The silent cost of incivility

imo-blogToxic incivility in the workplace is costing money, driving away the best employees — it’s even killing people.

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By Tom Cox

Toxic incivility in the workplace is costing money, driving away the best employees — it’s even killing people.

Don’t believe it? A recent study by VitalSmarts and the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) found examples like these:

  • A pharmacist receives a prescription that is clearly incorrect but fills it anyway because the doctor has been hostile when challenged in the past.
  • A nurse quits reminding a colleague to put up the safety rails on a child’s bed because she decides it’s not her job to deal with her.
  • Over 60% of medication errors are traceable to communication breakdowns caused by incivility or toxic behaviors.

The same things happens in the non-medical field — maybe in your workplace. Instead of killing people, maybe it’s just killing your profits and driving away your best workers and customers.

What’s a toxic employee, really? They show toxic behaviors, according to Mitch Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, authors of Toxic Workplace — one or more of these three behaviors, each of which is horribly corrosive of teamwork and productivity:

  1. Shaming
  2. Passive Hostility
  3. Team Sabotage

How bad is the problem?

According to Kusy and Holloway, a stunning 94% of leaders report having worked with a toxic person. The impact on organizational performance is profoundly bad.

Alan Rosenstein’s 10 years of research has shown that 60 percent of medication errors are due to toxic or bad behavior. The most common problem is that others are afraid to speak up, and don’t. Because a doctor or a lead nurse is overly abrasive, and thus intimidating the other workers, so nobody is willing to question when a medication order might contain a mistake — so the mistakes don’t get caught.

30.7% of nurses leave their jobs due to toxic behaviors they experience, at a cost of 1.5 to 2.5 times salary.

How do they get away with it?

Entrenched toxic people build “systems of power” to protect themselves.  They “Kiss Up and Kick Down” — a chameleon-like ability to fool bosses and mislead the people who would normally find them and fix them, while terrorizing their subordinates.
Bosses sometimes enable toxicity by using a double standard for “top performers” — not realizing that everybody’s performance will go up once Mister Toxic gets fixed or leaves.

And co-workers enable toxic behavior by creating workarounds:

A group of eight anesthesiologists agree a peer is dangerously incompetent, but they don’t confront him. Instead, they go to great efforts to schedule surgeries for the sickest babies at times when he is not on duty. This problem has persisted for over five years (emphasis added). (Silence Kills Study Overview)

How to Find Toxic Workers

If you’re the subordinate — get two or three others and go as a group to your toxic boss’ boss.  Document the problems first (here’s how).  Or forward to your boss’ boss the link to this article.

If you’re the boss — look for the warning signs:

  • Low unit performance
  • High unit turnover
  • Any signs of fear (lack of candid feedback, lack of eye contact, not suggesting new ideas)
  • “Brain drain” where the best people leave the group
  • People forward you the link to this article

If you’ve got even one of these symptoms, investigate.  Two? You’ve got toxicity.

How to Fix Toxic Workers

Amazingly, 99% of toxic people can be saved.  (Here’s how Google is fixing their worst managers.)  You just need to start — by being serious about the problem — and using some simple tools.

Tool: Skip-Level Evaluation

Both on a schedule and in response to specific concerns. If you have the authority, institute this practice for all managers. If you don’t, just start doing it yourself for the managers who report to you.

Tool: In-House or Outside Coaching

Put your toxic person on a 6-month performance plan with a good executive coach.  Make it clear their future depends on it — and stick to the deadline if they don’t improve.  Most will improve… once they believe you’re serious.

Next Steps

CEOs should:

  • Scan for the Warning Signs (above)
  • Look at their values, translate those values into behavioral norms, and embed those behavioral norms into the performance management system.
  • Take baby steps toward implementing skip-level evaluations for all managers.

Your best people will thank you.  (Listen to my podcast with Kusy and Holloway here.)

Contributing blogger Thomas B. Cox runs Cox Business Consulting, Inc. and is creator of the blog and web radio show Tom on Leadership, aimed at CEOs and business owners. He has worked with IBM, Oracle, Tektronix, ODOT, Intel and others.

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