Compliments of Michael Branson Smith via Flickr

“Self-centered behavior can lead to an excessive focus on self-gratification at work, which can result in the violation of others’ rights, or in abuses of control, bullying, and exploitation…” (Gilbert, Carr-Ruffino, Ivancevich, & Konopaske, 2011).

The recent New York Times piece (alleging toxicity within Goldman Sachs) was surprising both from a content and authorship perspective. The penman was an employee who publicly submitted his resignation letter online.

To elicit such a scathing editorial, the abrogation of psychological contract must have been extreme. Smith argues that one of the primary reasons he quit was an increasingly egocentric focus by managers at his firm. In their book “A Complaint is a Gift” Barlow and Moller explain that loss of customer focus can lead to the downfall of any business. Customers can be both internal (e.g., in this case, a disillusioned employee), and external to the firm.

In our article Toxic versus Cooperative Behaviors at Work: The Role of Organizational Culture and Leadership in Creating Community-Centered Organizations, we argue that companies with the right leadership can create value added for employees. Overly demanding bosses, colleagues who don’t feel the need to self-censor, and over-focus on self-advancement all contribute to toxicity. 

Below are a few of our recommendations for recalibrating your workplace:

  • Trust your workers. In his resignation letter, Smith states: “It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.” We suggest that excessive monitoring and micromanagement will not only create an atmosphere of distrust, but they will encourage employees to keep their mouths shut. A workplace may be toxic if “employees avoid disagreements with managers for fear of reprisal (Jones, 1996).” Complaints which are unaddressed internally have a unique way (with social media) of finding a larger outlet. After Smith’s letter was posted, Goldman Sachs’ shares dropped 3.4 percent.
  • Treat employees as partners. No one wants to be “managed” by an individual who occasionally rides in on his or her high horse and issues edicts. What employees prefer is a collaborator in arms whom they work with, not for. In some cases (as Semler notes), this can result in exploitation by a small segment of the population – but, doing otherwise may alienate the remainder, who resent policies which assume they are children. Dr. Wayne Dyer recently mentioned that spirit doesn’t like to be constricted. This sentiment is as true in personal life as it is in business.
  • Get rid of performance appraisals. Any leader worth his/her salt should be communicating with employees year round, addressing issues as they occur — instead of waiting for a single grand finale to ‘zap’ unsuspecting workers. Rather, the focus should be on crafting a performance plan that capitalizes on peoples’ strengths (and outlines areas of development) in a career management trajectory.
  • Create a culture of connection. Relentless focus on individual rewards can cause people to be self-serving, especially if there is no downside for cutting corners or (in the worst case scenario) for exploiting lower ranking colleagues. Bonuses (issued to workers who help other people) may spawn a culture that moves from survival of the fittest to development of the kindest. “When leaders in organizations routinely display toxicity toward their employees (exhibited through excessive employee monitoring, micro-management, and politically-motivated performance appraisals), the outcomes will be radically different than from organizations in which community or collaboration is practiced.” A corporate version of The Hunger Games is not what employees want.
  • Make personal development and continual adjustments part of your regimen. Ask for feedback, alter your course, and make those with whom you interact a part of the process. [Keep reminding yourself that they are the reason you have a job in the first place]. Make other development as opposed to self-aggrandizement a part of your daily routine.  
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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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