Stop saying TOXIC, It’s not helping!

Here’s what got me thinking about the term TOXIC. As I began my morning routine of scrolling through the news and social media applications on my phone, frustrated that I could not go back to sleep at 4:45 am, I eventually found my way to LinkedIn, where I came across a post about TOXIC workplace behaviors and the implications on mental health. Let me just say, before I hit the defensive nerve with some of you, I fully understand, and in large part, agree with the intentions behind the messaging of the post: workers are suffering, and certain organizational behaviors need to change. I get it! I too am very concerned with negative workplace outcomes, particularly those associated with diminished worker well-being. However, I am equally concerned about the speed at which any negative experience and unfavorable outcome is labeled as TOXIC. For instance, when reading through the post, the author suggested that a lack of empathy is associated with “negative judgments” and self-entitled was characterized as the failure to “treat staff equally”. Similarly, blame was described “as a culture wherein individuals were blamed for mistakes”. Since when is a lack of empathy necessarily representative of a negative judgment? Is it possible that empathy fatigue may be influencing negative appraisals and judgments? Is referencing poor performance and holding someone accountable ‘blaming’, or is it simply, accountability? It is possible that these designations are an accurate portrayal of negative workplace behaviors and dynamics, but not necessarily. Again, I get it! Yet, it is unlikely that designating undesirable workplace experiences and negative leadership characteristics as TOXIC will generate either individual or organizational change. I suggest this kind of language is decisively: unhelpful.

The implications of designating our leaders, organizations, relationships, and associated unpleasant experiences as TOXIC has far-reaching consequences. It implies the situation, person, or experience is broken, irreparable, and incapable of change. A TOXIC designation is a common first step towards some form of public accountability when proper remedies are believed to be out of hand. In other words, a TOXIC label is given to cajole and shame organizations into change. These kinds of designations will rarely, if ever, motivate individuals or inspire the necessary organizational introspection that can bring about lasting change. I believe we should approach these kinds of concerns with curiosity, a desire to learn and grow, and empathy (evaluating from different perspectives), while using language that encourages and stimulates conversations, rather than shutting them down.  We need more discussion and fewer instances of naming, blaming, and shaming. We need intentional language capable of creating connections, rather than limiting interactions. We need to establish and reinforce the language of change!

            Impediments to the language of change

  • Naming, blaming, and shaming. It just doesn’t work and may even entrench rather than dislodge unacceptable workplace behaviors and practices. If you need supporting evidence, just turn on the news and reference contemporary political discourse. Calling out so-called TOXIC behavior is often appropriate and necessary; however, it is just one of many considerations when advocating for change.
  • Discontinue ad hominem attacks! Roger Fisher and William Ury wrote a book titled, Getting to Yes, which I suggest is an essential leadership read. Fisher and Ury famously suggest that when working to resolve conflict, participants should go after the problem, not people. Although the online post I reference does not callout specific individuals or organizations, I am concerned that the use of TOXIC, matched with the mischaracterization of important and specific concepts, like empathy and self-entitlement, will move the discussion further away from the “problem” and towards certain “people” and organizations, yielding only temporary, if any notable relief for workers. Consider, if you get rid of the problem person and neglect the environmental conditions, which allows and may even encourage certain negative workplace behaviors (e.g., teasing, shaming, isolating, etc.), the real problem persists and may have been reinforced as organizations frequently tout short-term solutions as a comprehensive remedy. Some folks may argue the point that individual accountability is at least a step in the right direction, but I reject this notion, suggesting pseudo and temporary accountability measures may give cover to the people and organizations who are already busy repackaging the same old negative behaviors, which will be reintroduced under a new brand, as soon as the conversational winds of change blow a different direction.
  • Individuals who are suffering require compassionate action instead of commiseration. It is one thing to say, “you are seen, heard, and valued”, but it is altogether something different to act and bring about sustained change, on behalf of the workers who are suffering. Change initiatives must be informed by the intentional language of change.

Getting to the heart of the matter

  • While exploring the messaging behind the post in question, I fully embrace its central message: people are suffering and experiencing real trauma in the workplace. Notwithstanding, the message of change should rely heavily on the language of change.
  • Organizations should value and learn from the worker lived experience. YES, of course! However, organizations are self-insulating and the pressure to change is more likely to resonate with decision makers if it is linked with an internal groundswell.
  • I’m very concerned about learned helplessness and a perceived loss of worker agency. Although naming, blaming, and shaming may feel good to some workers in the moment, these kinds of gestures could lead to more frustration, resentment, and eventual despair. Persistent negative appraisals of our working environment could also undermine key intrinsic motivational forces like autonomy and relatedness (see Decci and Ryan, Self-Determination Theory). These very same motivational forces may also be called upon if the moment arises wherein a worker decides to make a permanent move away from their current unfulfilling employer. We need to keep agency alive and well in the psyche of workers.

Consider the following remedies:

  • Any change initiative should begin with asking this very simple question: Will my words and actions be a help or a hinderance? This is a practical, efficient, and very effective exercise. When doubts arise, pause, adapt, and modify course.
  • Actionable solutions should incorporate a comprehensive analysis of the issues under review, using intentional and precise language of change. If this seems like a superficial assertion, evaluate your own problem-solving methods as a leader or change agent, and consider the way your organization ‘frames’ a given issue. What are the default catchphrases and words that continually show up and evaluate if they are a complete and accurate reflection of reality. Any change initiative must begin with an accurate framing of the issues under review.
  • Challenge your assumptions and ask the following: What evidence do you have to support your claims? You don’t need to overthink and search for the “right” answer, but it is necessary to vet your assumptions. A fundamental dimension of the vetting process should incorporate a quick scan of the language used when describing your experience. Accurate and descriptive language is much more likely to generate beneficial outcomes for workers.

Language of change includes:

  • Intentionality
  • Action
  • Agency
  • Learning
  • Growth
  • Determination
  • Courage
  • Confirmation
  • Analysis
  • Care
  • Ethics
  • Values
  • Resilience
  • Adaptability

This is by no means an exhaustive list of words that can be used to establish and advance the language of change, but it is a nice start. I would encourage each of you to contemplate what change means to you as a worker, leader, and organizational member, then work towards creating a list reflective of the ideas and concepts capable of motivating you and your organization. Don’t give up, this takes time, effort, and practice. Lots of practice.

As always, please respond with comments about your own methods and experience with the language of change.

Thanks so much for reading…and LEAD ON!

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