Toxic workplace behaviour and the ripple effect

“I don’t know what to do, we are a small team of eight people. We are a close team and can have a laugh and share personal stories on good days. But we have a problem. John can be happy one day and angry and non-communicative the next day.The impact on the team is terrible! I have staff that are now starting to ignore John because of his behaviour being so unpredictable and it is starting to split the team. It just should not be necessary to deal with ‘crazy’ behaviour at work. Help!”

Sound familiar?

Toxic employees’ behaviour can impact workplace culture in a way that ripples through your business. It can be hard to know how to manage the situation but there is a good way to deal with problematic behaviour staff may display. I also talk through how to ensure that one person’s behaviour doesn’t spread to others.

Spoiler alert:ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

The cost of toxicity

A 2005 report by US talent management consultants Cornerstone OnDemand ‘Toxic Employees in the Workplace’ (PDF) found that:

·      good employees are more than 50% more likely to resign if they have to work with a toxic employee

·      the induction costs of toxic employees are about 3 times higher than for other employees, and interestingly

·      job applicants who are self-proclaimed ‘rule followers’ are about 33% more likely to become toxic employees.

The report calculated that an employee who demonstrates toxic behaviour will increase employee turnover by about 10%. Then there’s the ripple costs across your staff and business such as increased stress, burnout, and decreased team performance.

Mirror effect

The other fact that we all know, study or no study, is that toxic behaviour is contagious.

This is what I refer to as the mirror effect. Employees exposed to toxic behaviours often end up projecting this behaviour onto others. Often without even being aware of it. This is especially the case when the toxic behaviour is not addressed.

Back to the story above about John – his inconsistent behaviour became so ‘normal’ that staff expected him to have good days and bad days. They learnt to ‘take a breath and say nothing’ – well not to him, but to each other and to hope tomorrow would be abetter day.

I often ask clients who use this strategy how is that working for them.

The answer not surprisingly is – it isn’t.

How do you solve a problem like John?

So, what do you do when you have a ‘John’ in a small team? How do you stop his behaviour affecting the whole team and impacting on morale, job satisfaction and your core business? There is no one solution I am sorry to say. But there is a simple start – it starts with the leadership.  

Yes, once again the responsibility is on the leader of the small business to take ownership. They are the ones who need to have the critical conversation with the employee and call out their behaviour. The leader needs to help the employee to see what others are experiencing. In the first instance, the conversation should be centred around wellbeing, concern and enquiry. What’s going on with the employee that may be contributing to their behaviour?

If this approach doesn’t alter the behaviour, then it’s back to more conversations. This needs to be about where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. It needs to define the gap. It needs to explain what is required to be different in order to close the gap. And finally, it needs to outline the consequences should the gap not be closed.

Plan, plan and plan some more

Of course before you have any conversation, you need to plan, plan and plan. A planned conversation with a purpose and a desirable outcome is required. Don’t forget to describe to the employee what ‘required change’ looks like and sounds like. The employee needs to know what they are aiming for as is required by the leader.

Additionally, it's always important at regular intervals for a good, old, simple team toolbox meeting. This is where the collective actively engages with and talks about what principles everyone wants to work within.

The importance of workplace values

Often, the principles that team members want to work within are centred around the core values of:

·      respect

·      integrity

·      appreciation

·      empathy

·      trust, and

·      accountability.

It’s really important to workshop what these values mean and how will they be used to support the team. Team members need to feel empowered to call out each other if behaviour occurs outside of the agreed team values. This is where the importance of observation, that I discussed last month, comes into its own. People need to speak up if there’s incongruence between what team members have said they will do and what they observe.  

I always remind teams to think about kindness as a value. What does it look like, feels like and sounds like in the workplace? You have to describe it to live it.

How to reinforce a positive workplace culture

It’s important to have the right processes in place to help reinforce a positive workplace culture. These include:

·      developing and implementing plain English policies and procedures outlining what is reasonably expected in the workplace for a positive and healthy work culture(this also partially meets your obligations under both Occupational Health and Safety and Victorian Equal Employment Opportunity Act 2010.).

·      make sure onboarding and stay interviews are in place.

·      regularly review employee’s performance which is inclusive of not only key performance indicators but of behaviours and how they live the organisations values.

·      reinforce accountability and choice.  In other words, remember you, and no one else, are responsible for what you say and do, how you project body language and facial features.

·      provide relevant professional development on workplace behaviours to reinforce the ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ behaviour. It’s a good idea to do this every 2 years.

Back to John. While it’s true we all have bad days, when bad days become the norm it’s time to act.Starting a conversation with an employee about their behaviour can be intimidating, but it’s crucial.

If you need some assistance to strengthen how you manage a ‘John’, the ‘team’ and the workplace culture, please give me a call. I’ll talk you through the different approaches and opportunities that can help you realign your workplace culture so that your employees are happier, healthier and more productive.  

Is the toxic behaviour of an employee affecting your business? I can help you manage the behaviour and get your workplace culture back on track. Find out more about how I can help your workplace relationships or give me a call on +61 413 145 925.

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