How Leaders Can Cure A Toxic Workplace

One of the things I enjoy about sharing my writings and insights on leadership is the opportunity it creates to interact with my readers – to hear their stories and what they’ve learned along the way, as well as some of the challenges they are trying to overcome.
Recently, one challenge in particular caught my attention as it was brought forth by both a reader of my leadership blog and by an audience member at a talk I gave last week. The challenge in question was what do you do if you have to lead a team in a toxic workplace setting? And how can you overcome this to effectively lead your employees?

Given the interest expressed by two different segments of my audience, I want to share some key steps leaders should employ to help cure toxic workplaces and replace them with a more healthy, productive work environment.
Granted, I can’t provide specific steps because every situation is different and comes with its own set of variables and constraints that leaders will have to work with. However, the following measures will nonetheless provide you with both the right perspective and framework to help cure toxic workplaces in your organization.

1. Identify and rally ‘change champions’ in your organization
Now before we can put into action measures to cure a toxic workplace, we need to first understand something about how our brain operates. Neuroscience has shown that our brains are hard-wired to avoid threats in our environment.
Consequently, not only is our brain focused more on looking out for danger than benefits, but the neural signals we get from our different senses are processed first through that lens of whether it’s a good or bad experience before our higher brain functions can help us to create a context for what we’re seeing, hearing, or feeling.

Now it’s important to note here that it’s not just dangerous or harmful events that our brain identifies as threats. Rather, it labels anything that creates ambiguity or uncertainty as a threat and consequently, something we should avoid. And all of this happens subconsciously which is why we may not be able to rationally explain why we fear something, only that we do.
In the case of making changes to your workplace environment, even though your employees might be working in a toxic workplace, many of them will be resistant to changes in their environment because of the uncertainty this evokes in their brain.
As much as they might hate the kind of working environment they now have, the fact that they don’t know for certain whether the changes you propose will work – or even what it might unexpectedly give rise to – is enough for their brains to overwhelm them with this sense of trepidation and fear in supporting this change.

Thankfully, neuroscience has also revealed that our brains are quite malleable and that’s why the first step to curing a toxic workplace is to identify and rally ‘change champions’ among your employees. These are the people who see and understand how the measures you propose will help to improve working conditions and consequently, they will want to help you put them into action.
In other words, to cure a toxic workplace, you need the support of employees who can rally others to overcome their doubt and fears [Share on Twitter] because they model that sense of optimism and hope that these changes will in fact improve things and help your organization get back on track.

Bear in mind that you will have naysayers who will only resist and challenge this, but the key here is to identify these ‘change champions’ so you can get them on board fast to help you shift the perception of the ambivalent majority in order to give these measures the momentum required to affect real change.

2. Encourage a sense of shared ownership over the process to detoxify
Building on the first point, in order to sustain this initial momentum we gain from rallying ‘change champions’ to help support our initiatives to detoxify our work environment, we have to provide opportunities for our employees to gain a sense of shared ownership in this process.
While at the beginning it’s important for you to provide the framework for the kinds of changes that need to be put into place to cure your toxic workplace, as the situation evolves and the process progresses, it’s important that you encourage your employees to write themselves into the narrative that will help to shape what your workplace environment will look like at the end of this process.

Indeed, research has shown that over 90% of all change initiatives end up as a failed exercise because those overseeing the change initiative overlooked this critical step of encouraging employees to become active participants in the process.
It’s something that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela both appreciated in their efforts to transform the toxic nature of their respective societies which divided people based on their skin colour. In both cases, these leaders understood that they couldn’t manifest this fundamental change in the social fabric of their respective countries without encouraging their followers to take ownership in that vision; to see for themselves the inherent value and benefit in bringing this goal to fruition.

Remember that the foundation of a healthy workplace is one where employees feel heard and understood [Share on Twitter] – that they know their voice and contributions matter to the overall success of their team and organization.
After all, the inverse is one of the conditions that’s often associated with toxic workplaces, one where employees feel disrespected and undervalued.

3. Start small to minimize risks and earn quick wins
This point brings us back to what I discussed about how our brains are hard-wired; specifically how our brain focuses more on avoiding threats at all costs. Now inevitably, any kind of change initiative will have its own set of gains and losses, but in trying to cure your toxic workplace, it’s especially important to not let setbacks impede your efforts to improve working conditions for your employees.
That’s why it’s important that you don’t let the urgency of detoxifying your workplace influence the size and scope of the measures you’re trying to implement [Share on Twitter]. Rather, what you should do instead is focus on putting into action small measures that will help you to not only minimize risks but also allow you to get some quick wins to prove that things can be improved.

This also plays into the idea of rallying those ‘change champions’ behind you because initially, the number of people who will commit themselves to making this happen will be quite small. However, as you start to amass these quick wins, and as other employees and departments start to notice the impact this is having on morale and productivity, you’ll soon be able to generate a groundswell of support to push for bigger initiatives to cure this toxic workplace.

One other point I’d like to bring up here is that you should also make sure that you create a set of specific metrics that will allow you to provide hard facts to back up these perceptions. Again, looking at how our brain responds to uncertainty, it’s not going to be enough at times to get others on board purely with anecdotal evidence.

But having clear, irrefutable data that charts the progress and improvements that are being made as a result of these change initiatives will make it much harder for people to contest the validity of broadening these measures into other areas of the organization.

4. Demonstrate commitment, not inflexibility, in the process to cure your toxic workplace
Finally, the last measure to employ to cure a toxic workplace is one that comes into play when we’re heading into the deep end of transforming the workplace atmosphere found in our organization.
And this one takes us back to looking at that threat-avoidance wiring found in our brain, except that this time, we’re looking at this from the vantage point of our own brain and not that of our employees.

When it comes to pushing any kind of change initiative in your organization, it is important that we show an unwavering commitment to the process in order to assure our employees that we won’t throw in the towel the minute we hit our first roadblock.
The challenge, though, is not to allow our brain to transform this initial unwavering commitment into an inflexibility to adjust and make changes to our own plans in order to achieve the desired end outcome.

Remember, our brain reacts adversely to uncertainty, which is why it’s easy for people to dig their heels in and stick to their viewpoint even when it makes little sense to hold on to that notion.
Neuroscience studies have shown that our brain has a strong focus on detecting “errors” – that is to say, the gap that exists between our expectations and what we actually experience. And this neurological mechanism is driven by the same circuits that also drive our fear response. As a result, when we experience these “errors” between what we expect and what’s our reality, our brain’s basal wiring compels us to react emotionally and impulsively.

The fact is that in the process of curing a toxic workplace, you can’t anticipate every outcome or potential scenario. So while it’s important to show our commitment to curing this toxic work environment, we have to be mindful that we don’t become so rigid in our perspective – of only seeing things from a singular vantage point – that we fail to take into consideration what new information reveals about what’s really going on.
And again, this goes back to my point of encouraging a sense of shared ownership in this process with our employees. That to improve the way we work, we can’t lose sight of the importance of listening to differing viewpoints [Share on Twitter], to ask questions and learn from the experiences of others as these are the critical behaviours missing in a toxic workplace.
In writing this piece in response to the queries I received to address this common workplace issue, my goal was not to make it comprehensive as that would diminish both the complexities and variances that are now par for the course in leading in today’s faster-paced 24/7 work environment.
However, these measures will most certainly help to ensure that the changes you need to put into effect to cure a toxic workplace not only sticks, but that it demonstrates your commitment to creating that kind of environment where your employees can succeed and thrive.
Originally from a Blog Post written by Tanveer Naseer