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Do you want people to be happy at work? – Address toxic behaviour

(One from the archives, first published on HelenSandersonAssociates website 16 October 2015. I'm preparing for a session where I'll be supporting a team to walk the toxins grid, I came back to this blog I wrote in 2015 so thought I'd reshare.)

I had an incredibly rewarding weekend on the ORSC Fundamentals course facilitated by CRR Global. The two-day course provided an introduction to organisation and relationship systems coaching. By far the best course I’ve been on for a long time, bar those I’ve facilitated for HSA of course!

The course shared various tools to use when coaching or leading teams or organisations, in order to build better relationships between people. I‘ve already started putting these tools into practice across both my professional and personal life and I’m noticing the impact. I feel really excited about their potential and keen to share.

The first tip I’d like to share is how to identify and deal with toxic behaviour patterns.

Following research on marital relationships by John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) we focused on four key toxins the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – blaming, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.

How to identify? - There are some key ways in which these toxins show themselves. Consider when you last saw any of the following:

Blaming – Finger pointing, attack, bullying and constant criticism are all signs of blaming behaviour.

Defensiveness – Shoulder shrugging, deflecting, refusing to acknowledge any responsibility or to be open to influence.

Stonewalling – Hands up, head turned away, refusal to engage, avoidance, going round people, withholding, disengaged from conversation, passivity, people saying ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’.

Contempt – Eye rolling, tutting or sighing, hostile gossip, cutting people down, undermining, demeaning or sneering comments. Most, if not all of us, have used these behaviours at one time or another. We generally have a preference for one over the other. I think I’m most guilty of avoidance, so stonewalling. Consider what you are particularly good at!

Why do they matter?

These ‘horsemen’ can arise from time to time with little impact, however, when used regularly or repeatedly they are very harmful. Repeated use of such toxic behaviour in any relationship is likely to be very damaging.

Within the work environment this means a breakdown in communication, trust and joint-working. High levels of toxicity in a team will impact on people’s well-being, happiness and positivity. This means lower rates of attendance and retention. In turn, this is all likely to lead to a drop in performance at individual, team and organisational level. It matters!

Contempt is particularly damaging, research shows its negative impact applies equally to both the giver and the receiver. Contempt can quickly undermine positivity within a team or organisation.

What to do?

Think of all those times you have observed some of these behaviours whilst sat in a meeting or passing through an office or canteen area. What have you done?

I can think of numerous occasions when I have witnessed such behaviour go unaddressed within a team. Why? Firstly, because most of us don’t like conflict.

  1. Don’t avoid conflict – ‘Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors’, African proverb. I don’t like conflict, but the course helped me to view conflict differently – ‘Conflict is a signal that something new is trying to happen. When handled skilfully it is the midwife to constructive change.’ CRR Global. Over the weekend we were introduced to various tools and protocols that can be used to effectively help teams manage conflict in a constructive way.

  2. Raise awareness of negative behaviours and their impact – We are not always conscious of our own behaviour or its impact. Whilst it may be obvious to an outsider or a recipient that we are being defensive, our heightened emotions may cloud our own vision. It is helpful to acknowledge that the toxic behaviours are present and to openly name them when you see them. Ideally help people to identify them for themselves.

Walking the team toxins grid

During the course we were introduced to a tool called ‘walking the team toxins grid’, this helps a team understand and take responsibility for their toxic communication patterns.

  1. De-personalise – Toxic behaviour does not rest with any individual, toxins are a team issue and need to be addressed by the whole team, they are part of the system and should be consistently viewed as such. One common mistake is to simply deal with or remove the key person exhibiting such behaviours. As the problem is in the system it is likely that someone else will then quickly adopt equally toxic behaviours. Remember blame is itself toxic and doesn’t address the underlying issues.

  2. Consider the underlying issue – Toxic behaviour normally arises from a feeling of insecurity or powerlessness. It is a form of defence and suggests someone feels it is unsafe for them to discuss an issue openly or to show their vulnerability. Help the team to identify the underlying cause(s).

  3. Increase positivity – Identifying and addressing toxins is likely to be challenging for any relationship / team. As with any challenge or conflict, increasing the level of appreciation and positivity will help the team to manage the situation. Try and follow a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

  4. Develop, share, practice and use antidotes – There are various antidotes that can help to neutralise toxic communication. For example, blame can be neutralised by turning a criticism into a request, or by listening for the request in the criticism and (after a deep breath) responding to the reasonable request. If you are feeling defensive search for the “2% truth” in what you are hearing and show you take responsibility for that.

  5. Create a safe, open and appreciative culture – Consider what actions can be taken to support a culture in which people feel comfortable to admit to mistakes, to seek help and to accept challenge and where people are quick to acknowledge and address toxic behaviours when they arise.

According to a recent personality survey I completed, this is my Imperative or ‘purpose’ and is to be achieved ‘by facilitating authentic human connection’.

Authentic relationships are hugely important to me both in my personal and professional life. It is with both relief and excitement that I now set out determined to look conflict bravely in the face, as a means for positive change, and to help others to do the same. I can’t thank Suncica at CCR Global enough for equipping me with the right tools for this adventure (and everyone on the course who helped provide a safe and fun environment for risk taking and learning). I’ll keep blogging as I go. I look forward to sharing the ups and downs with you.

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