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Using Emotional Intelligence to Tame Toxic Workplaces

What does the term “toxic workplace” mean?

The term ‘toxic workplace’ refers to an environment in which a negative force is in place that inhibits productivity. It is often the result of a negative person who influences others, or a feud between two or more staff.

There are many criteria that may ignite such a situation, however, like a cancer, if left unchecked and controlled, it will spread throughout the team or the organisation until productivity is diminished or the team or organisation becomes dysfunctional.

How Managers actions contributed to the toxic situation?

It cannot be claimed that a manager is responsible for causing or cultivating a toxic development or spread. However, managers need to create a work environment that foster open and transparent communications, from the top management to the front line people, to prevent the spread of a toxic phenomenon.

During the 1970s Robert Townsend, the head of Avis in America, wrote a book titled, “Up The Organisation”. In it he promoted the concept of senior managers, in particular the CEO, communicating directly with the front line staff. “They know where the wheels are squeaking”, he suggested.

This advice echoed in my mind during the years during which I developed and ran Adventurama, an adventure tourism company. I believed that I promoted open and transparent communication throughout the organisation. However, I found that an operations manager, who had been in the role for over 12 months, was being ineffective and causing serious problems whilst in the ‘field’. At that time, I didn’t often get into the ‘field’ to observe programmes, so my only contact with the front line staff was at the end of a programme when I would usually join them in the warehouse for the ‘clean-up’.

I retrospectively found that the operations manager always followed me around to ‘debrief me’ on the programme’s success. However, he was really preventing the staff from reaching me to inform me of the problems they were facing. He told them that he owned part of the company (a lie) and that I didn’t want to hear from them.

The operations manager invited my daughter to be a ‘flower girl’ at his wedding, also inviting my wife and me, and a few staff members along to the wedding.

It was when my wife was outside having a cigarette with a few wedding guests, including some of our staff, that the staff ‘filled her ear’ with all the problems that the operations manager was causing. (Smoking has its upside! I like to refer to it as socially distributed cognition!)

I investigated the claims, found they were true and had to sack the operations manager.

I don’t believe in structured hierarchies in organisations. I strongly believe in total transparency and open ‘organic’ communication. No one should have secrets in organisations. Everyone should know everything; even the disastrous aspects. After all, if the organisation is performing poorly, the staff are the most likely people to provide answers and put strategies into practice.

The best way to avoid toxic people in organisations is to promote transparency, openness and encourage direct communication. Any toxic people or situations will be quickly flushed out.

Toxic people or situations will have a detrimental effect on organisations as it diverts people’s attention away from productivity and causes them to focus on protecting themselves.

How can “emotional intelligence” prevent a toxic workplace?

Emotional Intelligence is the capacity to be aware of one’s own emotional state and of those around them. It should be viewed as an understanding of the state of one’s self and of others, rather than a tool to control others. The effect of knowledge of emotional intelligence is to build relationships and an understanding with people and, in a work environment, to achieve better productivity.

If a manger learns about emotional intelligence, they will be better equipped to:

• Observe how they react to others and others react to them

• Understand their work environment in terms of interactions of people

• Undertake self-evaluation, providing greater self-confidence

• Understand how they react to stress, control stress and assist others to manage stress

• Take full responsibility for their own actions and understand how they impact others.

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