Alienate Your Team With Toxic Conversations

Imagine a conversation that goes; “Why did you do it this way? I need you to use more common sense. You’re not understanding what I’m trying to achieve. You’ve wasted a lot of time.”
Now inject into that a tone that says, “I’m frustrated. You’re annoying me. You’re wrong – you don’t see what I see.”
Spice that up with some short, sharp directions, and frequently cutting the person off – interrupting them to interject.
Now imagine it’s your boss talking to you. The feeling is utterly demoralizing. It’s like a pressure cooker. Your heart rate is up. It’s harder to breathe.
Later, you’ll remember it, and you’ll feel there are any number of things you’d rather be doing. Even if your boss comes to you to apologize, you’ll still be thinking about the next time, and all the times before.
Perhaps worst of all, you lose a little respect each time, for the person that can’t contain frustration and can’t successfully process emotions in the face of the challenges of running a business. Even if they say, “You understand, don’t you? I’m very busy right now; I’ve got a lot on my plate, and a lot of it is stressful.” in some wise you know it’s not just that.
In fact, that’s really the test, isn’t it? If they can’t retain their composure and comport themselves generously when there’s a bump, it seems to be about *who* they are, not what’s happening around them.

Evaluate Your Own Workplace Toxin Levels

The only subjective evaluation we should use is on ourselves.

If we set aside workplace bullying, intimidation, the use of public shame, and other arsehole management indicators, which admittedly may be worse, emotionally toxic feedback is still pretty bad.

The toxic work culture is about blame. Even if it’s subtle, and we say “I’m not blaming you,” blame is present. A toxic work culture shifts responsibility for mind-reading to the employee and accountability for conflicting or unclear commands away from the boss.

The problem for the company is that it can’t scale like that or, if it does, stress will drive the turnover of frustrated talent, and inefficiency will hamstring its endeavors.

To the toxic boss, this is actually more acceptable than change. As long as we can blame other people (“They couldn’t cut it.” “He was soft.” “She just didn’t get our work culture.” “People aren’t responsible these days.”), the root cause will stay hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of personality.

So what if *you* are the one creating a toxic work culture, and you’ve decided to change? Maybe you think you can’t help yourself, or you’re confused about why it’s happening. Here are some basic protocols for a company culture detox.

Be Hard on Performance, Soft on People

You can and should hold your team members to stellar performance metrics, but they need to be measurable and objective. The number of times “you didn’t do what I expected” is not a measurement of the employee, it’s a measure of the person giving them assignments.

It’s also a blind spot. Think of all the times you were pleased because people who work for you did something you didn’t expect. They went beyond; they achieved more than you hoped; they helped you start doing something a new way. Complaints about people loom large, because we’ve confused people with performance, but also because we have a secret belief. We secretly believe that people should do things the way we would do them, because the way we would do them is right. In other words, the required initial leadership trait of believing in ourselves has become toxic, and we believe to the exclusion of others. Criticism of others has become, for us, about being right.

In reality, it’s diversity that strengthens our teams and organizations and lets them scale. It’s openness, not rigidity that drives growth. The most valuable asset a company has is not another clone that does things the way we would do them, if we only had more time. That’s a low-end commodity, and probably not the efficiency boost we hope it is. Every seat on the team really needs to be more than a copy. The consistent value comes from adding people to our team who approach problems differently. Sometimes that means we get unexpected results; sometimes we like the results; sometimes we don’t. Leadership looks beyond the immediate moment to the benefit this will ultimately bring the business. Families, societies, and teams of every kind work exactly the same way.

Stop Asking Your Employees “Why?”

“Why” questions are almost always personal attacks, and that fact isn’t lost on the listener. How you talk to your people is the best indicator of what you really believe, and your real attitude toward employees. If it’s blame centered, it will be full of “You…” statements and “Why…” questions. Communication over objective performance is based on deliverables, not “What were you thinking?” or “Why did you waste this time?” If you’re personally and psychologically attacking employees, or anyone else in your life, face the mirror and focus only on what is external to the person. Effective feedback separates the person from the performance. When you fail to do this, as a leader and as an organization, it comes out as “You….”. Healthy companies don’t measure people; they measure final outcomes. If it’s not measurable, it’s personal.

Going back in time is also potentially toxic. “I wanted this” is not the same as “I want this”. So they gave you something other than what you had in mind. Does it really matter what you wanted? You weren’t clear. The past applies only to you. For them, it’s the present. Either accept what they delivered with gratitude or ask for a new deliverable; don’t tread back in time and pretend it isn’t a psychological attack. If you have to step outside of reality so far that it requires winding back the clock, you’re up to something that feels good in the moment, but you should know it’s not worthy of you.

Own Your Responsibility for the Subjective Environment

If you want to provide people big picture objectives, and have them turn those into rational actions, you are conceding that *they*, not you, get to determine *how* they deliver. If you said, “I need a comparison of the top six vendors in this field,” and they deliver you a powerpoint, you don’t ask why they didn’t use a spreadsheet. That’s an accusation. It’s a minor one, but criticism has the special characteristic of compounding over time. Instead, you can say, “Oh. I’m sorry; what I really wanted was a spreadsheet.” The onus is on you, if you want the work done a certain way. The same is true if they call each vendor for the info when you were envisioning them looking it up on line (or vice versa). The more you zoom out, the more you yield on methodology.

Likewise, to the degree you want work done a certain way, you are accepting more of a supervisory role, and aren’t just communicating high level objectives. In that case, you’re responsible to provide clear criteria for the deliverables. Then, and only then, do you have a measurable and objective component. At that point, if you didn’t get what you asked for, and you were precise, you still don’t criticize the person. You say, “This isn’t what I want. I want a spreadsheet of internet results,” and you leave it at that. Ambiguity and subjectivity are leadership issues, not employee performance issues.

You can’t have it both ways. Either zoom in and indicate how it should be done, and accept that you’d prefer to be a supervisor, or zoom out and be flexible, owning any clarifications yourself. That’s management.

Make Evaluation Routine, Not Like a Pop Quiz or Continual Drip

Feedback should never be a surprise for the employee. It should be more like a routine dental exam, and mostly positive – less like a supervisory mugging. Likewise, if you’re giving feedback continually, you remove the space necessary to maintain and achieve goals. It’s emotionally untenable. And if the employee says they appreciate it, that’s because you’ve created a culture where the employee has bought into your game. Or else they’re saying it because they’re scared. Either way, it has ceased to be constructive; it has become about personality (“I’m displeased.” “I’m frustrated with you.” “Now I’m happy with you.” “Now I’m displeased again”). The need to constantly express is not a leadership trait; it’s toxic. The need to express right now is an emotional compulsion to vent, not an act of deliberate and thoughtful leadership.

Schedule evaluations weekly in the first month, monthly in the first quarter, and quarterly after that. Or use some other sensible but orderly system that’s routine. If you’re giving feedback more often, and telling yourself “It’s because I have to. They need it. They aren’t doing what I want.” you’ve tricked yourself into thinking that leadership is cracking the whip. Random, frequent complaints, interspersed with praise, removes the credibility for all of it. You’ll not only not get the performance you want; you’ll preserve an environment that ensures employee frustration. You won’t scale, because as you tense up and the road ahead gets aggressive, your team will desert you when you need them most. Some will stay, and shrug off your behavior, but you won’t respect them for it, any more than they’ll truly respect you. Dysfunctional feedback is shortsighted.

Don’t Try This At Home – Doing it Without a Coach is a Messy Recipe

Full disclosure: none of these ideas are original. They come from advice I’ve received. It’s not that I have no experience. As Managing Editor of one of the earliest global 100% digital publications, I grew a team of 35 to a team of 70, and I had a lot of help and support. I’ve run several small businesses, mostly with contractors, because the W-2 didn’t make sense to me (still doesn’t). I’ve trained, coached, and led teams of salespeople, and now I facilitate teams for other companies and organizations, as their external Marketing Director. But none of this understanding was innate, for me. I have had to learn it, sometimes through instinct and some through trial and error.

Most importantly, I got a coach, and I attribute most of the wisdom I bring to interpersonal relationships to him. He’s a master of calm within a storm, and of staying objective when emotions would sabotage one’s dreams. I wouldn’t dream of doing any of this without coaches. Landmark Education has made a tremendous difference. My partnerships at BNI have strengthened me as a professional. And stellar coaching has given me a stellar set of clients.

You know who you are, and you have my thanks and the thing that a coach wants most – my continued dedication to go farther.

If you’d like some help with your marketing team, reach out to MadPipe.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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