“Why are my co-workers so intoxicatingly insecure?”
“Ugh, I have to find another job.”
“My manager thinks he is running an autocracy.”
“I work so hard, yet I am not allowed to think for myself.”
Unfortunately, all of these are valid statements, and I have heard them many times in my work as an organizational ombudsman.
Toxicity in an organization or a business unit begins with the people. Systems create the structure through subsystems. Subsystems operate on policies, rules, responsibilities, and other administrative functions such as payroll. In other words, a system is designed to build an organization. Workers carry an organization’s mission forward. Moreover, all organizations experience problems, dilemmas, and successes when people are involved.
We all know that humans are emotional beings. We have the greatest pleasure of feeling emotions associated with bodily sensations. Nevertheless, what happens when an organization becomes toxic? Toxicity begins with a few people in power and ends with accountability by the top leaders of an organization.
How we handle our emotions in the workplace in every situation depends upon an individual’s mindset. Moreover, there are two types of perspectives, each encompassed at varying degrees: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
A mindset is a belief. It is the psychology that depicts an individual’s opinion (Dweck, 2006). And belief permeates every area of an individual’s life, including how they take information, digest it, and view the world accordingly. Hence, a mindset is part of an individual’s personality and identity.
Case in point. The CEO of the organization asked Janet to take additional executive-level leadership courses. Janet decided not to attend the training at the last minute without reason. It was the third time a member of the C-suite had asked her to take this training. The reason for the training was apparent. As ombuds, I received several complaints about Janet’s “leadership” style. She needed more transparency, held her direct reports unaccountable for unprofessional behaviors, and micro-managed her employees so much so they were not allowed to make small decisions. This management style was trickling down to her first-level supervisors, who were also micromanaging technical experts. After conducting informal one on one interviews with each employee in her group, I recognized that the problem was Janet after all. She was the head of a business unit and continuously missing in action for high-profile meetings. She did not have control over her first-line supervisors and lacked respect for employees at all levels. Janet had gotten away with this behavior, and her mindset remained focused on keeping things “the same.” However, the mission had evolved, and Janet’s business unit required cultivating partnerships at all organizational levels, which she refused to do.
Janet was suffering from a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset has the following characteristics:
- Resisting change in every way possible, including mission-related tasks;
- Considering work setbacks as failures and pointing blame elsewhere in the organization;
- Creating a culture of withholding information, one-upping partners in the organization;
- Undermining the organization’s leaders and staff internally and externally;
- Creating a culture that supports social norms of ostracism, cover-ups of unprofessional behaviors, toxic micromanaging, and not taking accountability for her direct reports’ unprofessional behavior toward other leaders and employees in the organization;
- Creating territorial wars among employees establishing an environment that breeds internal competition. As a result, teammates may hoard information from one another and among business units, leading to social norms that lack visibility, which denies capability for the mission;
- Finding ways to prove themselves by being supersensitive without being wrong or making mistakes. Hence, constantly deflecting and projecting;
- Finally, successfully creating an internal environment that becomes less about the mission and more about “I” to survive. This environment pits employees against each other, allowing more room to control and command.
Janet is in a high-profile position and was supposed to be a leader. As such, her job as a leader is to motivate and influence her team members while proactively supporting her manager to help make informed decisions.
Nevertheless, Janet did neither. Instead, her fixed mindset cultivated a foundation that perceived collaboration as competition, bringing her personality mindset to the surface. A personality mindset comes into play when the chaos of the individual experience sets forth a defensive position (Dweck, 2006). Personal qualities, such as competition and bullying, come to the surface as the individual is concerned about how they are being judged and seen by their higher leadership. In this case, when confronted by her boss about the toxicity in her organization, Janet quickly became defensive and did not take accountability for the unprofessional behaviors of her supervisors. Instead, she deflected by accusing another manager of equal rank of negative behaviors.
At this point, I highlighted her patterns of behavior over several years that correlated with high turnover, formal complaints, and more. It was evident that Janet’s belief that she was not the issue was apparent. Moreover, no amount of training or coaching would change an individual so late in their career. This individual had excellent technical expertise but was not fit to lead people.
As such, an individual who may not be a technical expert but can lead a team through motivation, and influence, all the while cultivating a foundation of psychological safety, was the right leader to replace Janet. In addition, a leader who has a growth mindset is concerned with improving themselves by being curious, asking questions, confident in learning continuously, and building leaders.
A leader with a growth mindset believes that with continuous learning, failures and mistakes are not setbacks. Instead, a setback is an opportunity to grow through constant improvement. Therefore, a leader who leads with a growth mindset will:
- Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and the individuals they lead;
- Strengthen their weaknesses by promoting a culture of continuous learning, transparency, and visibility with openness and consideration;
- Coach and mentor future leaders;
- Ensure equity and fairness with accountability;
- Create a culture of clarity and visibility to provide the capability.
Fixed mindsets stove pipe growing missions and limit the expansion of scopes. They limit learning and growth by learning. A fixed mindset focuses on the need to be proven, while a growth mindset embraces change, continuously seeking ways to improve and grow.
As we enter the new year, top leaders of an organization need to tap into their workforce by holding sensing sessions. Sensing sessions provide insights into what is working and not working, and changes/recommendations employees may provide. Sensing sessions should be held without managers and with complete confidentiality. This allows a space for employees to be vulnerable to speak up courageously and candidly.
Employees are the wheels of the chariot. Without the wheels, the chariot will not drive itself. If leaders believe they can drive the chariot with a fixed mindset, they can think again. Post-pandemic, employee turnover is at an all-time high, as is quiet quitting. People have choices and will not work with toxic individuals in leadership positions.
A recommendation to C-suite leaders is to remain connected to their employees and continuously seek feedback from the bottom up. Sensing sessions are the most proactive method. While they may be timely, sensing sessions provide specific examples and case scenarios that highlight issues and gaps operationally and with managerial practices. In addition, sensing sessions highlight what is working, what is NOT working, and receive recommendations from employees, which may be leveraged back into the organization. Another proactive way to remain engaged with the workforce is via the organizational ombuds. An organizational ombuds is an informal third-party neutral who helps to resolve conflicts confidentially. An ombuds further provides trends and patterns on systemic issues, including toxic behaviors, unethical practices, and more.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Penguin Random House LLC: USA.
How can our readers further follow my work online?
You can find me on social media:
IG & Twitter: @binapatelphd
Copyright 2023 Transformational Paradigms dba Bina Consulting LLC