Is your organisation feeling a bit shaky or unstable? We have all felt this before when it starts to get hard to just get on with work. Systems are not great. Desks are a bit broken. The meeting room is a bit dingey. Information is not always updated. People talking about each other. A bunch of people leaving. No one can exactly tell anyone where their company is headed. This is what people call a ‘toxic workplace’. This can really make or break an organisation.
In 10 years of growing and supporting community groups, I have found it comes down to process or people.
An organisation must build great systems to catalogue and share knowledge. This is often left to marketing the best bits to potential customers. Really though there needs to be an honest space to share internally. What is working, not working, who is responsible and so on. For most orgs they can find technical solutions easy enough. This will look like project manager apps (Asana, Trello, Monday), internal communications (Slack, Email) and so much more.
It is much harder to accept when you need to work on human systems. People are critical to solving ‘toxic workplaces’ because that is how business is ultimately done. Staff work together to determine what systems, technologies and other ‘hard’ bits come together to make it easier to do the ‘soft’ people-to-people work. This is why an organisation might have great systems and even good money but still feel toxic.
It is tough to handle toxic workplace cultures. If you don’t it could start to become legal issues like workplace bullying or much worse. Australia is great for having the laws in place to tackle these issues. There are also bodies like Fairwork Australia that address these sorts of issues. A business that does not create a healthy culture risks losing their business. This is often not because of dealing with legal actions. It is most often because the workplace will be an awful place to work that loses great talent and awesome clients.
It is important to handle this challenge. First, you need to identify where it is. Gossip and office politics are like rot – the only way to deal with it is peeling back whatever is stopping you from seeing it. One of the ways things rot is when they are packed away and never aired out. In the same way, to deal with gossip you need to air issues out. You have to do it safely and often it helps to have the right tools and people involved.
One way to do this effectively comes from Non-Violent Communication. Casey Field (here for more info) is an amazing Business Leadership coach I met during DSIL Global Human-Centred Design training. He modelled and shared this approach in a way that made it very clear how easy it is to do. One minute there is dead-lock conflict and the next there is clear joint goals. The Centre for Nonviolent Communication (link) explains this approach is about embracing compassion and accepting everyone has common needs. Casey shared the structure of “what I am noticing is X – how do you feel about that?”. This simple and easy to remember structure gives space for a factual observation to be made without adding emotions. It gives the other person a chance to hear it before responding. The approach requires them to accept the observation is coming from trust and not from judgement. This is powerful because it is simple.
This is one of many tools. It requires setting expectations with your team around how you would like to speak, be heard and share with trust. That is a more complex process best facilitated by someone outside the organisation. That allows everyone to get involved and develop opportunities to regularly air out issues, and collectively solve problems. Done well it can avoid there ever being any big build-up of organisational rot.
Ultimately mitigating a toxic environment requires action. Nonviolent Communication is one simple action you can take to your workplace. What other actions might you take?
About the author
Sam Shlansky is the CEO of Marco Polo Project, a company that is in a mission to create intercultural spaces where globally connected people learn and explore collectively. Sam also has a bachelor degree in Arts from Monash University and is the winner of the Victoria Multicultural Awards for Excellence. You can find him on LinkedIn as Sam Shlansky