How to spot a toxic workplace and what to do about it | Ladders

Subjective work processes are a problem.
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How to spot a toxic workplace and what to do about it

Issues with the cultures of big companies, including Uber and Google, have recently been in the news, turning the spotlight onto the subject of toxic workplaces. But few are talking about the causes.

What are the indicators that a company’s culture or workplace could quickly turn toxic?

The roots of a company culture include rules, expectations, and policies. If these are subjective — left open to interpretation — the company invites differing opinions, which causes conflict, which results in toxicity. Subjective work processes and systems are the sources of most toxic company cultures.

How you can spot a potential problem

If you are on the outside of a company looking in, there are some indicators that should encourage you to explore further. Using whatever access you have to people in the company and/or company materials such as job descriptions, policies, and procedures, look for subjectivity.

For example, if a job description consists of vague phrases such as “must be a team player,” “have strong communication skills,” or “be a power user of authorware,” how are you going to be evaluated on your performance in that job? Someone will be making subjective decisions about your performance.

When you ask people in the company, even if you are asking during an interview, how to qualify for pay raises or promotions and the responses are subjective descriptions such as “excel in your job,” “go the extra mile,” “stay out of trouble,” or “keep your quality scores up,” you will probably face that same subjectivity when it comes pay raise and promotion time.

The more objective the job descriptions, policies, procedures, and processes in a company, the less chance there is for conflict and the workplace turning toxic.

What to do if you are already in a bad situation

If you realize that your workplace, like most workplaces, is already toxic, you may be able to do some damage control — even if you aren’t the boss. You can make the attempt to bring objectivity to at least your realm of the workplace.

Start with your job description. The ideal, objective job description defines the:

  • Primary tasks you accomplish in your job
  • Conditions under which you perform those tasks
  • Objective standards by which your performance on each task is evaluated

Take whichever parts of that formula are lacking to your boss with the humble, sincere intent to turn the subjectivity into objectivity. You do this by taking the “fuzzy” language out of the job description.

Fuzzies can be squeezed out of job descriptions, policies, and processes through a relatively simple process taught by human performance guru, Dr. Robert Mager. He calls it Goal Analysis, but he describes it as “defuzzifying fuzzies.”

Once a fuzzy is discovered, it must be translated to observable performances. If done in conversation it sounds something like this:

Boss: “You have to be a team player!”

Employee: “Well said, Boss. When you observe me being a team player, (or whatever the fuzzy is) what actions are you observing?”

Boss: “Well, first of all you show up to team meetings on time.”

Employee: “Fair enough. What else?”

Boss: “You should be volunteering for assignments on the team.”

Employee: “Got it. What else?”

The “what else” questions continue until the boss decides the list of observable performances describes a “team player.”

Calling this a “simple” process does not mean this conversation or the efforts to review and revise work processes to rid them of subjectivity are easy. It takes a lot of effort, but the process is not complex.

In addition to the job description, some of the processes that you want to be objective, include:

  • Your performance evaluation process
  • How your pay raises are determined
  • How promotion opportunities are evaluated
  • How your work is scheduled and assigned
  • How you are recognized for the work you do and the innovations you introduce

If any of these are open to interpretation, they are open to the possibility that the interpretation may not be in your favor.

The problem with having fuzzies in these processes is that it puts bosses in the tenuous position of being the judge. Yes, you want bosses to have good judgment, but you don’t want work processes to cause them to interpret subjective guidance on what should be done, how it should be done, and how it should be evaluated. That opens each situation to conflict, which is a tremendous obstacle to performance in the workplace.

When you drill down to the root of most workplace conflict, you will find the disagreement is over a work process that is subjective. Even a good boss will find it difficult to be good when they are trying to defend subjective work processes and systems. As W. Edwards Deming, the acknowledged Father of the Quality Movement, put it, “A bad process will beat a good person every time.”

Rex Conner is the lead partner and owner of Mager Consortium and the author of What if Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business?