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.

Yep. Reason #1 (and really the only one I need) to conclude that the mess in Ohio University's journalism school is the fault of multiple parties, and regardless of what happens with Reader's tenure case, the institutional leadership needs to clean the place up.
Such a great post and timed perfectly. What does one do when the toxicity is at every level of the org? Just run screaming?
Answer to Anonymous at 7:17 AM.

Yes, you run screaming out of town. Like Dean Dad said, class starts at the top. The climate is set at the top. A person can be the classiest, most qualified individual, but if his/her superordinate isn't, his/her superordinate will never support the classy stand. Classy will be lost in the great flood of adrenalin and emotions of "getting a good one in" and "showing him/her".

Leave if you want to stay classy and able to take the high road and be effective and respected. Otherwise, in order to survive, you will be changed.

Course this only applies unless you have such close emotional ties or a "mission" to be at that place that you will take the chance you can influence the climate. If you aren't management, good luck on doing that.
Well, in my case, the answers are a & d. I find myself in quite a jam at the moment, primarily because Ms. Smith and Mr. Jones are going after each other big time. Add to the mix the fact that both of them are fond of filing 'hostile workplace' and discrimination complaints with HR. The net result is I stand accused of a, "failure of leadership" in solving the problem.

I too always model the high road, and I too discovered a while ago that modeling behavior is insufficient with a certain segment of the population. But this particular problem may be beyond my abilities to solve. At this point, I attend all department meetings, basically to serve as a 'behavior cop'. I proposed that we draft a Standards of Behavior document, that ended up taking a full quarter of negotiations to complete. Now the finger-pointing is starting as each alleged violation of the standards is tallied, and I am being taken to task for not censuring each violator.

My error is placing too much faith in others' realizing the ultimate value of the high road. Let's face it, for some people, the low road works for them in getting what they want, so why should they change? Add to that the job protection of tenure, and I feel left with few options.

I very much appreciate DD's comments about setting a climate where people are confident that they won't have to resort to frontier justice to defend themselves. But that still doesn't address the problem of two individuals who seem to thrive on antagonizing each other.
Here’s a variation on that situation that I’ve seen: Smith doesn’t even realize Jones perceives the comment as a dirty, ad hominem, unprofessional attack.

Say Smith has, from Jones’s point of view, insinuated that Smith’s work is more difficult than Jones’s, that Smith works harder than Jones, etc. Perhaps Smith believes this because Smith self-promotes much more than Jones, e.g., describing any and every conversation with another person on campus as “networking” and/or “outreach,” and announcing every Monday morning how much time was spent working on the weekend. Jones does the same but does not purchase a Super Bowl ad to announce it.

For a supervisor, what IS the high road here? Nobody wants to prolong a meeting just to establish that Jones has accomplished just as much as Smith on Project X, and no amount of recognition seems to convince Smith that hir position is secure enough that ze doesn't need to recite an hour-by-hour account of hir previous week's schedule as a progress report.
To Al, two suggestions:

Nothing works so well to unite a country as an external enemy declaring war on them. The issue isn't about Smith & Jones going at it. The problem is that Smith & Jones are ruining the environment for everybody else. So make it clear that you're standing up for everybody else, and that their bickering is making it an unreasonable place to work for others.

In my classes, I'll often say something like, "I'm sorry guys, but your talking in class is making it hard for the people around you to hear." It's extraordinarily effective and it takes me out of the picture. Why don't you try the administrative version of that?

Also, I'm a bit confused. I know college administrators don't have as much power as those in the business world, but they do have power. There should be some disciplinary procedures built into the contract. Start documenting and follow them. See if you can send them to some interpersonal communications classes or something. And if there are no disciplinary procedures, you ought to put some in during the next contract negotiations.

In my experience, the best administrative approach to misbehavior is polite, direct, firm, and by the book.
b & c are the typical results at MegaCorp. However, I've noticed people like Smith don't go doing what they do without knowing they can get away with it. To a point that kind of behavior is considered "assertive", "alpha male", "strong", "powerful", "in control". What top mgmt might agree is "mean" or "inappropriate" is just past some barely scrawled line of the kind of machismo behavior that is lauded. When there are no consequences, this kind of behavior will continue. Because administratos see themselves as not wanting to "choose sides" they fail to punish bad behavior, and often encourage it.
Al, did we work at the same college? :( The nasty decades-old battles between Smith & Jones at my old institution were definitely one factor in MY moving on.

I'll also second Anon 2:30's recommendations. A little more standing up for those of us who were neither Smith nor Jones would have been greatly appreciated.
Dear Dean,

I am in a very odd position. Last year I caught a professor with his pants down (literally) and this quarter I was automatically enrolled in a class in which is he is listed as the official instructor. It is a 1 unit course, we can either get an S or NC--he will not give me an S even though I completed the assignment. I do not know what to do. He has told me to leave it alone and stop wasting time! I deserve the S! The dean is willing to take the NC off the record but I deserve the 1 unit a matter of principle.

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