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5 ways organizations can encourage employees to fight back against toxic leadership

Rather than responding in ways that encourage employees to conclude that speaking up is fruitless, organizations must find ways to be a great deal more thoughtful about who gets promoted. 

5 ways organizations can encourage employees to fight back against toxic leadership
[Photo: Jolygon/iStock; Victoria Heath/Unsplash]
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Amidst recurring reports of workplace harassment, along with the by now predictable failures of many companies to respond appropriately, it’s understandable when employees end up feeling helpless and prone to giving up–concluding that self-protection and silence are the smartest courses of action, at least for their own careers.  

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However, the answer to toxic leadership is to fight back, not to give up. Courageously speaking up about injustice or harm may not always help, and it certainly creates personal risks to those who do it. But one thing is certain. Remaining silent in the face of injustice will not create a better and fairer world. 

As one of us (Amy) has extensively documented in her scientific studies, it is hard to overstate the benefits of workplaces where people are willing to speak up. Benefits range from improved team performance to innovation, to employee satisfaction. When employees believe that it’s not safe to speak up, their colleagues and companies are at greater risk of accidents, quality problems, stagnation, and even scandals. When people in an organization conclude that it’s just not worth it to speak up truthfully about problems or with ideas or questions, that organization is in trouble. 

Both of us have spent our careers working on the science of leadership and high-performing teams, and we share a mutual frustration about the ongoing gap between the kind of leaders and organizations we ought to have and the ones we actually get. 

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If this bleak reality was true before the crisis, you can imagine what a global pandemic can do to people’s faith in the goodness of their employers and to hope that their careers may flourish. Feeling disappointed in or disengaged from your employer is the almost inevitable result of months of separation and uncertainty. Even before Covid-19 disrupted lives around the globe, far too many employers had lost the trust of their employees. Nonetheless, we are disheartened when people arrive at the conclusion that no company is worth caring about, as Emi Neitfeld did, following prolonged workplace harassment, in a widely circulated opinion piece in the New York Times. 

Nietfeld’s story was an object lesson against speaking up. For her bravery in reporting her boss’s bad behavior, she, like countless other women, was rewarded with scolding, belittling, demotion. 

A better solution than holding back one’s voice and one’s commitment, surely, comes from a better diagnosis. The true cause of the devastating workplace experience suffered by Nietfeld was the promotion of an incompetent man to a leadership role. 

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We wish this were a unique situation. Yet, as scientific studies–and, unfortunately, even more, real-world events—have shown, most of the problems organizations and nations have are the direct result of our failures to restrain or inhibit powerful men. However, as we have argued before, we are hopeful that the pandemic has raised awareness of the devastating consequences of continuing with this outdated “macho” model of leadership

Rather than responding in ways that encourage employees to conclude that speaking up is fruitless, organizations must find ways to be a great deal more thoughtful about who gets promoted. 

Fortunately, there are measures organizations can take to make it easier for employees to speak up and report bad behaviors.

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Train and develop leaders on psychological safety

Most people are thrown into corporate management and leadership roles because they were good in their previous roles. But there is generally little overlap between the skills needed to be a good employee and those needed to manage a team. If organizations invested more in developing critical leadership skills, which includes teaching leaders how to create an inclusive climate in their teams, where people feel free to speak up and report sensitive issues, they will improve not just team effectiveness, but organizational culture.

Select leaders who have integrity and competence

Although leadership development is indispensable, the best predictor of how well managers and leaders respond to any training intervention is how much potential they have in the first place. If organizations spent more time carefully vetting leaders on qualities such as integrity, humility, and altruism (as well as ensuring they have a minimum level of people skills and curiosity), they would dramatically reduce the frequency of workplace incivility and counterproductive work behaviors. As research shows, toxic workers corrupt cultures and inhibit the potential benefits that talented employees bring to the organization, and this is exacerbated when they are put in leadership roles. 

Provide channels for anonymous reporting

We can’t expect most leaders to create open and transparent communication with their teams, where people feel the freedom to speak up and report harassment. Organizations must put in place other tools and processes that make anonymous reporting no risk to employees. For all the bad press that surveillance tech gets, the bright side is that it can document and register offenses, and protect those who report toxic behaviors. This is not an HR problem, but an organizational problem. For technology to help, leaders must be interested in helping, too.

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Incentivize and protect people who speak up

We can’t expect the majority of employees to display outstanding moral courage and risk their own careers by speaking up, so employers need to offer serious protection and even incentives for people to help improve their cultures from the bottom-up. Policy and processes follow the ethics and ethos of a company. They are the basic rules that determine whether the norm is a culture of integrity or a parasitic and corrupt culture. But they also reflect what is in place, to begin with.

Take action when inappropriate behavior is reported

Investigate, coach, counsel, and in some cases, remove the person who has behaved in an unprofessional manner. If you want people to feel safe at work, you need to take their well-being seriously. This includes properly investigating, holding people accountable for inappropriate behaviors, and taking action against offenders.

We believe that it’s vital for business leaders—and for employees at all levels—to believe in and commit to the potential of workplaces around the world to shape lives and society in a positive way.  It’s discouraging that the conclusion reached by many that no company can be trusted, no company is worth commitment or affection. And we believe in the potential of employers to create value and provide great places to work.

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We are not claiming that this is easy or even prevalent, but rather that it’s possible and that we cannot give up. When individuals give up on institutions, we’re all at enormous risk of falling into a vicious cycle of cynicism and instrumentalism that boils down to taking care of oneself – and letting others do likewise.  To care about a larger cause, a purpose, a community, is to be an easy mark. Why take that risk?

Because societies collapse when too many people think this way. 

When employees stop caring about their companies, that they also start to care less about the services those companies provide, and also to care less about their customers. If no one owes anything to anyone, it’s not just employee beware but also employer beware and buyer beware. Each one for himself. Worse, if one never cares, one is no longer obligated to speak up against injustice, mistreatment, or even fraud.

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We must not conclude that speaking up isn’t worthwhile but instead resolve to work harder to hire and promote people who live up to the organization’s values and standards.   


Amy C. Edmondson, Ph.D. is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She has written numerous books and articles and is best known for her research on psychological safety, summarized in her recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His most recent book is Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).

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