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How can IT leaders tackle a toxic team environment?

What can IT leaders do if they inherit a toxic team environment to ensure their team starts to function effectively again?

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TikTok has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately.

US employees are attesting that the company’s toxic culture and its focus on “relentless productivity” are causing them to suffer burnout and severe mental distress. London staff, on the other hand, have reportedly been leaving in droves because of what they claim is the social media giant’s punishing workplace regime.

But at a time when staff turnover rates are high and job vacancies – particularly in tech – are plentiful, it is no real surprise that what workers perceive to be a negative workplace environment should see them heading for the door. In fact, a study by MIT Sloan Management Review revealed that toxic cultures are 10.4 times more likely to cause employees to quit than unhappiness with their salary levels.

So what exactly do these toxic cultures look like, how do they come about and what impact are they likely to have on individual workers, teams and the wider business?

Jonathan Passmore is professor of coaching and behavioural change at Henley Business School and senior vice-president of coaching at Coachhub. He believes toxic environments can manifest themselves in myriad different ways, which range from people repeatedly “using humour that others from different cultures feel is inappropriate” to “someone shouting and throwing a stapler across the room at a colleague”.

Other common manifestations include “political backstabbing and devaluing others for personal gain” rather than everyone working together towards a common goal, says Robert Ordever, European managing director at employee recognition specialist OC Tanner. A disproportionate focus on what is being achieved, for example in terms of project outcomes, rather than how such goals are arrived at, also tends to lead to trouble.

But no matter how toxic cultures make themselves felt, such situations inevitably take their toll, not just on individuals, but on the business too.

How toxic cultures manifest themselves

As Justin Kearney, group senior vice-president of HR at IT infrastructure and services provider Logicalis, points out: “People can end up being chaotic and confused due to a lack of direction, so standards and productivity levels drop. Disciplinary issues begin surfacing and you can start seeing short- or long-term sickness absence, a lack of discretionary effort and people burning out.”

To compound the problem, this scenario can put pressure on the rest of the team, leading to increasing levels of resentment. As a result, says Kearney: “If it goes on for a sustained period of time, people will just go elsewhere.”

As if this wasn’t enough, toxic cultures also have a tendency to foster “risk aversion” and to “inhibit people from making decisions as they constantly refer up for reassurance, resulting in creativity being hit”, says Ordever. “This means they feel less empowered, which in a fast-moving environment like tech is a real problem.”

Unfortunately, though, it is a problem that appears to be getting worse. For instance, recent research from law firm Fox & Partners revealed that the number of UK employment tribunals relating to bullying (across all industries) rose by 44% to 835 in 2021/22.

The report also suggested that hybrid working had led to new forms of such abuse, which included leaving remote colleagues out of meetings, making inappropriate comments during video calls and sharing malicious gossip over messaging platforms.

Nonetheless, Passmore believes the problem is not just that more employees are behaving badly towards each other – although they are undoubtedly under mounting pressure, which creates its own challenges.

“The pace of work and level of change continues to increase, with expectations and working hours going up and resources going down,” he says. “The continuing growth of the ‘always on’ culture due to more digital devices and delivery teams becoming more global is also generating higher levels of stress, which can make individuals less effective in managing their behaviour, making things more emotionally charged.”

Other reasons why things go wrong

Another reason behind the rise in legal action, says Passmore, is that employees, especially young workers, are generally less tolerant of toxic workplace attitudes and language, particularly in relation to gender and race, than was the case in the past. As a result, they are more ready to call any perceived issues out.

A third contributory factor is that colleagues in hybrid working scenarios often find it more difficult to engage in casual pre- and post-meeting conversations. Such chats have traditionally played a useful role in helping to build personal relationships between colleagues and in providing space to clear up any potential misunderstandings.

“These three factors coming together can bring about a lot of opportunities for miscommunication and fewer chances of resolving misunderstandings – a situation that can ultimately lead to formal proceedings,” says Passmore.

Another common and potentially problematic scenario among tech startups and scaleups, though, is the often inadvertent exclusion of newcomers from the small, close-knit friendship group that developed in the early days and tends to lead to porous boundaries between members’ work and personal lives.

Jim Berry, director of UCL’s MBA programme and assistant professor of its School of Management, says: “Once you move beyond friendship group hiring, you may find, for example, that what you all find funny is offensive to someone else, and that’s where trouble can start. If you’re hiring people from different backgrounds and with different social needs, it can become a ripe area for creating a toxic environment.”

What IT leaders can do to detoxify their cultures

So what can IT leaders do to address these tricky situations, particularly if they are taking over a new team for the first time?

The first and most important thing is to set clear boundaries and role model what good, fair behaviour and ethical values look like – and, in the case of new managers, to set the tone as quickly as possible. To do so entails recognising, praising and rewarding team members who follow your lead and refusing to give credence to those who do not.

One way of smoothing the path here is to jointly set ground rules for how colleagues should behave and how they are expected to treat each other. Examples include not talking about people behind their backs and listening to others respectfully. The secret then is to “weave these behaviours into as many processes, such as training and recruitment, as you can”, says Ordever.

What to do if you find yourself working in a toxic culture

Should you find yourself working in what feels like a toxic environment, there are a number of possible avenues to take, depending on the severity of the situation.

Jim Berry, director of UCL’s MBA programme and assistant professor of its School of Management, advises, in the case of inappropriate humour or banter, questioning what was said to help the individual concerned understand why their comments were unsuitable – ideally without making them feel defensive to prevent the situation from spiralling. Discussing the situation with a trusted colleague to gain their support may also help.

If the scenario continues despite requests to stop or their behaviour is intimidating, humiliating or bullying, the next step is to inform your line or project manager, so they can intervene on your behalf. If your manager is the problem or they fail to take the necessary action, the HR team is the subsequent point of call. Depending on the seriousness of the circumstances, they will either lend support or conduct a formal investigation, which could lead to formal disciplinary proceedings.

If all these approaches fail to do the trick, the ultimate logical conclusion is to simply “vote with your feet”, says Robert Ordever, European managing director at OC Tanner. But he also points to the benefits of learning from your mistakes and putting culture and values high up the priority list when looking for a new employer.

A further consideration, says Coachhub’s Passmore, is to set out clear guidelines on the purpose and priorities of the whole team and each individual within it. The idea here is that everyone should understand how best to contribute towards a common goal and be given the wherewithal to deliver most value to stakeholders.

Even star performers are not exempt, particularly if they prove to be “well-poisoners” who refuse to adapt to the new regime. In this instance, rather than permit the contamination to spread more widely, action should be taken to help them change their behaviour. Options here include providing 360-degree feedback and interpersonal skills training. If this fails to work, simply letting the offending individual go may prove the best course of action, as counter-intuitive as this may feel.

“If a star player doesn’t value others, they can become an impediment to the team achieving its goals,” says Passmore. “It’s the team that wins the game, not individual brilliant players, and the problem is that if they alienate everyone else, you won’t have a team.”

Taking responsibility

UCL’s Berry agrees, saying: “As a manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure the environment is positive for everyone, as you have vicarious liability. So, if you know an employee has said something offensive or is harassing someone and you don’t do anything about it, you’re as guilty as they are.”

Leaders also have a duty of care to anyone interacting with their team, whether they are members of that team, other employees, contractors or visitors, he adds.

An important consideration in this context is that what may be acceptable to one person could be deeply offensive to another, especially if they are from a different background and culture.

Therefore, says Berry: “The key thing for managers is to ensure you listen and have open communications with all staff members because the more you know and understand them and the earlier you can catch something going off the rails, the better.”

A further thing to think about is ensuring you have a team with the right values and attitudes in place from the outset. This means both hiring with pre-defined values and attitudes in mind and rewarding team members for hitting not only key performance indicators, but also positive behavioural goals.

OC Tanner’s Ordever concludes: “The role of a leader over the long term is to create a culture by design, but you have to be very deliberate about it. You don’t just fix things and then they’re sorted – you have to keep on going and continually reaffirm what good looks like.”

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