(Forbes India, January 9th, 2018.)
Ahhh – the internet! That ethereal realm of boundless confidence where inspiration and advice flow freely, without any expectation of critical thought or understanding by either the poster or the recipient, where heroes hide behind masks of anonymity, dishing out their advice to the ‘mindless masses…’ “Just accept it, it’s true! Trust me, I know!”
Lately, I have been somewhat saddened to see LinkedIn, one of the only social media sites I follow with any regularity, succumb to the minimalist expectations set by other sites like… well, let’s not call them out, but I think you can assume with some accuracy the lack of canons and expectations to which I am referring. (As I hear many screaming, “ ’First amendment rights…! ” Let me assure you that the level of your ignorance is defined proportionally by the volume of your voice.)
I may be in the minority, but I believe that people are inherently intelligent and CAN think for themselves, but for the most part, technology has made them lazy and they simply choose not to.
Yes – many, many people are just plain lazy, accepting at face value whatever they are told without the annoying interference of independent critical thought.
Last night, I took a chance and ‘cast a line’ in the comment section of a post on workplace toxicity and leadership forwarded to me by a friend. The original post was ejected into the ether by one of the many post-groups on LinkedIn. This group writes on Leadership and this post implied, in a nutshell, that the solution to workplace toxicity is inherently, the sole problem of the organizational leader(s) or thus, will be solved only by leadership. This could not be further from the truth! ‘Other side of the planet’ further from the truth!
To elicit any kind of response, I simply wrote, “This is kinda bullshit, don’t ya’ think?”
I was curious to see if the comment would insight any degree of response rage, would simply be ignored, or there would be any consensus of thoughtful argument. After all, there are more than 207,000 people following the group! By the morning, I was disappointed to see that it hadn’t elicited much of a response at all. I was extremely happy to see that my friend, to whom I had originally replied and happens to be a registered nurse (RN), did add a very thoughtful comment about the reality of this expectation when at times, leadership itself is the source of the toxicity!
Hmmm… but honestly, what does this all mean? The posts, the lack of responses…
Well, here we are, 24 hours later, and I have been thinking about it all. Quite recently, the topic of toxic behavior in the workplace has become an area of interest for academics. Unto itself, the fact that this interest exists should indicate a level of subject complexity beyond the available solutions offered by those who wish nothing more than recognition as an ‘internet influencer.’ I especially love the creative ‘feel good’ wisdom imparted through colorful banners with senseless slogans. That’s potentially very dangerous for a general public grown lazy on technology!
As a researcher, lecturer/presenter and generalist subject matter expert (GSME) on the topic of mass-shootings and workplace violence, it is especially important to me that the aggregate study of workplace toxicity not be misconstrued. Thus, through the web of instant communication, expectations are unfairly misdirected, serving no purpose but to provide obstruction and frustration to those having to deal with this issue as part of their everyday reality.
2019 – Is It Over Yet?
The fact that my friend thought enough of this post to repost it, coupled with the fact that she is a career RN underscores the reality that for some, this is a very real, very frustrating issue to which no viable simple solution has yet been presented but is desperately sought. I also consider the nursing profession one of the greatest ‘at-risk’ professions to the crescendo of workplace toxicity that oft presents itself in the form of workplace violence.
Research presented by Brenda Petersen in 2017,1. explores perhaps the greatest paradox of the nursing profession; a profession known as the ‘caring profession’ but resoundingly infamous for not caring well for their own. By studying the phenomenon within the nursing profession, greater insight into workplace toxicity across other unrelated industries may be better understood, and ultimately dealt with accordingly.
Workplace toxicity and workplace violence are simply related symptoms of a larger cultural disease. Not one disease, but like cancer, many diseases that fall under one general heading. It may start anywhere in the body and grow out of control, overpowering otherwise healthy normal cells, preventing the body from working the way it should. A disease that may prove fatal for those whom it afflicts. And like cancers, this disease has many internal similarities and differences. Although these similarities and differences exist (between its aggregate symptoms, treatment, and afflictions), each, once identified, must be addressed within its own specific domain.
According to Statista,2. a commonly and quickly accessed online searchable database of general interest statistics, in 2019, there were four workplace mass shooting events (defined as three casualties or more, not including the gunman) resulting in 31 fatalities and 37 injured. Of the 38 records searched between 1982 and August 2019, only one returned a criterion matching an occurrence in a health provider facility. On November 19, 2018, an attending physician, police officer, and pharmacy resident were all gunned down at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital in an event later classified as domestic violence.
Yet the existence of all kinds of violence within the nursing profession is a verified and well studied phenomena.
As the traditional business model becomes obsolete in favor of incorporating the more ‘touchy-feely feel-good’ work environment of the more needy generations to come, more incidents like this will occur. More violent incidents, explicitly shootings in hospitals (as the place of work) are going to occur.
Rather than disappear down the rabbit hole with pages of research details, examples, and definitions, let me posit that the nursing profession suffers more than any other from the prevalence of a phenomenon known as horizontal violence (HV). Research has shown that this is indeed an international phenomenon, not solely limited to the nursing profession in the United States. HV may be broadly thought of as ‘aggressive, destructive behavior and intergroup conflict.’ Where there is HV, there is workplace toxicity. Where there is workplace toxicity, there is a potential for workplace violence.
HV is not a new concept, it has been around since 1971 when Paulo Friere refined his theory of the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.3. Much of the original theory is based on the identification of norms and values of the dominant group compared to the oppressed or subordinate group. In the 21st century, this translates into differences in perceived ethical decision-making behavior and the disparity of acceptable moral consequences. Rather than adhere strictly to the classic business descriptors proposed decades ago by Deming or Friedman (per se) yet still revered today, cultural settings, traits, and characteristics must now be incorporated as critical elements of the business planning and analysis model.
Is an individual’s personal background, personal ethical beliefs and standards, culture or cultural heritage a business characteristic or trait, and do they have any place in the work environment?
I have taken this example to the margin only to provoke what is difficult thought and to illustrate the direction in which analysis of today’s business environment must proceed before any real understanding of workplace toxicity may be offered.
The only clear response may be to that of the question of personal ethical beliefs and standards. Remember, ethics are beliefs that guide actions and judgments across the situations we find ourselves in daily. These judgements lead to decisions which have moral consequences, yet are often developed from experience in cultural settings involving parents, friends, co-workers, and employers. It’s also important to recognize that high-producing individuals, regularly valued by employers are often also the highly disruptive element within the organization. As the global marketplace continues to shrink, the individual’s cognitive and moral development will continue to play more of a role in the type of work environment that exists, which in turn feeds the cognitive and moral development of the individual.
That’s a lot to ask the ‘Organizational Leader’ to be responsible for – don’t ya’ think?
Ethics and Morals – and basic disagreement.
Herein are conceived the ideas behind my fledgling theories about the extreme workplace toxicity we see in our healthcare industry. The most obvious, glaring, and insightful example for this sort of commentary piece is to offer up the question for a discussion of whether Health Care is a Business?
A Time of Change and Transition
Unsurprisingly, when feedback to this question is elicited from healthcare providers, it is often accompanied by a torrent of emotion and personal feelings grounded in years of work in the healing arts. Make no mistake – healthcare IS an art. Sure, there is science involved, but when you look to the roots of modern medicine and the late 15th century, and follow the path it has taken to get to today, there is more discovery that has come through analogous thinking than the methods of those dedicated purely to ‘hard science.’
Unfortunately, like the 36 privately owned State-level prisons in California, healthcare IS a business. That way of thinking, this reality, is terribly contradictory to how some individuals in the profession think and feel personally, especially when discussing the specific reasons why they chose this profession. I also postulate that there is a direct relationship between the prevalence of feelings about acceptance of healthcare as a business and how long the individual has been in the profession (number of years). This, in turn, may be an indicator of why there are so many perceived toxic leadership teams within healthcare? Does that sound the least bit reasonable to you?
I do not know if that is true or not, a pilot research study must be designed to further investigate, toward either proving or disproving my theory. It is merely something to think about.
Solution or Not?
I am no stranger to workplace toxicity among employees and management teams. My personal data gathering and my personal experience thus far leads me to these few things leaning on certainty.
The solution will have to come from the group: the employees.
Who Owns the Company?
The ownership of the company must be considered when discussing workplace culture and toxicity. It is inescapable and inseparable. As recently cited examples of GooGle and Asian Pulp show, the organization is never separated by more than one degree of corporate leadership from its owners.
Total Human Resources Failure
Human Resources managers and employees – in fact, the entire reason for a human resources department existing – must be re-evaluated. Throughout my work, I have encountered an inordinate degree of dysfunction and a total lack of understanding of today’s work environment within corporate human resources groups. (That seems contradictory?) To my mind, this area of business is currently the most broken. The whole concept of human resources must be completely disassembled and rebuilt – from the ground up!
The Culture and Character of the Leader
As proof that what I have offered above has some legitimacy, consider your current work situation. What I believe you will see is that the personal culture, character, and individual beliefs of the ‘leader’ at the top – the CEO – flow down through the organization and are reflected throughout every level of the company in some way. For an as-yet not understood reason, this seems to occur as much through osmosis as anything else.
I also saw a post by this same leadership group that read, “Leadership is about empowering people!”
I could not disagree more. Yet, this bland, blind, uninformed statement seems broadly accepted by so many as to be repeated hundreds of times unquestioningly daily in work environments all over the nation.
Leadership – above all else – is first about integrity. It starts with the individual and flows to the team. Regardless of the consequences, the number-one principle that reinforces the foundation of great leadership is integrity, and without it, failure becomes the natural default.4. Ethics should not define what leadership is but be merely one component of the broader definition.
Before an employee can be empowered, they must be equipped. It is the leader’s job to equip their team with the skills and tools they need and do not yet possess to be successful. As Kirk Lippold, a man whom I admire greatly says, “Trusting and investing in those whom you lead is the clearest demonstration of your confidence in them, and once equipped, they realize for themselves you have given them the flexibility to think through problems on their own.” (Kirk was the Captain of the USS Cole when al-Qaeda operatives attacked it in Aden Harbor, Yemen, on October 12, 2000.) That’s hugely different than ‘empowering people.’ People who are ‘empowered’ but not ‘equipped’ will flounder and fail quickly, and hence toxicity in the work environment rears its ugly head again.
So yes, there is a solution. Coupled with what I have so briefly and barely touched on above, what we think we know about what goes into a workplace culture devoid of toxicity must be thrown out, and the entire subject reframed through a constructivist lens. The value of groups purporting to strengthen personal qualities among individuals in leadership roles should perhaps be re-thought and re-evaluated before any organization or individual further commits their valuable time, money, or attention to said groups. After all, are these groups fostering learning and understanding or merely propagating the same mistakes over and over again?
The existence of these groups may further suggest there is a severe lacking in our educational institutions. If the most awarded undergraduate degree in the United States is in Business, yet these issues and groups exist, what exactly is it we are and are not teaching our students? What SHOULD we be teaching our students?
Until then, I invite you to follow my studies and attend any of my presentations or lectures over the upcoming year and most of all, please – form your own opinions. I hope I have at least left you with some food for thought on which to do exactly that!
- Petersen, B. (2017). An Exploration of Nurse Educators’ Knowledge, Attitudes and Practice of Horizontal Violence Measured through Dimensions of Oppression, Seton Hall University.
- Statista.com (2019). Number of victims of workplace shootings in the United States between 1982 and August 2019. Retrieved from http://www.statista.com/
- Saxon, L. & Vitzthum, V. (n.d.) Theory: Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Retrieved from http://www.beautifultrouble.org/
- Lippold, K. (2009). Leadership saves lives. Keppler Speakers Series. Retrieved from http://www.kepplerspeakers.com