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.

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