On a recent afternoon I sat quietly while listening to a close friend (I will call her Roberta) on the telephone speaking with a management colleague. I am not usually given to eavesdropping, but on this occasion it was obvious that the conversation was tense and emotionally wrought; I could see the effects of the psychological stress as Roberta (a highly experienced and well respected manager) and her colleague grappled to find an effective response to what I surmised to be an angry and punishing outburst from their organization’s leader. It was also clear to me that this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Apparently, this particular leader is well known for autocratic tendencies, emotional outbursts, unreasonable demands, and often-demeaning behavior toward anyone of lower professional status (I’m guessing that as you read this you might be recalling such leaders from your past, or even the present).

The Toxicity Toll

During the course of this phone call I noted three obvious things about the conversation:

1) the elevated level of stress;

2) the amount of energy – and emotion – expended; and

3) the entire conversation (approximately 25 minutes) entailed two highly competent managers strategizing over not how to conduct company business, develop staff, or enhance the organization, but how best to placate the boss!

Sadly, toxic leaders can quickly and effectively destroy trust and produce an atmosphere of anxiety, suspicion, doubt, and malaise. You likely know the scenario: employees become affected by the leader’s behavior and adopt a sense of resignation, hopelessness, and anxiety about work. Productivity plummets as employees spend more and more time protecting themselves and less and less time on the mission of the organization.

When Roberta finally ended the call the first thing she said was “what I really hate about all this is the amount of time and energy wasted just trying to deal with the boss, and the rotten impact it has on our staff.” Exactly what I had been thinking: toxic leadership lays waste to good organizational energy and promotes dysfunctional behavior. As an organizational development person, I’ve spent 30 years working with many types of leaders in a variety of organizations, including the federal government, non-profits, and the private sector. I would like to say that this kind of thing is unusual, but sadly, almost all of us (me included) have experienced toxic leadership and the dysfunctional workplaces they produce.

A whole-system diagnosis

In a toxic work environment the critical question is how to prevent or stop dysfunctional behavior. At first glance, the obvious response is to blame the individual and consider some type of singular intervention, such as removing the toxic leader or finding a counseling intervention, or maybe an effective training will do the trick. However, this common response almost never creates a sustainable path forward. Here is the hard part: when diagnosing any organizational challenge, one must respect an organization as a living system with many interrelated components that influence one another and interact to make up the whole. The well-known organizational specialist Peter Senge promotes a systems approach in his theory that organizations are systems made up of interrelated components; therefore, it makes sense that challenges must be solved by considering the whole-system, and not just individual parts (1990). Rather than blaming someone or something, a holistic analysis helps us to refocus on the root of the problem, propelling us away from temporary bandaid solutions and toward unearthing foundational solutions to the problems that lead to dysfunctional behavior (Kusy & Holloway, 2009; Senge, 1990).

Not so easy, you say?

True! Moving from blaming the individual to finding a whole-systems solution is a daunting task (especially when faced with an older institution such as an Ivy League university or a large, well established company). However, one can rarely be successful (or successful for very long) with a singular approach. As much as we might want to deny it, toxic behavior from leaders or colleagues is merely symptomatic of larger problems in the organizational system. If the organization is sincere about its desire to eradicate toxicity and improve organizational (and employee) health, then the organization must increase awareness through a holistic analysis that allows examination of issues relating to structure, power culture, and the relationship between the organization and its people. It takes understanding, dialogue, and collaboration from the many interrelated parts of the system.

A whole-systems model for understanding

One model that I have found helpful for conducting an effective analysis, enhancing organizational understanding, and adopting a holistically perspective is Bolman and Deal’s Four-Frame Model. The authors suggest that you can significantly deepen your understanding and appreciation of your organization by applying a four-frame lens. This means viewing the organization with its strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities through Structural, Human Resource, Political and Symbolic frames:

  • Structural: focuses on the architecture of the organization – the design of units and subunits, rules and roles, goals and policies.
  • Human Resources: emphasizes understanding people, their strengths and foibles, reason and emotion, desires and fears.
  • Political: sees organizations as competitive arenas of scarce resources, competing interest, and struggles for power and advantage.
  • Symbolic: focuses on issues of meaning. It puts ritual, ceremony, story, play, and culture at the heart of organizational life (Bolman & Deal, 2008)

Imagine that you are on the board of an organization with clear evidence of toxic leadership and low morale. You believe that you have taken steps to address the issue by confronting the behavior, mandating training (HR frame), and implementing strict rules of behavior (Structural Frame). Yet, you remain unaware of the intense competition for organizational resources and the continuous power struggles (Political Frame). You are vaguely aware that the organization’s vision and values (Culture Frame) include mutual respect and integrity, but you do not know that most employees are unaware of the organization’s values or, worse, they have learned to disregard them by observing – and taking queues from – the leader’s toxic behavior (Symbolic Frame). You are unaware that toxic behavior has become the organization’s cultural norm.

A holistic perspective of the organization is vitally important because awareness of the organization’s system components implies an enhanced degree of understanding and influence; therefore, those who examine and understand their organizations through the four frames inform the dialogue and ensure the solution has the comprehensive information, and the understanding needed to effectively develop the methods and means that can reduce or eradicate toxicity and avoid its reoccurrence. Note: if you have no or little influence in the organization then a holistic understanding certainly helps, but steps for self-preservation are also likely to be important (I will address these steps in a later blog).

My question for Roberta, as a respected leader in the organization, is this: daunting as it is, how will you inform and expand the organizational conversation to promote shared understanding and develop a holistic solution? Of course, I will include a reminder that small change can have big effect.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kusy, M., & Holloway, E. (2009). Toxic workplace! Managing toxic personalities and
their systems of power. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning
organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

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