Casualties Of Caustic Culture

Caustic, toxic, corrosive, erosive, biting, stinging, beating….

The adjectives used to define a toxic workplace is flush with descriptors. In Gallup’s State of America Workplace report they found that few employees are engaged, 

“Only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace. And only about one in five say their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.”

Article upon the article, study upon study, has recounted the reasons behind the lack of engagement or a “toxic environment” and most would agree, it begins with leadership.

MIT Management Professor of Leadership, Deborah Ancona shares what she has found to be the “dark triad” of toxic leaders:

“Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do. People are attracted to that and see that as the kind of leader they want,” Ancona said. “Only later, through interaction [with that person] or their behavior over time do you start to see the underbelly that isn’t always visible at first glance.”

What are the dark triad characteristics?

One, narcissism. The extreme focus on the fulfillment of the leader’s needs along with the ambition of themselves above all else.

Two, Machiavellianism. The insatiable hunger for power with questionable ethics. For example, keeping helpful information to themselves, while pitting others in the organization against one and building a “power group” while excluding others. 

Finally, psychopathology. The inability to deal with negative emotions appropriately. Yelling, berating, bullying, avoiding, and more.

Do you know this leader? Many of us do.  

Discussions with employees, associates, family, and friends have confirmed the pervasiveness of toxic workplace culture and the leaders vying for “best of” using the Dark Triad as their guide, although data proves caustic environments grow discontent and disengagement within an organization, there are other casualties as well.

The customer base.

In a shocking conversation, I learned of an organization that has allowed the dark triad to overcome all organizational structures and bleed into their customer base by using the same tactics which are rooted in manipulation, fear, and harassment.

The overflow of this environment will inevitably affect the customer base. Many organizations are solely focused on the growth and sale of products, wishing to soar to short term success and creating a negative long-lasting impression.

My dilemma in this conversation is how to assist. Do I tell the individual to speak up and speak out? Is this a scenario all too familiar and a charge against one organization will eventually lead to another and another, so they should remain silent?

Or, do I give the individual what they truly need. Genuine, authentic, service with the intention of growing the individual and recognizing I may not turn 32 million but I will increase personal integrity and satisfaction along with customer longevity?

Creative, innovative, and long-standing organizations that recognize their employee disengagement seek to turn this around, their leadership style and approach follows the principles of self-awareness, authenticity, seeking feedback and betterment of themselves to breathe life into those around them. Ed Catmull of Pixar is a prime example who implemented “Notes Day” and continued to tweak his efforts and continue positive growth.

THIS feeds the customer base with long term results and salient satisfaction.

Learning to recognize a toxic culture prior to jumping on board whether as employee or customer is key. So how can you do this?  

Core values What are the core values of the organization? Do you see these played out within the walls of the organization and how it’s publicly displayed? Dig a bit deeper. What are the reviews? How is customer service? Where do you see the leader, at the front in the spotlight or on the sidelines spotlighting others?

Respect Does the organization promote respect? In a Harvard Business Review study, it found respect is a key factor in employee engagement and retention. How does the organization display respect? Do they encourage conversations that may be uncomfortable? How does the staff treat the customer base? How does the staff treat one another?

Feedback Does the leadership provide opportunities for feedback without fear of punitive measures? How does the organization react to negative feedback from the customer base-blame, shame, and manipulation or understanding and high quality of customer care and service?

In practical terms, it’s near impossible to weed out every toxic organization or customer purchase pitfall without a lot of extra time and effort. However, the consequence of not taking a little extra time can wreak havoc on organizations and the individuals keeping them afloat.

The most basic and fundamental leadership approaches are the opposite of the Dark Triad:

One, modest self-interest. With a desire for growing a group of people through innovation and support. Two, authenticity. Open interactions in leadership, teams, and consumer services. Three, self-awareness. Behind the organization's doors and in the public eye.

Changing organizational culture is a challenging process but it’s not impossible and with the right approach you will increase your employee engagement, increase profitability, and spend less time managing irate customers and bleak reviews.


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