Clive Lewis: “A toxic culture at work can be heartbreaking”

25 Feb 2021 By Jyoti Rambhai

In his new book, the business psychologist explores how HR can help rebuild hostile workplaces into friendlier and more respectful environments 

In organisations where the “fire is burning”, it is “my job to come in and put it out”, says Clive Lewis, business psychologist, mediator and author of no less than 17 books – most recently Toxic: A Guide to Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplace

Toxic workplace culture, he says, can have long-lasting effects on mental health, causing stress, anxiety and depression, and can cost businesses both money and their reputation. But how does toxicity manifest, and what can HR professionals do to fix it? People Management caught up virtually with Lewis to find out more.

What makes a workplace ‘toxic’?

There are three things at play, which I refer to as the ‘toxic triad’. The first is the employee and their willingness to recognise how their behaviour may have contributed; the second is the line manager and the importance of them being competent; the third is organisational systems, such as grievance procedures and performance appraisals. You could have just one of these elements making an environment toxic, but of course, at its worse, if all three of these things are in play, it will have an impact on workplace culture.

What are the signs of a toxic culture?

Generally, businesses will see sickness absence going up and a high level of anxiety. Projects are either not delivered or late and running over budget. At a higher level, you could see slow and bureaucratic decision making. Staff might even be punished for mistakes rather than learning from them. In the worst cases, this can spill over into the customer or patient experience. Work is something that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, so when it becomes a toxic environment it can be incredibly heartbreaking.

How can firms fix a toxic culture?

It’s important to ensure there are clear communication channels and information flows upwards as well as sideways through feedback discussions and appraisal systems. Businesses can also ensure the right amount of resources are available; for example, adequate meeting rooms and space for people to have a private conversation. They should also listen to and learn from exit interviews and demonstrate behaviour consistent with the culture they would like to see in the workplace.

Why is mediation a useful tool?

It takes just one day but can bring years of disputes to a close. Either an in-house or external mediator brings the parties together in a safe and confidential environment and encourages them to talk and thrash things out. The number of problems I have seen de-escalate once people feel like they’ve been listened to – it’s incredible.

What’s the most toxic workplace you’ve ever come across?

A group of clinicians in the healthcare sector had one colleague who they described as really difficult. They put up a chart where the person wouldn’t see it, counting down the weeks until they retired. They had three years to go. It was horrific. One of the team even talked about crying in the mornings when they thought about coming into work.

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