Contentious workplace atmospheres don't develop overnight, but when they do develop, leaders should address what went wrong.
“You really have to spend some time to reflect and identify the different pieces that go into a toxic environment,” said Regina Schinker, assistant professor in the Master of Science in Leadership program at Trine University.
Numerous concerns could contribute to lack of camaraderie, Schinker said. They range from hiring issues to communication, such as feedback or “hoarding of information.”
“When information is not shared,” she said, “it often can create a sense of uneasiness or distrust.”
Two other leadership experts suggest digging deep and asking “Why” – but not just once; try it about five times. The responses to each question should supply new knowledge.
“Typically by the time you get to the fifth why you will have exhausted all of the answers, but if it takes 10 questions, keep going,” said Bobby Albert, CEO of Values Driven Leadership LLC.
In some cases, it's easy to pinpoint reasons for discord. Depending on the business or organization, the issues can be pushed into the public spotlight, as with the Fort Wayne Fire Department. The fire chief has rankled the union leader and some firefighters based on operational changes and disagreement about who would be best to promote.
One Fort Wayne City Council member in January called the atmosphere untenable; another suggested a hostile work environment has developed, affecting people who “are in the business of life and death, of saving people.”
Neither Albert, Schinker nor another leadership professor were knowledgeable about the fire department concerns that have council members trying to help find a resolve. But they talked in general about how leaders can move organizations from rifts to greater cohesion.
Gordon B. Schmidt is teaching a course on applied leadership this semester at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Like Albert, he pointed to the importance of the “Five Whys” approach, which was credited years ago to the automaker Toyota when it wanted to address production concerns.
It's important to get to the root of problems, said Schmidt, chair and associate professor of organizational leadership at PFW.
People can be in conflict and not have a good grasp of where the conflict lies if they haven't asked the right questions.
Supportive communication is also crucial. While you want specific concerns addressed, you have to communicate in ways that won't make people feel defensive. That requires sticking to facts and avoiding personal insults, which opens the door to problem solving, Schmidt said.
Rather than call someone an idiot, for example, it would be more productive to have a conversation about why they filed a report late and why that created a problem.
It's important to recognize that people – with all the diverse personalities – have different perceptions and expectations, Schmidt said. If two people were asked what makes a good workplace, one person might put safety at the top of the list but others might rank something else.
He suggests keeping the focus on goals.
Teachers, for example, have varied methods, but the good ones are all focused on student success.
Symptoms vs. causes
Albert, of Values Driven Leadership, released a book in February titled “The Freedom Paradox: Is Unbridled Freedom Dividing America?” The book is about the founding and cultural changes in America and includes a chapter addressing the differences between symptoms and root causes.
Let's say crime increases in a community; the gut reaction may be to suggest hiring more police, said Albert, who lives in Texas, north of Dallas-Forth Worth. But that addresses a symptom rather than underlying reasons – the kind of root cause analysis useful in a workplace.
Ask “Why did this happen?” and you get one answer. Ask “Well why did that happen?” and you get additional information.
Based on limited information about the Fort Wayne Fire Department discord, Albert said it's possible the City Council has not “defined a policy about the issue that has everybody up in arms.”
One of Albert's favorite quotes, he said, was by businessman and author Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
One of Covey's most popular books is “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
In an organization or workplace, if there is a history of top-down leadership style, Albert said it's no wonder “people on the bottom line” are upset.
More conversations can help shed light on why a leader would want to go in one direction when an employee union prefers another. In general, Albert thinks leaders need the authority to lead.
“In the business world, the leader at the top has to have the ability to hire and fire and promote people,” he said. “But if they have the wrong motivation and show favoritism to someone they want to promote, which is the wrong motivation, it creates a distrust in an organization. And when a leader loses the trust in an organization, man, the organization is just going to go down the tube.”
So who bears the brunt of responsibility when a work atmosphere is leaning toward being toxic?
Another one of Albert's favorite quotes is by best-selling author John Maxwell: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
“So the leader has the responsibility to create a culture where people thrive, and in the business world where profits thrive,” Albert said.
And he doesn't define that narrowly. Profitable in this case, he said, could be in terms of what people give to the organization.
Schinker, of Trine University, said transparency is important. Leaders, though, are sometimes limited – based on legal, ethical or personnel issues – on what they can share.
Vision and goals – even information about outside forces affecting an organization – can't be hoarded, Schinker said. A lack of transparency can destroy the spirit of collaboration.
Regardless of titles, Schinker said, everyone in an organization is a stakeholder. They need to have information to feel that they're valuable and their views are valuable.
At Trine, Schinker said she realizes she can't be privy to certain information, but “feels fortunate” knowing if she has a question that can be answered, it will be.
Communication and feedback – formal and informal – play a role in how people feel and act in a workplace.
How someone looks at you or walks past you, for example, can represent communication, along with tone of voice in conversations, Schinker said.
And the most effective feedback is timely – sooner, rather than later.
When things aren't going well, it's time to leave the emotions aside and ask some self-probing questions. A couple of key ones Schinker identified are “What have I done to contribute to the atmosphere?” and “What can I do to reverse the damage?” And leaders may need to ask others for input.
The bottom line? The worst thing anyone can do is ignore workplace tension.
“If it isn't addressed,” Schinker said, “nothing is going to change.”