Friday, May 18, 2007

Managing Emotions in the Workplace: Do Positive and Negative Attitudes Drive Performance?

By Knowledge@Wharton.

You know the type: coworkers who never have anything positive to say, whether at the weekly staff meeting or in the cafeteria line. They can suck the energy from a brainstorming session with a few choice comments. Their bad mood frequently puts others in one, too. Their negativity can contaminate even good news. “We engage in emotional contagion,” says Sigal Barsade, a Wharton management professor who studies the influence of emotions on the workplace. “Emotions travel from person to person like a virus.”

Barsade is the co-author of a new paper titled, “Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?” (“Affect” is another word for “emotion” in organizational behavior studies.) The answer: Employees’ moods, emotions, and overall dispositions have an impact on job performance, decision making, creativity, turnover, teamwork, negotiations and leadership.

“The state of the literature shows that affect matters because people are not isolated ’emotional islands.’ Rather, they bring all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions influence others,” according to the paper, co-authored by Donald Gibson of Fairfield University’s Dolan School of Business.

An “affective revolution” has occurred over the last 30 years as academics and managers alike have come to realize that employees’ emotions are integral to what happens in an organization, says Barsade, who has been doing research in the area of emotions and work dynamics for 15 years. “Everybody brings their emotions to work. You bring your brain to work. You bring your emotions to work. Feelings drive performance. They drive behavior and other feelings. Think of people as emotion conductors.”

In the paper, Barsade and Gibson consider three different types of feelings:

Discrete, short-lived emotions, such as joy, anger, fear and disgust.
Moods, which are longer-lasting feelings and not necessarily tied to a particular cause. A person is in a cheerful mood, for instance, or feeling down.
Dispositional, or personality, traits, which define a person’s overall approach to life. “She’s always so cheerful,” or “He’s always looking at the negative.”
All three types of feelings can be contagious, and emotions don’t have to be grand and obvious to have an impact. Subtle displays of emotion, such as a quick frown, can have an effect as well, Barsade says. She offers this example: “Say your boss is generally in very good humor, but you see him one day at a meeting and his eyes flash at you. Even if they don’t glare at you for the rest of the meeting, his eyes have enunciated some valuable information that is going to have you concerned and worried and off center for the rest of the meeting.”

Barsade suggests that while some people are better than others at controlling their emotions, that doesn’t mean their coworkers aren’t picking up on their moods. “You may not think you are showing emotion, but there’s a good chance you are in your facial expression or body language. Emotions we don’t even realize we are feeling can influence our thoughts and behaviors.”

The researchers’ paper discusses a concept known as “emotional labor,” in which employees regulate their public displays of emotion to comply with certain expectations. Part of this is “surface acting,” in which, for instance, the tired and stressed airline customer service agent forces himself to smile and be friendly with angry customers who have lost their luggage. That compares to “deep acting,” in which employees exhibit emotions they have worked on feeling. In that scenario, the stressed-out airline worker sympathizes with the customer and shows emotions that suggest empathy. The second approach may be healthier, Barsade says, because it causes less stress and burnout, particularly emotional exhaustion from having to regulate one’s emotions and “play a role.”

But is there a downside to being too authentic? If the company is losing money and experiencing the effects of downsizing, should the manager, feeling stressed and overwhelmed, convey his despair to his workers? Or should the manager try to appear cheerful and act as if nothing is wrong? Barsade says it’s possible for the manager to convey emotions that are both authentic and positive, saying something like, “I know you’re worried. Things aren’t looking good, but you know, we have a way out of this and we can work [on it] together.” The employees will appreciate the honesty and take comfort in the optimism, she says.

Emotions as Valuable Data

Emotional intelligence — buzz words already familiar in psychology and education — is now talked about in business circles as well, Barsade says. Business schools are teaching executives how to be emotionally intelligent, and how to manage the emotions of their employees.

“The idea behind emotional intelligence in the workplace is that it is a skill through which employees treat emotions as valuable data in navigating a situation,” according to the authors. “Let’s say a sales manager has come up with an amazing idea that will increase corporate revenues by up to 200%, but knows his boss tends to be irritable and short-tempered in the morning. Having emotional intelligence means that the manager will first recognize and consider this emotional fact about his boss. Despite the stunning nature of his idea — and his own excitement — he will regulate his own emotions, curb his enthusiasm and wait until the afternoon to approach his boss.”

Barsade says research suggests that positive people tend to do better in the workplace, and it isn’t just because people like them more than naysayers. “Positive people cognitively process more efficiently and more appropriately. If you’re in a negative mood, a fair amount of processing is going to that mood. When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more open to taking in information and handling it effectively.”

While you can’t necessarily change your coworkers, people can take steps to avoid catching a negative mood, according to Barsade. They can tell themselves before attending a staff meeting that they are not going to be bothered by the person who shoots down everyone’s ideas, or that they are not going to let that person become the focus of their attention at the meeting (reducing the possibility for contagion). Or they can change their office routine. Barsade gave the example of a manager who was dragged down at the start of every day when passing by the desk of an employee who either grunted or gave no acknowledgement. The manager took control and simply started following a different route through the office.

Barsade’s research has taken her into a variety of workplaces, most recently long-term care facilities. Her research found that in facilities where the employees report having a positive workplace culture — she calls it a “culture of love” — the residents end up faring better than residents in facilities with a less compassionate and caring work culture. The residents reported experiencing less pain, made fewer trips to the emergency room, and were more likely to report being satisfied and in a positive mood.

Overconfidence Online

E-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing have introduced new challenges to the workplace, Barsade adds. E-mails and instant messages can be misunderstood because they are devoid of facial expressions, intonation and body language — cues that help convey emotions. Some people, she says, work hard at making their emails neutral, with the downside of sometimes sounding curt. On the other hand, while some writers may add a smattering of exclamation points, question marks and capital letters in an attempt to convey more emotion, this can also be a dangerous route, particularly when attempting humor or sarcasm to drive home a point.

“How can emotions be best conveyed via these media?” the paper asks. “What is the effect of conveying emotionally charged messages via text, when these messages are more likely to be misconstrued? How must we re-think emotional contagion and other social processes in an organizational world in which many meetings take place online?”

The paper cites a study showing that people tend to be overconfident about their ability to convey the emotion they wish in an e-mail, particularly when they are trying to be funny or sarcastic. “Video conferencing, also increasing in its use, has more cues, but it is also not yet the same as interacting face to face, particularly in group situations. Given that these technologies continue to grow as a primary means of communication within the business world, it is crucial that we understand how the interpretation and communication of affect occurs in these contexts,” the paper says.

Workplaces need to get smart about the best use of e-mail, Barsade states. Her advice is that “if something is important, and you know that the emotional context is going to be an issue, then pick up the phone; don’t just rely on e-mails.” And even the phone may not be good enough. “Sometimes, if it is really important, you just have to fly to where they are and meet them face-to-face to get the message across.”

Submitted by
Shannon Munford
Daybreak Counseling Service

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Preventing and Dealing with Workplace Violence

To maintain a safe workplace, HR leaders must consider proactive measures such as screening and adopting appropriate policies. Sometimes violence erupts anyway, however, and companies need to be prepared to deal with the situation.

By Philip A. Toomey

Hardly a week goes by without news of another episode of workplace mayhem. The sensational incidents, and many other less serious but still troubling episodes of violence that don't make headlines, are personal tragedies for all involved, including the employers.

They can also have far-reaching legal repercussions for the companies where incidents of violence occur. That's because employers, under federal OSHA law and an array of state statutes, have an affirmative obligation to maintain a safe workplace.

If they have failed to take the reasonable precautions to maintain a safe workplace as required by law, employers can be held civilly liable for workplace violence.

Violence can erupt in the workplace between co-workers as a result of disputes on the job or because of a consensual romantic relationship that goes awry.

Or violence may spill into the workplace from outside, stemming from a conflict that has no connection with work but that involves an employee and an outsider, such as an abusive spouse.

In either case, if an employee is injured on the job, the employer may be at fault for negligent hiring or supervision or for failing to take steps to guard against a known threat of violence.

Preventive Measures

The first step an employer should take to ensure a violence-free workplace seems simple enough: Avoid hiring people with a history of violence.

That doesn't mean you have to subject every employee to a full-fledged criminal background check. But the potential liability that an employer can face from having a worker with a history of violence on the staff underscores the importance of being proactive in screening job applicants, as appropriate for each position.

Verifying a prospective employee's work history, checking with references, and for those who will fill more sensitive positions, undertaking a more thorough background investigation, can help an employer detect potential troublemakers before they are hired.

In one instance, a Florida employer knowingly hired an employee with previous convictions of abuse to females. The employee then developed a romantic relationship with another employee. Did the employer have an obligation to disclose to the girlfriend the prior knowledge it had regarding the employee's propensity to engage in violent behavior?

The employer took the position that this was private information and it didn't have the consent of the employee to inform the woman, and it was a personal relationship being carried on between consenting adults.

The end result was that the employee assaulted the woman and killed her.

Her children sued the employer, claiming that possession of that information without disclosing it to their mother put her in a dangerous situation, and they won. Is there an employer duty to warn? This is still being decided in the courts.

An employer also may have an obligation to control the conduct of outsiders who are invited onto the business premises or who show up at the workplace.

Obviously, it is not possible to conduct background checks on visitors, but reasonable steps to control access to the premises and exclude those who pose an obvious threat are actions that every business should take.

In a closed environment, it is acceptable to indicate that an employee's spouse, friends and family members are not allowed to visit absent supervision. In a more open environment, like a retail store, employers should talk directly with employees to be made aware of any spousal or relationship issues, such as a restraining order, and whether or not they want this to interfere with their work.

These precautions offer no guarantee that problems won't occur. But an employer that has exercised reasonable diligence can avoid being held to account later for doing nothing.

Another preventive step that every business should take is to issue a written policy on workplace violence. The policy should state in no uncertain terms that violence, as well as harassment and other inappropriate conduct that can often spark physical altercations, will not be tolerated.

The policy should also explain what employees can do if they feel intimidated or threatened.

Once a policy is adopted, the employer has an obligation to notify workers and supervisors about the policy and more importantly, to provide instructions on how to report incidents or concerns in a confidential manner.

Instructing employees on ways to prevent and deal with workplace violence can be included as a component of the company's broader human relations training that addresses related issues, such as sexual harassment.

Once training is completed, an employer has an ongoing obligation to monitor the work environment.

Acts of violence can start with what may appear to be minor incidents of verbal abuse, intimidation, bullying or other forms of verbal and non-verbal aggression. An employer should never dismiss conflicts between employees as a personal issue between the two.

Having a reporting mechanism in place that enables employees to bring any concerns about their co-workers to the attention of management will give the employer a better chance of defusing a potentially dangerous situation before it erupts into violence.

In one company, an IT employee was constantly being challenged by sales people to keep the computer system up to speed with automated sales calls. While confrontations became heated at times, they were normally handled in a professional manner.

Eventually the tension built, and in a hallway exchange, the IT employee physically assaulted the sales manager.

This type of problem could have been avoided had the employer been more observant and diligent, and instructed separate departments not to interface in the absence of a supervisor.

The obligation to observe also requires upper-level management to pay attention to how line supervisors interact with the employees whose work they oversee. Supervisors who make inappropriate comments, are overly aggressive in their management style or have a tendency to humiliate workers can often engender deep-seated resentment, not only directed at them, but toward the company as a whole.

An official complaint mechanism can help bring such problems to the attention of management before a conflict festers. But even if the employer learns informally, for example, through word of mouth or through an e-mail or Internet posting, that an employee has made threats against a supervisor, the employer has a responsibility to take appropriate security measures.

The duty to observe requires a delicate balancing act on the part of employers. While fulfilling their obligation to maintain a safe working environment, employers must respect the employees' rights to privacy, free speech and association.

The two interests sometimes clash, for example, when it comes to monitoring dating relationships and romances between co-workers. Such relationships are fraught with peril for employers especially when one or both of the paramours are married or in committed relationships with others.

The dating activity may take place during off-hours but the repercussions can erupt in the workplace and endanger innocent employees who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If an employee is subject to romantic overtures from a co-worker that rise to the level of harassment, or that are tinged with threats of violence such as rape, the employer is obligated to take disciplinary action against the aggressor and may also need to obtain a restraining order and provide additional security.

In some cases, an employee or third party might make non-specific threats of violence, for instance by telling others, "I'm going to go postal." If the employer hears credible reports of such threats that raise a generalized concern about safety in the workplace, the employer must take steps to address the threat.

Depending on the circumstances, the response may include counseling for the employee or termination and a restraining order to keep the former employee from returning to the workplace.

When Violence Erupts

At the earliest indication that a troubled employee is placing others in the workplace at risk, the employer must take corrective action. A warning, temporary suspension or other disciplinary sanction may suffice if the incident is relatively minor and the employee has an otherwise unblemished record.

Termination is in order for more serious violent incidents. In such cases, however, termination alone may not be sufficient to absolve the employer of its obligation to safeguard the workplace from threats of violence.

An employer may need to go to court to obtain a civil restraining order to prevent a former employee, or any other person who might threaten violence in the workplace, from returning to the business premises and immediately surrounding areas.

A restraining order can also specify that the individual may not call or send e-mails to the workplace. In some cases, the order may also extend protection to threatened employees while they are at home or traveling to and from work.

In emergency situations, the laws in most states allow a judge to impose a temporary restraining order that will remain in effect for a limited period of time while the parties await a formal hearing on a permanent order.

A civil restraining order authorizes the police to arrest anyone who ignores the court-imposed restrictions, for example, by showing up at a business that has been declared off limits. Violations of civil restraining orders can lead to criminal charges against the offending party.

At that point, the employer may request a no-contact or stay-away order in conjunction with the criminal case.

These orders are similar to civil restraining orders, but since they are issued in the context of a criminal case, the consequences of a violation can be much more serious. The violator can be charged with additional criminal counts for witness tampering or intimidation, or in some cases obstruction of justice.

Former employees who have exhibited violent behavior and have demonstrated that they will not be deterred by court papers may require the employer to take further action.

Employers are not expected to build an impregnable fort around their worksites. But employers have to take reasonable steps. In some cases, that might mean an employer should hire security professionals or install extra security devices, such as controlled-access doors or closed-circuit cameras, to keep potentially violent intruders off company premises.

And the company mailroom should be alerted to be on the lookout for incoming packages addressed to those who have been threatened with violence. Any suspicious package from unidentified sources that may contain an explosive device should be reported to the police.

Dealing with the Police

Police agencies, of course, are key partners for employers faced with an episode of violence. But it's important to keep in mind that they have finite resources and limited tools with which to deal with a person who is potentially violent but hasn't yet acted.

When the police are called to a workplace to deal with a violent employee, they will want to know early in their investigation what the employer has previously done to deal with the situation. In many cases that will dictate what sort of help they can provide.

One of the very first things they will ask for is a copy of any restraining orders. If there are any, the police will have far more leverage over the individual and can act immediately to address a threat of violence.

To ensure that police and prosecutors can most effectively work with the company on the case, the employer should designate a single individual to be the point of contact with law enforcement authorities. That individual should be readily available at all times.

Likewise, the designated representative should obtain the investigating officer's cell phone number and should know how to directly contact the commander on each watch so that if any further incidents occur at any time, the employer and police can establish immediate contact with each other.

The employer must keep in mind that the police will have many other matters simultaneously on their docket. Don't assume that they are paying close attention to your problem. They may need to be regularly updated about ongoing situations, and prompted to take action as the need arises.

Police will undoubtedly be grateful to be dealing with an employer that has systematically addressed the problem and has already taken every precaution to protect employees. More importantly, the police will be able to provide more effective assistance to employers who have done their homework and have put in place a plan to deal with workplace violence before it strikes.

Philip A. Toomey is managing partner of Los Angeles based Artiano, Guzman, & Toomey, LLP. He specializes in employment law and may be reached at This article is not intended to be legal advice.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Anger Shatters a Golfer's Life

By Dave Kindred
Golf Digest

I have thrown golf clubs. Three or four times a year I toss my ratzenfratzin' driver. Actually, it is not so much tossed as ejected with prejudice. I surrender to the need to be rid of the traitorous stick, and to be rid of it in a Tommy Bolt second. "A 6-iron?" the Thunder Bolt once said to his caddie. "It's 225 yards. What in the world makes you think it's a 6-iron?" His caddie answered, "Because that's all you have left in the bag. Except for the putter. And it sure ain't a putter."

Before sainthood, Bobby Jones sinned. To miss a simple shot, he said, was to commit a crime. "And when you feel so extremely a fool, and a bad golfer to boot, what the deuce can you do, except throw the club away?"

Henry Longhurst, the late English golf commentator, wrote, "The most exquisitely satisfying act in the world of golf is that of throwing a club. The full backswing, the delayed wrist action, the flowing follow-through, followed by that unique whirring sound, reminiscent only of a passing flock of starlings, are without parallel in sport."

Craig Stadler buries wedges up to their hosels with such exuberance as to create that unique shaft-twanging sound. Even gentle Ben Crenshaw has spoken of his putter as a tree-climbing sonuvagun.

We miscreants find in all these stories a certain amusement. But now comes a different story. This is a cautionary tale of horrific proportions.

It began in April on a municipal golf course in suburban Cleveland when a 38-year-old emergency-room nurse named Darrell Cicero saw his longtime friend Steve Lacey hit a bad tee shot. As the worm burner skittered along, Cicero says, "I may have chuckled."

Then Cicero saw his buddy pivot quickly toward the back of the tee, spinning in his direction. "I knew he was going to throw it. I thought,'Oh, s---.' "

He never saw the driver coming at him. Its metal head hit him flush in the left eye. For 24 hours, in unrelenting pain, Cicero kept both eyes closed. From the left eye, he would never again see anything.

Though Cicero doesn't remember screaming, witnesses say he screamed loudly. He fell to his knees with his hands against his face. He now says he thinks he'd heard a rush of air, the driver in flight, and then heard the sound of footsteps, Lacey hurrying toward him.

Cicero felt a warm and sticky fluid, his blood. He remembers rolling on the ground, numb and nauseous, able to say only two words, saying them again and again: "I'm sick, I'm sick."

A 1997 survey reported 39,472 emergency-room visits for golf-related injuries, 560 of those to the eye. New York authorities, meanwhile, reported an alarming increase in injuries among young golfers. They called it the Tiger Woods Syndrome. The reference is not to the great one's fits of pique but to Tiger-fueled interest in golf among youngsters. Many novices, it appears, walked too near to players making warm-up swings.

Darrell Cicero had done nothing careless. His only mistake was to be on the same golf course with Steve Lacey. For when Lacey threw his driver, he threw it not to be rid of it, nor to achieve Henry Longhurst's ironic satisfaction. He threw it to express rage.

The driver that ripped apart Cicero's face was no longer a golf club. Centrifugal force and anger had transformed it into a deadly weapon.

A man 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, a power-hitting softball player, had spun and swung the driver as he'd swing a bat. One witness says Lacey later estimated that he'd swung the club at more than 100 miles per hour. And let go of it.

They'd been birds of a feather, Cicero and Lacey, running together since meeting on a double date 15 years ago. For 10 months in the mid-'90s, they shared a bachelors' apartment. They worked as bartenders at the same res-taurant. Many times, they played golf together.

Cicero long had seen in Lacey a nasty streak that flared when things didn't go his way -- such as on this April day at the 12th hole of Pine Ridge Golf Course in Wickliffe, Ohio.

Cicero had hit three miserable shots before making a 25-foot putt for a bogey 6. Lacey made a par there, but wasn't happy about it and said to Cicero, "I watched you beat the ball all the way down the fairway, and all I do is pick up one shot." No money was at stake, no trophy, no fame. Just pals trying to break 90.

As they left the 12th green, the big man didn't wait for the bogey shooter. He stormed ahead to the 13th tee, where, Cicero admits, he found a certain amusement in the ensuing worm burner. If Cicero didn't chuckle, he says, "Maybe I smirked." A third player, Ken Siatkowski, heard nothing from Cicero's side of the tee until all hell broke loose.

Lacey's driver struck Cicero's face with such force that it bent the hosel. It shattered Cicero's cheekbone. It exploded his face open from his forehead along his nose to a spot under his left eye. It broke open the eye itself.

Siatkowski is a registered nurse who works emergency-room shifts with Cicero. As he rushed to Cicero, the nurse says, he heard the club-thrower Lacey say, "Oh, my God, just don't tell anyone I did this. Tell them you walked into my backswing."

Lacey did not respond to Golf Digest's requests for an interview. His lawyer, Stephen Futterer, says, "Steve denies saying that."

Cicero's darkest fear is that Lacey intentionally threw the driver at him, maybe because he heard a chuckle or saw a smirk. "I believe he was trying to throw the club pretty close to me, to whiz it by my head," Cicero says. "No way did it 'slip,' like he tried to tell people. He had 400 yards in front of him, but he chose to throw the club behind him."

Futterer says Lacey had no intent to throw the club at Cicero: "What it was, was an accident." Siatkowski also says he had no reason to think Lacey aimed the club: "It could just as easily have come out of his hands and toward me."

Darrell Cicero works at Lake West Hospital in Willoughby. On this day in April, he arrived at his own ER by ambulance.

The doctor on duty, Dennis Dolgan, had worked with Cicero, played golf with him and thought of him as family. Without knowing the severity of the injury, knowing only that Cicero had been hit in the head by a golf club, the doctor practiced ER's black humor. "Driver, or 7-iron?" Dolgan asked, as if club selection might determine treatment.

Then came word from Ken Siatkowski on his cell phone. "It's really bad," he told ER personnel. "Get a helicopter ready. Get a CAT scan ready."

No more jokes. Dolgan ordered Cicero moved from a routine examining room to a trauma-treatment room. There he examined his friend's bloody face. It might have been struck by a madman's hammer. Shining a light into Cicero's damaged left eye, Dolgan saw no reaction and said, "The pupil's blown."

Cicero lay on his back, blood everywhere -- on his shirt, his pants, his golf glove. He heard the doctor's words. He knew they meant the injury had short-circuited the nerves operating the eye. His brain might be ripped and bleeding into the skull cavity.

The CAT scan's good news: no brain injury. Had the clubhead struck Cicero in the temple rather than the eye, Dolgan says, "It might have killed him instantly." That day, and for a long time after, there was no other good news.

Cicero missed 92 days of work. He underwent seven surgeries, five on the eye, one on the cheekbone and one on the nose. He's blind in the left eye and yet may lose the eye itself. There is permanent nerve damage to his face. He is undergoing psychotherapy for post traumatic stress disorder. He spent the night of his fourth wedding anniversary in a psychiatric hospital "because I was having a nervous breakdown."

By the end of the summer, Darrell Cicero had returned to work part-time. He also had played three rounds of golf. These are tentative, frightening steps taken early in a long journey to rehabilitation.

They followed Steve Lacey's arrest. "If Steve had done the right thing and offered to help me pay my bills while I was out of work, I wouldn't have pressed charges," Cicero says.

Lacey pleaded no contest to a charge of reckless assault. He was sentenced to 18 days of house arrest, fined $500 and ordered to do 100 hours of community service (at the Society for the Blind) and undergo anger-management counseling. The judge also said no golf for a year.

Then Cicero's attorneys, Leonard Carr and Bryan Carr, filed a civil suit against Lacey, a 33-year-old bartender/construction laborer.

As for how much money the suit seeks, Leonard Carr says, "Can you quantify a loss of vision? Can you put a number on permanent disfigurement? Whatever we get will not compensate Darrell for the damage done. There's not enough money in this universe."


A man who lost an eye (November 1999) -- Two years ago, when we played a round of golf in Cleveland, Darrell Cicero hoped he might see again with his left eye. He also hoped that he would be compensated for his injuries, and that a man once his friend would apologize.

None of that has happened. Cicero, 40, now has a prosthetic eye; no compensation is possible, because the man who threw his driver into Cicero's face has declared bankruptcy and "has never asked my forgiveness, though I have forgiven him rather than carry that hatred."

Cicero has undergone 14 surgical procedures. A registered nurse, he lost a job after going through rehab for dependence on a painkilling drug prescribed by doctors. He's working again as an emergency-room nurse.

"There I am, saving lives, and when I lose an eye I get no compensation, while a Cleveland football player, Orlando Brown, gets hit in the eye by a beanbag, hires Johnnie Cochran, and sues for $200 million," Cicero says.

Wait. Cicero remembers, he did get compensation. "I call myself a victim of the Ohio Victims of Crime law. After a nightmare of red tape, the state paid one ophthalmologist's bill -- $350 -- total."

Once a 10-handicapper, Cicero now has quit playing "because of a lack of desire and money."

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Toxic Workplace (or why I'm Self-Employed

By Steve Barth

Some years ago, I wrote about the importance of emotional intelligence for effective teams (see “3D Chess” in the Harvard Business School Press reader Teams That Click). But if Robert Sutton is right, emotional stupidity is a problem at least five times worse.

I recently cruised through the audio abridgement of Stanford business professor Bob Sutton’s new book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. It’s a chilling account of how prevalent physical violence, sexual and racial harassment, emotional abuse and downright rudeness and disrespect still are in the American workplace. It’s also a sobering assessment of how expensive they are to the bottom line.

Sutton has a great statistic that by itself is worth the price of the book: being a victim—or witness—to bad behavior in the workplace has five times as much negative impact on performance as good behavior has on positive performance. He references a great term, “discretionary effort,” to emphasize how much a worker’s attitude can influence the extra value that they create when they don’t dread coming to the office every day.

Coverage by such a well-known management guru should shed some much-needed light on the problem. But I was disappointed that Sutton didn’t do much to distinguish between abusive behaviors that were legally actionable (ie, harassment) from criminal (ie, violence) from that which was simply rude (although it frequently escalates).

The first two categories are matters of enforcement; but if managers or employees are being asinine, it’s a matter of leadership.

Speaking of which, I’ve had my share of bad bosses. (I’ve been a bad boss too, I have to admit). We had one who would jog at lunch and then leave his soggy, smelly shorts on the floor of the office kitchenette.

At the USC Marshall School of Business, Christine Porath has focused on what she terms workplace incivility—that third catetogy. (Although that term is sometimes used to describe a simpler lack of cross-cultural manners.)

For a nice overview of her work, see this article.

Though workplace incivility isn’t illegal and is often written off as creative or competitive abrasion, it clearly has negative consequences both for individual and organizational output. In one study, Porath (with Amir Erez) finds that incivility leads to decreased performance, motivation, creativity, and helping behaviors, as well as increased dysfunctional behaviors.

“Incivility is costly to organizations and their members, often in subtle but pervasive ways, eroding organizational values and depleting organizational resources,” Porath explains. “Because of their uncivil experiences, we find that people tend to decrease work effort, time on the job, productivity and performance. Job satisfaction, organizational loyalty and leadership impact are diminished as a result of incivility, as well. When the organization tolerates incivility, the effects are even worse-- people tend to punish the organization if they feel that the culture allows or encourages incivility.”

Another good metaphor is “Toxins in the Workplace,” used by Appelbaum and Roy-Girard in a recent issue of Corporate Governance—as in toxic leaders, toxic managers, toxic cultures and toxic organizations.

Organizations as well as their employees suffer from the affects of toxins that are present within the organization. They also suffer from psychological effects, such as; impaired judgment, irritability, anxiety, anger, an inability to concentrate and memory loss. On the other hand, it has also been found that companies in North America alone lose an excess of $200 billion each year due to employee deviance. Employee deviance has also been found to be the cause of approximately 30 percent of all business failures.

I don’t want this to be a forum for bad-boss stories, but I’m interested if you have come across any other studies or anecdotes about the cost of bad behavior in the workplace even when it was under the legal radar.

Daybreak Counseling Service