When people talk to me about dysfunctional individuals, teams or organizations, I automatically do root cause analysis. After hearing many stories, I have concluded that the health or toxicity of an organization always traces to the highest level of functional authority. Even if the organization has great managers and multiple team-building events, the tone for acceptable behavior starts at the top and trickles down. This is a tough stance because I serve leaders; I help them be their best and I am fiercely loyal to them regardless of their imperfections. Having said that, there is no escaping that culture is built on what we promote and what we tolerate.

If you are a leader who wants a respectful culture, you will model respect in your interactions with other leaders and with your subordinates. If you want healthy people in the organization, you will fire people who perform well but create chaos. If you want open communication, you will initiate many unpleasant conversations.

If you are an employee, evaluate the leaders to assess whether they allow toxicity to thrive. Ask these questions:

  • Are the leaders themselves emotionally stable and healthy?
  • If the leaders are emotionally stable and healthy, do they also have the courage to deal with conflict? Will they hold people accountable to the values that are stated on the wall?

Passive leaders, even if they are intelligent and kind, allow toxic behavior to thrive. The workplace bully or the dysfunctional department will continue to function because the leader hates conflict and fears that confronting the problem will make it worse. If you are working under a passive leader, you need to assume that change is unlikely and base your decision-making on that premise.

If you are a leader who struggles with engaging conflict and shutting down toxicity, get support from a colleague, mentor, or coach. You’ll have moral support during the tough calls and tactical ideation for the challenging situations.

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