Monday, February 22, 2010

The Toxic Workplace Test

I've come up with a one-question quiz to determine whether your workplace is toxic.

1. When Smith attacks Jones in public in dirty, ad hominem, and generally unprofessional ways, and Jones responds by taking the high road, what happens?

a. Jones would never take the high road. Nobody ever does. It's on!
b. Jones takes the high road out of town.
c. Jones is viewed as the loser, since the high road is interpreted as weakness.
d. Onlookers divide into warring camps, and others do the dirty work for Jones.
e. Smith is viewed as the loser, having been decisively outclassed.

If the answer is anything other than e, you have a toxic workplace.

From an administrator's perspective, changing a culture that would answer a through d into one that would answer e is a real, and incredibly important, challenge. (Ideally, of course, the attack wouldn't happen in the first place, but to count on that would be foolish.)

It's difficult because the benefits of the high road usually take time to show up, but the emotional satisfaction of a sucker punch is immediate. Worse, many of the benefits of the high road are contingent upon others recognizing it for what it is, and appreciating it. (Yes, virtue can also be its own reward, but sometimes we need more than that.) That takes a certain confidence in your expectation that others will understand what you're doing. In the absence of that confidence, taking the high road can feel like unilateral disarmament.

Part of the job of campus leadership is setting a climate in which people can be reasonably confident that they won't have to resort to frontier justice to defend themselves. If an expectation develops over time that it's possible to disagree in public without getting personal or nasty, then those who violate that expectation will start to find themselves isolated. I consider that a good outcome.

In my early, naive days of deaning, I thought that setting the example would be enough. It wasn't. The lead-by-example thing wasn't enough, because too many people didn't notice or get it. To the small-minded thug, in the short term, the high road can look like weakness. It also didn't address the reality that no matter how a particular situation unfolded, different people had different slivers of information about it, and interpreted it accordingly. Missing a key piece of information, or placing it in an unrelated context, could lead even well-meaning people to mistaken conclusions.

Instead, I've slowly come to realize that if you want to give people confidence that the high road will work, you have to take several steps.

First, obviously, model it yourself. This isn't enough by itself, but without this, you're sunk.

Second, explain what you're doing and why you're doing it. If you model the behavior but trust that it will speak for itself, you'll often fall victim to weird interpretations. Put your interpretation out there, preferably several times. If you can manage a 'before, during, and after' approach, all the better. And for heaven's sake, be consistent.

Third, acknowledge when you fail. Everybody does, from time to time, but some people just can't bring themselves to admit mistakes. If you let slip an ill-considered comment in a moment of frustration, don't try to justify it or pretend it didn't happen; admit it, apologize for it, and renew the commitment to higher ground. One of the benefits of this approach is that it shifts the locus of authority from the individual to the ideal. That's very much of a piece with separating the speaker from the speech, which is the basis of civility. It shows respect for others, without which there's simply no basis for taking the high road seriously. I've found over time that people who feel respected are usually much less likely to escalate conflict to unproductive levels.

Finally, be patient. Some people will catch on more slowly than others, and a few never will. Trust is built slowly and lost quickly, so you have to be willing to stick with it for a while before seeing the results you want.

The tragedy of the middle manager -- I know, boo-hoo, but stay with me -- is when you follow all of these assiduously, only to be undercut from above. I've lived through that more than once, and I can attest that it's demoralizing at a really fundamental level. Sometimes, the high road can only lead out of town. But if you have leadership that actually enables the high road, stick around. You'll miss it when it's gone.