctoral research within The University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Science and incorporates the findings of 60 other university studies in 16 countries involving over 2000 organisations and 250,000 participants.
The study revealed that a healthy work culture and higher employee engagement will be a reflection of the following qualities:
- respect — treated as equals
- trust — safe to share
- collaboration — helping each other
- recognition — appreciated for achievement
- meaning — clarity of values
- empowerment — freedom to achieve
As a result of this research the vitalis* cultural review was developed to provide an assessment tool to assist in detoxing the workplace, bringing life and vitality, and improving performance. It is supported by consultancy, workshops and coaching.
The result of addressing the dysfunctions of team culture means employees are more highly engaged in their work. This is evidenced by measurable improvements in:
- employee productivity
- shareholder return
- customer satisfaction
- customer retention
- employee retention
- personal well-being
- workplace health & safety
- team culture
- community engagement
For more information on how your organisation or team can transform from toxicity to health contact The Colloquium Group or complete the contact form above.