“I feel that part of my job is to run a daycare for adults,” said one CEO as he walked out of his office after a series of emotionally draining one-on-one meetings with several of the company’s employees.
What started as a request by a strong-willed employee had escalated into a major issue that spiraled into threats for termination, employee grievances and possibly a lawsuit. Addressing such workplace issues consumes enormous amounts of time and energy, and may come at a significant financial cost.
When such situations become more frequent at work, people start adopting defensive behaviors. Trying to protect themselves, people resort to blaming others, hiding critical information, gossiping, and speaking poorly about others when they are not present. Even good managers fall into this pattern, reinforcing and sanctioning bad behavior. Work culture can easily turn toxic even after a few such incidents.
What can leaders do to eliminate or prevent toxic workplaces? How leaders respond to these situations makes a big difference in the immediate outcomes and in the long-term consequences. The challenge for most leaders is to know how to think and act in the moment. So, the best advice is to plan your response in advance so when the situation presents itself, you are ready to take positive and decisive action.
Here are seven key strategies leaders can use to address common workplace issues, reinforce the desired behaviors, and eliminate or prevent a toxic culture.
- Set the Standards and Live Up to Them
Define a code of conduct for your company and hold yourself accountable to it. It is not reasonable to assume that your employees will share a similar set of standards as you wish for your organization. As a leader, make sure to discuss frequently your expectations, often citing specific examples. It is not sufficient to say, “I want people to take initiative.” You need to show actual examples of what taking and not taking initiative at work looks like. Then, ask for feedback on how you are doing and invite others to learn how they are doing. Introspection leads to greater awareness and faster learning. Leading by example cannot be delegated.
- Listen to Both Sides of the Story
As a leader you need to remain objective to make wise decisions. If you are perceived to have a predisposed point of view to a problem, you are not being objective and therefore your judgment will be biased. This does not mean you need to be neutral. You can and need to form a point of view once you are properly informed. When you first hear of a problem, avoid reacting with a quick-fix solution. Instead, listen attentively and ask for details and validating points. Then, listen to the other side of the story and check those same points. Bring both parties together and help them see the bigger picture by allowing each side to express their views. Objectivity leads to better judgment.
- Reframe the Problem as a Leadership Opportunity
Every day, you have an important and challenging job to do. So, when you add interpersonal conflict and human dysfunction to your busy day, it may seem like a frustrating, time-wasting distraction to doing your job. Pause. Reframe. What you are facing is not only your job, but perhaps a most important leadership opportunity. This doesn’t mean that as a leader you need to act as a therapist, coach or counselor to the employees. By seeing an unfolding situation as a leadership opportunity, you become most influential to individuals and the organization.
- Address Unacceptable Behavior in the Moment
When someone has crossed the line of acceptable conduct, it is time for immediate course correction. Don’t delay. Don’t belabor the point. The steps are simple. State the unacceptable behavior. Explain the consequences. Ask the person to commit to getting back into acceptable behavior right away. The person’s decision dictates the course of action. You can remain professional, calm and collected through the conversation. You can even strengthen your relationship with the person even if their actions cause a termination of employment. You can be simultaneously firm and nice.
- Coach Others to Find Their Own Solutions
When others are struggling with how to address a sensitive situation, help them find their own solution. Your leadership role is most valuable and empowering when you allow others who are already doing an adequate job, figure out how to do it better. Resist the urge to tell them what and how to solve their problem. As much as possible, ask questions that help them think through the steps to problem solve.
- Define Clear Next Steps
Conclude every corrective action or coaching conversation with a recap of the next steps. You may want to have the other person write them down and give you a copy of the agreed upon course of action. Be specific and set deadlines for completion. Schedule in advance time to follow up on progress.
- Be Part of the Solution
In every situation, we can be part of a problem or a solution. The difference is subtle but fundamental. To be part of the solution, you need to discipline yourself to project the solution, even when others may expect the worst. You need to act as if the desired behavior is what you expect to happen, even when others may be cynical. As a leader, you need to become, in word and action, what you want to see happen.
These seven strategies will not prevent people from saying harmful words or doing inappropriate things. But these seven strategies do give you a set of useful responses to address such situations as they arise. Your leadership response will help mitigate the negative effects so toxic situations won’t proliferate and you can influence a more productive and positive workplace culture.