The subtleties of a hostile work environment

There have been many books and articles published about toxic work environments. A lot of the discussion is around the tendency of corporations to tolerate bad behavior from employees who are (correctly or not) perceived as successful. Bob Sutton has attacked this tendency with his “No Asshole Rule” writings.
When one uses the phrase “toxic work environment”, the image portrayed is usually one of out-of-control dysfunctionality. There is a lot of writing about work environments being “dysfunctional”. However, that term by itself is imprecise, and absent any clarification, almost meaningless.
I prefer to adopt a more nuanced approach of dividing dysfunctional work environments into two main categories.

1. Toxic
2. Hostile

Toxic environments are those where activities are occurring that meet one or more of the following criteria:

– Illegal
– unethical
– Capricious wilful abuses of power (bullying, intimidation, denigration either publicly or privately)
– Sexual harrassment
– Discrimination based on protected classes (ethnicity/culture, sexual orientation, religion)

By the way, “unethical” need not necessarily involve an action that is prohibited by Ethics guidelines or other rule books. I tend towards the rule that if an action looks and/or sounds bad if you have to explain it later, it is probably (at the least) unethical.
The legally significant phrase “Hostile work environment” usually refers to environments that meet one or more of the criteria listed above. The activities listed above, in many jurisdictions, are legally actionable, and can result in punitive action by the courts against the corporation.
However, a work environment can still be toxic, for more subtle reasons which, while they do not meet the criteria for being legally actionable, still result in a poorly-functioning workplace.
Hostile Environments are environments where the culture and attitudes of the majority of leadership and team members are actively and consistently undermining the communicated aims and objectives of the organization, or change management efforts within the organization

– Overt sabotage (up to and including insubordination)
– Covert sabotage (lack of committment, enthusiasm, avoidance of activities that form part of a change project, instruction of teams to not collaborate)
– Lack of respect and attention directed towards leaders and team members in the organization perceived as agents of change (especially if those leaders or team members are new to the organization, or if they are from a different part of the organization)

Hostile environments are not generally described as such. Some people operating in those environments may recognize that the environment dysfunctionality is resulting in under-achievement. However, many people in the environment are in denial, since to them, the normal characteristics of the environments are features, not bugs.
A lot of hostile dysfunctionality is based on negative views and attitudes towards people or groups who are perceived as “Others”, or, as a memorable phrase once summed it up, “Not one of Us”. That may encompass one or more of the following:

– new employees and leaders
– groups that contain members who have poor social skills
– groups whose role is part of a “check and balance” process, such as quality assurance, auditing, financial management
– anybody from “head office”
– consultants and contract staff
– people perceived as agents of change

new employees and leaders
A common process with new employees and leaders is to require that they “prove themselves”. For leaders, that is usually spelled out by existing leadership if the new leader is from outside the organization.
There should be defined, agreed and measurable success criteria for all new employees. However, the impactful informal social criteria are never documented, even though these may comprise many of the organization’s expectations of the new employee.
There is a reason why they are never documented of course. Firstly, they are hopelessly subjective. Secondly, they provide a covert measurement mechanism, one which the incumbent group members control, which is un-moderated by leadership. “We don’t care what THEY think, this is what WE think” can become the prevailing ethos.
This implied measurement process can encompass anything from “does he laugh at our jokes”, through to the requirement that the new employee behave and operate exactly like other group members. (If the employee has been hired as a change agent, you can probably understand how stupidly unproductive that second requirement might be).
New leaders are often imposed on an organization to correct what leadership sees as a serious leadership or operational deficiency, so they immediately (to use an old Biblical saying) have the Mark Of Cain. what I have discovered is the most critical skill they can deploy is that of active listening. If a leader is seen to be actively trying to understand how the current organization functions, they will be much better regarded than if they are seen as not interested, and just there to immediately turn the whole place upside down. Leaders who consistently make uninformed decisions soon suffer a loss of credibility.
The “prove yourself” ethos is dangerous, since it amounts to the imposition of informal, undocumented and non-meeasurable social and behavioral expectations on the new employee. The new employee is expected to “fit in”, “understand how we work” etc. etc.
If the employee is seen to not be “one of us”, then there is a wide variety of tactics that the rest of the group can deploy to obstruct or impede the contributions and actions of that employee.
The actions are usually subtle. They include work-related actions such as not copying the person on emails or meeting invites, not attending meetings called by the person, not responding to requests for information or assistance, through to more overt social signalling actions such as not inviting the person to lunch, celebrations or other social events.
The inevitable conclusion, at least some of the time, is that several months down the line incumbent people and teams are whining that Joe or Mary “does not fit in”, or, in the classic Orwellian Doublespeak language that is prevalent, is “not a team player”.
This is where strong leadership needs to be able to politely but firmly challenge the conclusion, including asking whether the process being followed is even fair or equitable. Sometimes, in highly social environments, people may need to be reminded that the workplace is not an extension of the local bar or neighborhood association, and that feelings are not a substitute for facts.

groups with poor social skils
When I became embedded into software development in the early 1980s it became clear that a lot of software developers had poor social skills. They were introverts, who wanted to be left alone to code. They hated meetings, were uncomfortable dealing with customers, and sometimes showed all of the symptoms of social anxiety, even in 1:1 situations. Software development groups in many corporations were, for a while, stuffed full of those kinds of people.
The situation has changed over the last 20 years, as agile methods have converted previously isolated and siloed development teams into constant-interaction groups, where hiding in the corner behind multiple monitors is less of an option. However, a significant percentage of people in around IT are still poor in social situations, which makes them reluctant group members. Many highly creative people fall into this category, especially if they have brains that operate differently (such as people with Aspergers Syndrome, which can go undiagnosed for a long time).
Sensitive management is needed to avoid driving gifted people out of organizations. Note, however, that dickery and behaving like an asshole are not likely to be excused by rationalizations like “well, he is shy”.

“check and balance” groups
These groups are always likely to have assimilation and trust issues, since they often exist to ensure that members of an organization consistently perform activities that they don’t like doing. Classic examples are legal compliance, quality assurance and documentation, and, the bane of many IT delivery projects, the PMO.
Skilful, diplomatic leadership in these groups is vital to ensuring that the group is accepted, not just from a work management viewpoint, but also from a personal viewpoint. Bombastic, imperious and demanding leadership in these kinds of groups will tend to result in the group, its members and its work being avoided by the organization. After all, nobody wants to constantly be told “do this or I will report you”.

anybody from “head office”
Almost by default, anybody from a higher-level group in the organization, who shows up to work with team members, will be seen as one of the following:

– a spy
– an agent of (unwelcome) change

This instinctive emotional reaction can only be ameliorated by open, honest and truthful communication about why the person or group is there, and their role. The communication has to meet all of those criteria, and

    there must not be any divergence between rhetoric and reality

. If any divergence becomes apparent, the person or team will immediately be seen as an unwelcome outsider, and the organization will begin to organize to obstruct the perceived goals of the visitor(s).
For example, if a team from head office arrives to perform what is portrayed as a process audit, but it becomes clear that the team is actually identifying groups and individuals who can be dispensed with, that will most likely result in the organization rapidly withdrawing engagement and co-operation. Lower-level employees have a lot less tolerance for bullshit and duplicity than most corporate leaders. The reason why a lot of lower-level people stay at lower levels is often because they either found out (by hard experience) or decided that they were not going to be able to tolerate the levels of bullshit, mendacity and political manouvering that would be required for them to advance. That does not make them naive or stupid. Some of them are just as smart as senior leaders. They just have no tolerance for bullshit, and they have well developed bullshit detectors that can detect a rhetoric-reality gap a long way away.

consultants and contract staff
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people say things like “doesn’t matter, he’s only a contractor”, usually when attempting to justify or rationalize a capricious or punitive action aimed at a contract or temporary resource.
I have worked in organizations that treated temporary workers and consultants as, quite literally, a lower form of life, putting them in small work areas with poor facilities, and denigrating or ignoring them.
Given that one of the best ways in which you can actually ensure that a person will be a good contributor to the organization is to hire them on a temporary contract, and then make them an employee, it should be obvious why this approach is counter-productive. In the UK, when I worked in IT, companies that treated contractors poorly had…wait for it…major problems not only attracting contract staff, but also tended to have poor quality employees.

agents of change
The idea that agents of change are bad actors is a pervasive one in organizations that are not prepared for or not committed to a change that is being implemented. The agents of change are seen as not having the interests of the organization at heart. This is particularly true if those change agents are consultants or third party organizations. Many people have learned over the years how to pretend to embrace change while actually doing nothing, “waiting out” the inevitable failure of the change management initiative and its replacement by a new initiative that is likely to also fail. Once several successive change management initiatives fail, the chances of any subsequent one failing are greatly increased.

All of the sub-optimal behaviors discussed above can be remediated by leadership. However, leaders need to be prepared and able to understand what is really happening on the ground in corporations, particularly when trying to change the overall culture of the organization. Flying visits are never a substitute for spending time observing behaviors.


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