Toxic Leaders, Toxic Workers: Learning to Cope | Leading From the Library

Librarians may not know a remarkable leader, but they sure can name all the toxic ones they’ve worked for. Lots of toxic employees and co-workers too. Is there any hope for a toxic-free workplace?
Steven BellLibrarians may not know a remarkable leader, but they sure can name all the toxic ones they’ve worked for. Lots of toxic employees and co-workers too. Is there any hope for a toxic-free workplace? As a speaker or workshop leader you do your best to prepare for questions. What we sometimes get, and likely lack preparation for, are colleagues not with specific questions but a story to share. They hope you have guidance for a difficult situation. During a leadership workshop I gave this spring I was approached by three different attendees, each of whom had a story to share about a workplace challenge. They asked what recommendations I could offer. Each situation was somewhat different, but there was a common workplace theme: toxicity. In each case the individual was dealing with someone who was turning their workday—instead of what should be an act of enthusiasm and engagement—into a miserable experience. I listened. Advice, for what it is worth, is offered here.

Two Sides to Every Story

Here’s what I find most interesting. For every library worker who shares a story about a toxic boss, I have a boss sharing a story about a toxic worker. The worker’s boss never says yes to a new idea or change suggestion. The boss thinks his or her ideas are the only good ones and they all stink, or the boss only wants to sit in an office, collect a paycheck, and ignore the possibilities. Then there is the boss who wants innovative change, is eager to try new services, but complains that the workers are completely change-resistant. Any effort to shift the status quo results in upheaval, mean-spiritedness, and internal tension. If it’s not workers vs. bosses it’s workers vs. workers. The new person thinks the staff veterans are disrespectful. The staff veterans think the new workers are out to get them. As I listen, I remind myself I am only hearing one side of the story, and wonder how accurate the depiction is. It’s all I have to go on.

The Answer is Nothing

Not having all the details makes it difficult at best to truly understand what’s going on at these libraries. Despite that, I find myself asking these folks one key question: “What’s your library leader doing about this?” All too often the situation is exacerbated by a department head or library director who, familiar with the problem, decides to ignore it, or worse, is totally non-communicative. That’s often the result of a difficult conversation that is long past due and a problem that has now festered into a totally dysfunctional situation. It’s the leader’s responsibility to listen, respond, and take action. It’s often the case that the leader finds it easier to ignore what’s happening. The staff member’s situation is further complicated because the leader rarely believes he or she is the source of toxicity. What’s a worker to do with a leader who chooses to do nothing?

Managing Toxicity

Leaving is the obvious solution: Find another job. Sometimes that option can be exercised. When it’s not, I offer advice that may be of some help in coping with the situation. In doing so, I think back to Karol Wasylyshyn, author of Behind the Executive Door (Springer). Wasylyshyn describes three different types of bosses: remarkable, perilous, and toxic. The toxic ones, according to Wasylyshyn, rarely, if ever, change. That makes it necessary to adopt coping strategies until it is possible to leave. Among the advice she gives is to unite with peers and co-workers to develop problem-solving strategies, to acknowledge worker strengths and accomplishments, and to discuss possible escape scenarios. There is an abundance of information and advice available in sources that discuss workplace toxicity. So whether you have a toxic boss, a toxic employee, or a toxic co-worker, you are likely to find advice on how to deal with that situation. When you offer advice, face-to-face, to colleagues seeking support, it seems less than satisfactory. I know that person will go back to their job tomorrow. My advice, offered as encouragingly as possible, won’t, I suspect, make it a better day. What I hope to offer is a starting point for change.

Confronting a Toxic Workplace

Wasylyshyn also speaks about the “internal locus of control.” When you believe you control your destiny and accept your inability to change your toxic boss or co-worker, it allows you to construct a preferred response to toxicity. I encourage those in toxic situations to acknowledge their own talent and accomplishments, to focus on the good work they do for their communities, and to believe it is they, not their boss or co-worker, who controls their day-to-day destiny. That is one response. The more appropriate one is for leaders to take responsibility for fixing a broken, toxic workplace. The starting point is establishing a culture of civility, and it must start at the top. Christine Porath, in “No Time to Be Nice at Work,” shares her research on the high costs of workplace toxicity. Rudeness, boorish behavior, and bullying cause vast damage to both productivity and worker health. The reasons why it happens are many, and leaders who promote incivility or ignore its presence contribute to the number one cause of leadership failure. Porath believes that change can start small with simple gestures of kindness: Leaders can use simple rules to win the hearts and minds of their people—with huge returns. Making small adjustments such as listening, smiling, sharing, and thanking others more often can have a huge impact. In one unpublished experiment I conducted, a smile and simple thanks (as compared with not doing this) resulted in people being viewed as 27 percent warmer, 13 percent more competent, and 22 percent more civil.

Look for Local Support

Any advice I offer comes with the usual disclaimers. It is not my area of professional expertise. Every situation is different. Before you do anything, consult with your human resources professionals. Get their advice. See if they can offer an intervention. One of my leadership mantras is “run it by HR.” Whether it’s hiring, discipline, benefits, or some completely unknown territory, even if you think you know the right answer, good leaders have likely learned at some point to check with HR. Occasionally I am told that HR, unfortunately, was consulted to no avail. Others avoid speaking to HR about a toxic boss or co-worker fearing retaliation. There are no easy answers or solutions in these situations. Advice is abundant and cheap and not always of value. Fixing the toxic workplace starts with library leaders. Whether they cause it or stand by while it happens, their behavior allows the culture of incivility to exist. Porath offers an idea for culture shift, but I suspect it is not that easy. That means I will continue to hear stories about toxic bosses, staff, and co-workers. Perhaps the first thing I will do is offer hope that change for a better workplace is possible—and encourage them to believe they can help lead the change.

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