Friday, May 1, 2015

The Healthy Estate

...many of the benefits of the high road are contingent upon others recognizing it for what it is, and appreciating it.  - Dean Dad

Which came first:  non-toxic cleaning products, or non-toxic workplaces?  It's hard to tell. What's for certain is there's been a surge in recent years in the consciousness of all things all-natural, non-toxic, and healthy; and that's a good thing. What's not such a good thing is trying to figure out exactly what is healthy, what is not, how much is marketing, and how much is truly accurate information to help us get healthier.

Having a strong interest in organizational behavior and leadership studies, how workplaces become what they become I've found to become a lifelong study, and one yielding positive results from, if not always having the right answer, at least knowing the right answer is out there somewhere -- and also the right answer may be different for different people and contexts.  

If you shop on amazon, you'll notice there's no shortage of books containing the word toxic, a rather powerful and hard-hitting word that grabs peoples' attention. Anyone who's had a bad day at work and is quick to dismiss their own contribution to the problem will be prime for seeking validation of the issues being outside of their own behaviors, and with no shortage of authors to help assuage the pain. This is not a bad thing once in a while, although self-reflection on how one is part of the broken system and not simply an innocent observer/victim is what's really needed for an honest evaluation on how to move forward in a productive and healthy manner -- for the long term. As has been observed in other posts, when we have a finger pointed at others, we need to take a look at our hand to notice there are three fingers pointing back at us. Yes, it's a little bit cliche', but a gentle and non-toxic reminder that we need to at least be part of the solution -- and not simply on the sidelines calling out the shots.

Such is the case when I happened upon an academic blog written with the goal to efficiently evaluate if your workplace is toxic, with simply one question and one purportedly right answer. I think the author has created a very effective starting point for the discussion, although like most things in life and that includes the workplace, there are many angles from which to both observe and participate. But if you want a quick primer to whet you interest, this is a good one.

The Toxic Workplace Test can effectively be that starting point for anyone who is concerned. Although the absence of the proposed question or correct answer does not, by default, indicate your workplace necessarily is or isn't toxic, if you do find yourself feeling a familiar connection with your own experiences and how the author addressed his, you will, at the least, perhaps have your interest piqued enough to study the subject more fully and put forth your own efforts to help create a healthier workplace.

Aftering reading and answering the one test question honestly, perhaps it's best kept to yourself until you've pondered the subject matter a bit and have come up with a reasonable and timely strategy to first address -- and then to help -- your estate team. As the physician's oath reminds us: first, do no harm. Evaluate carefully and realize your answer of (a.) through (d.) may be your own perspective, while others on your team may be seeing (e.). Still, if anything other than (e.) is truly your answer, you have sufficient cause to be concerned and to delve further, and delve in a positive manner which places both your own success and that of others in a long-term quest for improvement. 

It will take time; workplace cultures are not changed overnight, yet they do change -- and you can be the change agent just as well as anyone else on your estate. Step up to the challenge, be brave, and improve for yourself and others as well. In actuality, the others just may be waiting for you to be the one who does so, and you don't have the be the one with the estate manager title to be the positive force needed for change. 

Reprinted below, you may also go directly to the article here.


I've come up with a one-question quiz to determine whether your workplace is toxic.

1. When Smith attacks Jones in public in dirty, ad hominem, and generally unprofessional ways, and Jones responds by taking the high road, what happens?

a. Jones would never take the high road. Nobody ever does. It's on!
b. Jones takes the high road out of town.
c. Jones is viewed as the loser, since the high road is interpreted as weakness.
d. Onlookers divide into warring camps, and others do the dirty work for Jones.
e. Smith is viewed as the loser, having been decisively outclassed.

If the answer is anything other than e, you have a toxic workplace.

From an administrator's perspective, changing a culture that would answer a through d into one that would answer e is a real, and incredibly important, challenge. (Ideally, of course, the attack wouldn't happen in the first place, but to count on that would be foolish.)

It's difficult because the benefits of the high road usually take time to show up, but the emotional satisfaction of a sucker punch is immediate. Worse, many of the benefits of the high road are contingent upon others recognizing it for what it is, and appreciating it. (Yes, virtue can also be its own reward, but sometimes we need more than that.) That takes a certain confidence in your expectation that others will understand what you're doing. In the absence of that confidence, taking the high road can feel like unilateral disarmament. Part of the job of campus leadership is setting a climate in which people can be reasonably confident that they won't have to resort to frontier justice to defend themselves. If an expectation develops over time that it's possible to disagree in public without getting personal or nasty, then those who violate that expectation will start to find themselves isolated. I consider that a good outcome.

In my early, naive days of deaning, I thought that setting the example would be enough. It wasn't. The lead-by-example thing wasn't enough, because too many people didn't notice or get it. To the small-minded thug, in the short term, the high road can look like weakness. It also didn't address the reality that no matter how a particular situation unfolded, different people had different slivers of information about it, and interpreted it accordingly. Missing a key piece of information, or placing it in an unrelated context, could lead even well-meaning people to mistaken conclusions.

Instead, I've slowly come to realize that if you want to give people confidence that the high road will work, you have to take several steps.

First, obviously, model it yourself. This isn't enough by itself, but without this, you're sunk.

Second, explain what you're doing and why you're doing it. If you model the behavior but trust that it will speak for itself, you'll often fall victim to weird interpretations. Put your interpretation out there, preferably several times. If you can manage a 'before, during, and after' approach, all the better. And for heaven's sake, be consistent.

Third, acknowledge when you fail. Everybody does, from time to time, but some people just can't bring themselves to admit mistakes. If you let slip an ill-considered comment in a moment of frustration, don't try to justify it or pretend it didn't happen; admit it, apologize for it, and renew the commitment to higher ground. One of the benefits of this approach is that it shifts the locus of authority from the individual to the ideal. That's very much of a piece with separating the speaker from the speech, which is the basis of civility. It shows respect for others, without which there's simply no basis for taking the high road seriously. I've found over time that people who feel respected are usually much less likely to escalate conflict to unproductive levels.

Finally, be patient. Some people will catch on more slowly than others, and a few never will. Trust is built slowly and lost quickly, so you have to be willing to stick with it for a while before seeing the results you want.

The tragedy of the middle manager -- I know, boo-hoo, but stay with me -- is when you follow all of these assiduously, only to be undercut from above. I've lived through that more than once, and I can attest that it's demoralizing at a really fundamental level. Sometimes, the high road can only lead out of town. But if you have leadership that actually enables the high road, stick around. You'll miss it when it's gone.

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