In FlexAbility, I write about the continuing challenges of adopting flexible work practices: at the root of the challenges are leaders who are ambitious, competitive and overconfident. These are the leaders chasing continuous growth whatever the cost, seeking ever larger personal rewards and entitlements; they are those who are prepared to sacrifice everything to ‘win the game’. These leaders drive overwork. They also drive toxic workplace cultures that might produce some short term gains (for them and a small minority of others) but that paradoxically counteract sustainable achievement of the very outcomes they seek. One of the puzzling features of 2022 is that the drive to overwork appears to have increased rather than decreased. For example, about a third of Microsoft’s 100,000 employees are now working a ‘triple peak’ day. The traditional peaks before and after lunch have been joined by a new peak in the hours before bedtime, with most activity around 10pm. While this may be partly due to increased flexibility, overall, working hours are not reducing. That’s stretching rather than flexing. We seem to be operating in parallel universes: in one, continuing to dial up the pressure to overwork, and in the other, providing wellbeing programs to help people ‘cope with the pressure’. There are unnecessary costs for both people, in burnout and health problems, and organisations in disengagement and turnover. The most toxic leaders seem oblivious to the toll of overwork on others.
How toxic cultures keep us trapped in a cycle of overworking
In 2020, there was a huge surge in activity to respond to the pandemic, and since then waves of the virus have necessitated further adaptation and innovation. In mid-2022, as the prospect of endemic rather than pandemic status nears, one might expect that we have less need to surge. However, I know of just one organisation where work expectations and pace have ‘relaxed’ to pre-pandemic levels. That CEO has consciously and deliberately put the brakes on, and people are breathing a sigh of relief. For many others, puzzlingly, not only is there no relaxation, the pace is even greater than before. This story nails the trend for me: A professional services firm reaped a 15% productivity bonanza when workers no longer travelled or commuted during COVID. Yes, more work is what high performers tend to do when they ‘have more time’. As this firm adjusts and readjusts to hybrid work arrangements, it’s trying to find a way to have everyone back in the office and keep that productivity gain. To have such expectations means ignoring the fact it’s humans doing the work; that’s a recipe for burnout. The tacit expectation has gone from overworking to over-surging, which increases the chances of a toxic work culture.
To support your high performers, reduce toxicity
Leaders can help their teams to perform at their best, stay engaged, avoid overwork and burnout by reducing their toxic work experiences. Researchers who reviewed 11,000 surveys from employees’ work experiences rated them according to whether they were one of these five kinds of days:
- Toxic – low freedom, high obstacles, lots of conflict
- Disengaged – low in stimulation and obstacles, ‘check out’ days
- Typical – average in stimulation and excitement
- Ideal – high in stimulant factors, few obstacles, moderate time pressures
- Crisis – high stimulant and obstacle days, in effect ideal and toxic days wrapped up together but usually with positive conflict, where people debate together to get the right outcome
Eight percent of days were toxic, 10% disengaged, 34% typical, 30% ideal and 19% crisis. Toxic days are low in freedom, challenging work, resources, team support, supervisor encouragement and organisational encouragement, and high in obstacles: time pressure, political problems/contention, and low risk/conservative attitudes. Too many of these and you have burnout. Not all of this is about poor leadership, but quite a lot of it is.
What does toxic leadership look like?
In his book, ‘The Asshole Survival Guide, Professor Bob Sutton provides a lot of terrific guidance on what to look for, and how to deal with toxic leaders. I particularly like his guidance on the factors that encourage leaders to act like jerks. He outlines seven:
- You are around a lot of jerks– it can be very hard to counteract your environment, and while we often think we can change things for the better – and often do so – if there are too many jerks around you that’s a tough ask.
- You wield power over others– especially if you once had little power/ Lord Acton’s ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is one of those aphorisms that has stood the test of time. As Daniel Goleman says, as you move up the hierarchy, your focus becomes less empathic – you pay less attention to others and more to yourself.
- You are at the top of the pecking order, competitive and feel threatened by underlings. See point 2!
- You work much harder and sacrifice more than others. It feels virtuous, but rarely ends that way.
- You don’t get enough sleep. Enough said!
- You have too much to do and are always in a hurry. Again, see point 2: you are most likely to narrow your vision to what you need to get done, and forget about others and their needs.
- You feel a constant urge to look at your smart phone, even though you know you shouldn’t.
Leaders in the ‘jerk zone’ take away worker freedoms, interfere with work that might be challenging (in a good way), under-resource work, don’t support the team or provide encouragement. Instead they introduce the obstacles mentioned above. The first step is to make sure that you haven’t entered the ‘jerk zone’ yourself. Occasionally we may slip into that zone, without intention, and particularly when there is such pressure to overwork. Pause for a moment to take yourself out of that zone and get back into the caring zone! As Sutton says, when you get into this zone and realise it, apologise! Accept full responsibility, explain why it happened and commit to change.
10 ways to detoxify your workplace and help high performers experience their ‘ideal days’
Toxicity is contagious, and the more leaders around you who display or yes, even promote toxic behaviours, the harder it will be to escape their grip, for both you and your team. Here are 10 things that you can do to rid yourself and your workplace from toxicity:
Make it explicit. Tell your people that you want the best for them; tell them why it matters to you.
Ask what works. Take the time to ask high performers what makes their ideal day, remove obstacles, and increase freedom and healthy challenge.
Show you care. ‘I care about how you experience work’, ‘I want the best for you’, ‘I know that you can do this’, and sometimes, ‘I’ll take care of that for you’.
Make it safe. Set a safe context to share information, raise mistakes and voice concerns: ‘I’ve got your back’.
Give them hope. Let high performers know what your ideal climate for the organisation is, make it inspiring. ‘We do/can do such amazing work together’, ‘Imagine what it will be like when we…..’
Call it in. Take people aside to let people know if/when/what they contribute to toxicity, help them to commit to removing obstacles.
Call it out. Share progress and setbacks publicly. Let people know you’ve noticed when things are toxic, and what needs to change.
Call it great. Make news out of progress, ‘We did this!’ ‘It’s getting better’, ‘We’re improving every day’.
Jettison the worst. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch and there’s only one course of action: be clear about what/who needs to go, and do it.
Make it count. Tell the story of the change, add chapters to share progress and successes, share the story with team newcomers, and repeat.
As a caring leader, you can better manage the pressure your team experiences by prioritising their work enjoyment. Replace ‘toxic days’ – too much pressure, too little autonomy, too much conflict, with ‘ideal days’ – stimulating work, low conflict, moderate time pressure. It won’t just feel better, it can also give you a competitive advantage. When workers experience their ‘ideal day’ they are much more creative and innovative, and that’s essential to success in our strange, complex, wonderful world!