Are Your Leaders Creating a Psychologically Toxic Culture?

Toxic bosses not only drain an organization of productivity, they also drive top talent out of organizations.

Alex Vincent
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Has Karoshi become a global phenomenon?

For more than 40 years, the Japanese have used the word Karoshi to describe employees who literally work themselves to death. The term was coined in the late 1970s after a series of high-profile employee deaths led to increased scrutiny of the infamously long and stressful Japanese work week, where people are regularly asked to work more than 100 hours of overtime each month.

Karoshi deaths involved a number of causes: general poor health that led to heart attacks and strokes, and suicide by workers who simply could not stand the stress at work.

Recently, however, I’ve become concerned that Karoshi may be manifesting in many other countries as well. A quick scan of online news headlines shows that many companies around the world have found themselves subject to intense scrutiny for creating working conditions ripe for death by disease or suicide.

It’s become such a concern that many mental health service organizations, such as the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in the United States, now offer specific programs to teach employers how to help their employees respond when a co-worker attempts suicide in the workplace or as a result of workplace-related stress.

The more I learned about this topic and thought of the anecdotes I have heard from clients and colleagues about the number of people who seem to be working themselves to death, I began to wonder whether we’re taking the issue of psychological safety seriously enough?

We spend so much time and effort focusing on change and transformation, as well as keeping up with new technological advances. But it seems that most organizations do not invest as much time or resources creating a psychologically and emotionally safe workplace.

That is not to say that employers are not thinking about the issue.

Most employers acknowledge that the psychological health and safety of their employees is an important business issue. There has been a lot of research on the relationship between mental health and productivity. I also believe most organizations understand that, since people spend so much time at work, there is an obligation to ensure that mental health and wellness is part of the basic contract between employer and employees.

But we currently approach the problem as if vulnerable people are bringing their problems into the workplace. We don’t consider whether the workplace itself—and the way people treat each other in the normal course of the workday—is the major cause of psychological vulnerability and emotional distress.

We also see a disconnect between wellness and things like leadership. Working for a psychologically threatening boss can be among the most stressful experiences we face in our working lives. Toxic bosses not only drain an organization of productivity, they also drive top talent out of organizations. And yet, even after acknowledging the cost of toxic leadership, rarely do we confront behavior that may be psychologically harmful to employees. Instead, we preach best practices that, if applied comprehensively, try to eliminate toxic behavior by default.

Similarly, we don’t do a good job of screening external and internal leadership candidates for behavior that can range from psychologically unhealthy to, at its extreme, classically psychopathic.

There has been a lot of research done over the years comparing toxic leadership traits with classic characteristics of psychopaths, such as insincerity, lack of empathy or remorse, and rampant narcissism. 

Many believe the term psychopath is inappropriate or even overused in a business environment. And in many cases, they are right. But in extreme cases where a leader’s deliberate actions produce psychological harm among employees, the term psychopath may be the most appropriate.

Whatever the terminology, we clearly need to rethink the moral underpinnings of leadership development and the entire nature of “workplace wellness.” The stakes are much higher than previously thought. And the damage being wrought is far more extensive.

How do you know if you have a psychological safety issue at your workplace? In simple terms, we are talking about a place where people have negative feelings about their work experience or are fearful of the people who are leading them. 

However, simple definitions like this cannot replace a more fulsome diagnosis of a culture and its leaders. The following questions can certainly give you a good idea of whether your employees’ psychological health is at stake.

1. Do leaders take decisive and immediate action when they become aware of behavior that may be threatening or abusive?
2. Do senior leaders tolerate threatening or abusive behavior?
3. Do leaders punish or humiliate their employees for making mistakes or underperforming?
4. Do leaders openly criticize or demean their employees in front of other employees?
5. Do leaders frequently take sole credit for success and refuse to share in the blame for setbacks?
6. Do employees have a safe and discreet mechanism through which they can report threatening or abusive behavior on the part of colleagues or leaders?
7. Does the organization alter working conditions, locations or the terms of employment frequently and without warning?

These questions do not represent a comprehensive or scientific accounting of a psychologically toxic culture, but if you find that these negative behaviors or traits are present in the leaders in your organization, you should be concerned. If that is the case, you need to open a dialogue immediately with leaders to outline behavior that is unacceptable. Leaders who cannot adjust their behavior should be dealt with immediately.

No organization should wait until there is an incident of employee death or suicide to deal with abusive leaders or toxic workplace cultures. Proactively assess your organizational culture and leadership behaviors to determine opportunities to develop those behaviors that build success.
 
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