The issue of toxic employees and bullies in the workplace is complicated. Successful strategies to shift anti-social behavior will require well-timed activities at three different levels.
First are those who truly have the power to decide the workplace will be free of abuse and intimidation. Leadership includes CEOs, boards and partners who have company-wide decision-making authority. After years of looking the other way, changing the anti-social behavior will require an overt desire to shift the negative culture to one of collaboration and personal accountability. It’s not easy. Bullies and toxic employees push back when their informal power is threatened. Without a powerful champion at the top the culture shift will fall flat. When the person at the top is a bully, the situation is much more complicated. Company owners have the legal (if not moral) right to run their company as they see fit. In the nonprofit world the governing board has the power to address this issue. Occasionally partners or corporate boards can address the issue. Successful strategies are often subverted by a clever CEO who can manipulate information, keep secrets and spin complainants out as “crazy” or unreasonable.
The most common issue I observe with supervisors is that they are bullied or sabotaged so that fear keeps them from acting as they should to eliminate abuse and intimidation from a supervisees. Toxic employees can cleverly sow the seeds of fear so that eventually the fear itself is enough to get a supervisor to back off. Many a supervisor has learned a “lesson” after trying to discipline a toxic supervisee and found themselves on the receiving end of successful social tactics. However, when leadership crafts a comprehensive culture shift; vows to discipline employees who abuse and intimidate others, supervisors can reclaim their power and feel confident that leadership will stand behind disciplinary actions. When the supervisor is toxic, leadership has to act decisively to counsel and eventually terminate the offending supervisors.
Co-workers – rank and file
The toxic employees’ coworkers generally have it the worst. They have no supervisory power and the threat of marginalization and silent treatment is a very powerful motivator. Even the most independent workers fear social ostracism at work. Those who speak up are silenced with social tactics such as: gossip, rumors and silent treatment. A comprehensive plan to shift the culture has to include support to the more ethical employees on how to set boundaries that coincide with the a new code of conduct. Teaching them how to resist these social tactics and to band together for support amongst employees who want to perform well goes a very long way.
When I speak to groups, they generally fall into one of the three groups outlined above. The presentation strategy is different for each. I have to match the discussion to the power level of the group. Leading employees to feel that they alone can solve this problem could lead to their being targeted in new ways or worse, termination. Rarely are all three present in the room at the same time. And even then, if the bully is in the room employees will not speak up.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
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