Human beings express a lot more through their behavior rather than their words. We are always communicating some sort of a message to others whether through body language, facial expressions or words. While you don’t need a psychology degree to interpret human behavior, we all need some guidance to comprehend our employers’ and coworkers’ behavior.
Furthermore, it is imperative to understand when and how to flag certain attitudes as toxic and how to deal with them.
A common notion is that toxic behavior is often associated with large corporations where competition is so fierce, or in male-dominated industries that requires being loud and extroverted in order to get ahead with your career.
However, research has shown that toxicity can be found in just about all types of organizations regardless of their size or mode of operation. According to BBC Worklife, nearly 20 percent of American workers have left at least one job during their working life due to toxic culture in their workplaces.
In addition, the results of a survey done in the UK showed that 64 percent of employees interviewed admitted that toxic attitudes in their workplaces have negatively affected their mental health.
These toxic behaviors are not exclusive to western work environments, but some have long been normalized in Egypt. How do we spot them?
The toxicity of the workplace works on both the organizational and the individual levels. In other words, some organizations have cultures that are conducive to toxicity more than others. On the individual level, toxicity could be a personal behavior that has nothing to do with the organization’s policy or culture.
While there isn’t one specific definition for a toxic workplace, there are certainly some red flags to look out for in an organization. For instance, a toxic workplace is a place where there is a high employee turnover, lots of gossip and exclusion of others, mistrust of leadership or between coworkers and subtle [or overt] workplace bullying.
According to Thomas Roulet, a professor of organizational theory at the University of Cambridge, toxic workplaces can be defined as “a context in which abusive behaviors are almost normalized. It’s both about how people behave poorly, and how others are affected.”
Yasmine Shaker, human resources consultant and corporate assessor defines a toxic workplace as a place run without enforcing clear rules and regulations that promote and impose respect, fair treatment, and equity. “It’s a place where people at the top of the hierarchy only care about the bottom line, no matter how it is achieved, without any regard to work ethics, values nor workforce demands,” she tells Business Forward.
While there are numerous types of toxic behaviors and cultures, here are the most common in Egyptian work places and what human resources experts and organizational behavior coaches believe could be done to address them.
Bullying and intimidation [subtle or overt]
Employees interviewed reported bullying by their managers as one of the most prevalent toxic behavior they face in their workplaces. Some mentioned repetitive incidents of emotional and verbal abuse by their managers without any disciplinary action being taken by their superiors. One interviewee who preferred to be anonymous mentioned that this type of behavior is not uncommon in many workplaces in Egypt.
“It is the exploitation of power to influence and intimidate others,” she says. “This creates a very toxic authoritative environment where employees are silenced by intimidation and abuse.”. Accordingly, the work environment becomes intolerable as employees’ anxiety is heightened due to their constant fear of punishment and humiliation, or fear of being bullied in front of coworkers, or even worse, fear of potentially losing their jobs.
To tackle this, Mariam Moussa, executive and leadership coach, founder of PROCIJ, a leadership and culture transformation coaching organization, advises that first a solid foundation of confidentiality and trust must be established between the human resources department (HR) and employees enabling the latter to express their concerns without fear of retaliation.
Second, HR needs to take action on complaints and not favor the company or the managers over the rest of the employees. Third, managers with toxic attitudes should be given general feedback and redirected to change behavior without blame to encourage positive change. If those managers fail to change then confronting them is essential because toxicity is contagious and can negatively affect the overall productivity of the company.
Regarding the same point, Shaker recommends that companies need to establish clear internal regulations [as a part of the companies’ policies] that condemn such bullying behavior with clear abiding consequences.
While working hard for something you are passionate about is not a bad thing, being pressured to work extremely hard to the extent of being burnt out is a hallmark of toxic behavior. Recent years have seen a significant rise in the culture of putting work above everything else or what is commonly known as “the hustle culture”. This capitalist-driven culture is known to push employees to work extremely hard beyond their limits with little return. It glamorizes being a workaholic and makes it the only way to gain respect from others. This growing culture frames success as a product of long working hours, working on weekends and being glued to your computer and phone 24/7 answering emails and attending online meetings.
Even worse, the rise of digital media has made it a normal expectation for employers to expect employees to be always connected.
Another problem with hustle culture is that it brings a toxic sense of competition. While healthy competition is a catalyst for higher productivity, hustling makes competition turn into unhealthy rivalry where competitors want to bring each other down to get ahead. If stretching yourself thin is the only way to get that promotion, you will be fierce and unmerciful about it and you will always try to prove that you are the only one who is working in the company instead of being a team player.
“I think the problem appears worse than it really is,” says Nermine Fawzy, co-founder and senior partner at Foster Edge, a hands-on management firm focused on people, organizations and technology.
“Sometimes it is not about the manager or the company, it’s about managing your time in general whether its work or otherwise. Especially with generation Z, it is becoming more of a work-life integration where people occasionally voluntarily chose to work at nights or early morning instead of working standard hours,” she adds. She advises employees to plan and be conscious and vocal with their managers about how they are going to manage their time.
“Employees need to take responsibility for their share of this conversation. They need to communicate and agree with their managers about the acceptable boundaries regarding their schedule and follow them,” she explains.
It is not uncommon in local companies -especially Small and Medium Enterprises- for decision-making to be too centralized. Owners and top managers feel the need to micromanage everything resulting in hampering creativity and innovation.
In addition, when hierarchy layers are too few in an organization it gives ample opportunity for issues to remain unaddressed. If an issue is not seen by the upper management as important, it stays unresolved indefinitely. This leads to an authoritative environment where a person who speaks up or dares to challenge the company’s policies is regarded as a troublemaker.
In this type of workplace, leaders do not respect the ideas and opinions of employees who are in non-management positions as if they have nothing to offer. This usually results in the latter feeling undervalued and unappreciated thus exacerbating the toxic environment.
“This situation will never change if the owner doesn’t become aware of the problem or the impact created. It also takes a mature, grounded owner to listen to feedback and choose to lead differently afterwards, suggests Moussa.
Shaker’s advice to address the issue is as follows: first, conduct an anonymous employee engagement survey to find out management flaws and improvement opportunities that need to be tackled, then the owner should listen to the expertise of the professionals hired, executive committee members and on floor leaders, based on survey results.
The third step is to empower employees through training and development, and getting employees to buy in the process and involve them in the decision-making process. Finally, leaders need to celebrate successes and openly communicate failures for the benefit of the company and its employees.
Shifting the blame and fear of responsibility
This kind of attitude usually starts at the top. When leaders exhibit examples of not taking responsibility for their decisions, it sets precedence and then everybody follows. This sets a bad example that mistakes are unwelcome and that everybody should hide their mistakes instead of fixing them or using them as learning opportunities. In blame culture, employees dread to commit to deadlines in order not to be held accountable later for any delays or mistakes. As a result, coworkers again are regarded as rivalries who need to be eliminated and a lot of gossip, backstabbing, and other toxic behavior becomes prevalent.
“I think creating safe spaces for people to make mistakes and manage them accordingly encourages people to work together and overcome issues instead of blaming each other,” Fawzy explains.
Moussa explains further that blame and lack of accountability are usually signs of lack of trust and fear. “To resolve that, work has to be done on creating trust, acknowledgments, and encouragements in the culture of the team. Teams need to see support for growth rather than punishments for failures,” she adds.
In addition, there has to be clear and detailed job descriptions for every position. Shaker advises that employees and their managers need to agree and sign those job descriptions as an acknowledgement of clear roles and responsibilities. Based on that quarterly evaluations need to be held instead of yearly ones to evaluate performance and target achievement.
“Conversations around goals and objectives and deliverables are extremely important. Having those conversations is everyone’s responsibility including the employees and the managers,” Fawzy explains.
Lack of psychological safety
Many employers now resort to drafting six months or a maximum one-year contract for their employees, as opposed to longer-term contracts. Even with big organizations, this has become a standard practice that leaves employees with an increased sense of insecurity and lack of belonging. In addition, there were numerous reported incidents of discrimination against women only based on the fact that they had to go on maternity leaves. Some were passed on for promotions and others were threatened not to have their contract renewed.
“It is up to employees to get to know all their hiring rights before engaging in any interviews with any company,” Shaker comments. “Signing a contract with a company is accepting the whole package it offers. The employee is then the only one to blame for going along with givens he/she does not agree upon,” she adds.
Shaker also explains that employees need to keep a detailed monthly record of all their tangible achievements, to objectively discuss performance review and promotion.
“Should discrimination continue, regardless of the quality of achievements, the employee, then, reserves the right to raise the issue to upper management then HR leaders. If matters remain unresolved, regional office should be notified, on the basis of clearly documented prejudice,” she adds.
On this Moussa stresses the power of speaking up, confronting issues, going after what one deserves and not playing small while accepting discrimination or sexism. After all, words get around and companies are now becoming increasingly aware of how much harm a toxic culture, if left unchecked, can do to their brand, to their ability to retain good employees, or even worse, to their customer relations.