"Conversion, software version 7.0
Looking at life through the eyes of a tired hub
Eating seeds as a pastime activity
The toxicity of our city, our city"

"Toxicity" - System Of A Down

I've already written a similar post some time ago (you can find it here), but after some consideration I've decided that "assholery" ain't really synonymous to "toxicity". There are some subtle details that may "blend" toxicity so much that it's barely visible, but it still has its destructive impact - it's an effect nearly unthinkable in case of assholery.

That's why I've decided to feature a standalone post about toxicity (in the work environment).

Here we go.

By toxicity I mean all the activities and attitudes that do melt down the culture of the workplace. What's the difference between activities & attitudes? The former are rather "active" and the latter are "passive" (e.g. negligence, not doing something, indifference). As it's about culture, it's clear that toxicity can be highly contextual. But there are also some "universal" manifestations of toxicity (some of these are surprisingly un-intuitive) - ones I'd like to refer and stigmatize here.

Examples of "universal" toxicity

Help yourself, there are plenty:

  1. discussing X's performance with other people (not X), instead of providing direct, candid people or following the escalation path (if needed)
  2. sarcastic comments that are not actionable, constructive, fact-based - their only effect is building up an artificial atmosphere of powerlessness and hopelessness
  3. watering down the focus (by bloating the WIP, hidden work, inability to move from diverge to converge phase)
  4. openly disrespecting common rules & agreements - e.g. by putting your own ego above adherence to decision made altogether (that you may personally be unhappy with)
  5. turning each conversation into a litany of complains - regardless of how just & to-the-point those complains are (as this is not the way to solve any problems)
  6. notoriously avoiding any form of responsibility/accountability - which is closely related to ...
  7. ... putting yourself in "we" VS "them" kind of position; there are always "them" who made incorrect decisions, are wrong, don't know how to do things, are dishonest, etc.; "them" are usually - different team, managers, architects, a particular individual, people from a different site, etc.
  8. recurrent revisiting the same points (/topics) - ones that were already agreed to be postponed for later, because of whatever valid reason: being not important enough to tackle now, dependent on something else, constrained by something, etc.
  9. coming with solutions for non-defined (unspecified) problems, especially ones based on one's opinions, personal goals and preferences
  10. criticizing without any facts that do back you up - in an vague, non-specific manner targeted at person(s), not particular actions or behaviors

Why is toxicity bad?

It's hard to imagine the work culture that would benefit out of any of the points above, correct? But there's more when it comes to justification:

  • toxicity adds chaos to the system; this (adding chaos) could be beneficial (e.g. when exploring exit options from a stalemate-like scenario), but in this case it's (disruptive) "negative chaos" - one that takes the energy out, but doesn't bring anything valuable in
  • toxic behaviors kill trust, openness & so-called psychological safety - your co-workers will be much more reluctant in terms of bringing up an idea or showing any other kind of pro-activeness
  • toxicity is highly contagious (if its symptoms are not addressed by a firm reaction)
  • toxicity is the 1st step to politicking in the organization

Why toxicity is such a challenge?

One of the problems with toxicity is that some of its aspects are not perceived as negative! Take comments on the edge - between the irony and sarcasm - some find them funny, smart, well-aimed, even rebellious (in a positive sense) - a sign of having your own opinion & not being afraid to express it.

I dare to disagree.

Intentions could have been stellar, nevertheless what's important is our actions. How do we act, what actual message we "broadcast" to the whole environment, what kind of attitude we exemplify with our behavior. The workplace culture is extremely fragile, especially when you've set high standards & your environment is a subject of very intensive changes (e.g. massive growth).

It's the small details (like tolerating the rants, drifting out of focus or disrespecting colleagues) that can infest the whole organization with a rot that can be quite a challenge to get rid of - people will directly interpret what they see, without diving into flawless intentions ...

Without a doubt the worst cases of toxicity happen when the source of toxic behavior is in the leadership. This means that toxicity ain't just tolerated - it's advocated. With a strong-enough leadership it ends up with gradual replacing one culture with its anti-culture: a twisted, dysfunctional version that has got out of control. Such is the power of leaders - they can either boost company's elevation to grandiosity (with their brilliance & vision) or reduce is to mediocrity or even speckles of ash (with recklessness & imprudence).

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