A Publication of WTVP

One of the important and valuable results of the ecology movement has been publicity about toxic elements in the environment. As part of their manufacturing processes in years past, industrial plants and retail outlets have left hazardous waste behind. When a new building goes up where a gas station used to be, careful excavation of old gas tanks and removal of fuel-related soil has to occur. On industrial sites, everything from PCBs to radioactive soil to nitrates has to be removed-often at great cost and severe penalties.

The same dynamics are present in workplaces in toxic relationships. Much attention has been paid to a "toxic work environment," where bad behavior goes unaddressed or authoritarian managers demand the impossible out of employees. Two questions often come up: How do I know whether there's a toxic work environment, and how do I help it to become healthy again? There's a significant impact on ethics and culture at a workplace related to whether toxicity is handled and in what manner.

Recently, I've been reading The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness by Stephen R. Covey. In this book, Covey says, "Just as trust is the key to all relationships, so also trust is the glue of organizations." He continues, "I have also learned that trust is the fruit of the trustworthiness of both people and organizations." The antidote to toxicity in the workplace is, in part, trust in the people there and in the employer itself.

Covey is right on target. He says trustworthiness consists of the elements of making and keeping promises, honesty and integrity, kindnesses and courtesies, and thinking win-win or no deal. Clearly, then, a toxic work environment is one in which trust is missing-either in the individuals who work there or in the culture itself that tolerates dishonesty and duplicity.

One challenge to any employer is dealing with employees who come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures and, more specifically, from unhealthy situations where trust is neither given nor received. It's even worse when a person from an unhealthy background assumes managerial responsibility. A toxic work environment surfaces when people don't follow through with commitments they've made. Another toxic element arises when employees lie or steal or when managers meddle and micro-manage or demand excessive amounts of loyalty.

Most toxic workplaces have had a history of individuals or groups of persons overstepping personal and ethical boundaries to address excessive needs. Toxicity happens when managers can't or don't confront bad behavior or unethical actions or when the organization's leaders engage in such behavior themselves. Toxicity is part of the organizational culture.

So how can organizational leaders and managers step in and clean up the toxic messes that create major problems? Covey suggested a couple of personal approaches, and there are organizational approaches as well. On the personal level, Covey applies one of his "7 Habits" principles: Seek first to understand. Toxic behavior can be handled by seeing the other person's point of view and sets of assumptions, much as one might object to them. Strong listening skills help.

Another principle is to model and reward the behaviors and attitudes that stem from positive values. Obviously, strong intervention may be needed with some people, but, for the most part, people can be positively influenced. The influential manager can model what kinds of ethical choices and behaviors work best in the organizational setting. Are you ready to be a person of influence? Be aware from the beginning that your choices and behaviors are being monitored by your employees before they're imitated. Words influence less than actions do.

Organizationally, it's vital that a business or group has a well-defined vision, mission statements, and set of core values. Performance evaluations and incentives are designed around carrying out the mission and striving to attain the vision while using the core values to guide behavior and choices. The major test is determining whether the stated vision and mission are aligned with the way a company or organization actually does business.

Finally, an organization or company that hires people for the future can make all the difference in cultivating greatness and moving away from a toxic employment environment. If all we do in the workplace is process the past, which we can't change or repair, we're living at some toxic level in the workplace. If, instead, we focus on what's ahead organizationally-and hire accordingly-those who continue will find that, if they continue to behave in a toxic manner, they'll isolate themselves and leave for, well, bleaker pastures.

Organizational leaders can do a lot to promote healthy work environments as they strive for greatness and positive power at work. If you're in a toxic environment, what can you influence for positive change? If you work in a healthier environment, how can you spread the word to attract the talent you want and need? Answering those questions can develop healthier work environments-and happier and more productive people. IBI