Requiring respect at work counters toxicity and builds health

5th September 2022

Mental health problems at work are infectious. Of course they are not physically infectious, but depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders spread between and within organisational boundaries through social contagion.

This is the finding of three Danish researchers, Kensbock, Alkærsig and Lomberg, writing in the Administrative Science Quarterly. They found an epidemic-like distribution of mental disorders occurred through employee mobility.

“Employees leaving unhealthy organizations act as “carriers” of these disorders regardless of whether they themselves have received a formal diagnosis of a mental disorder. The effect is especially pronounced if the newcomer holds a managerial position.”

A related epidemic that spreads in a similar way is toxicity. We have probably all witnessed contagion happening within firms if we allow the influence of toxic people to spread. Toxic managers are particularly hazardous to the health of a company. They poison the atmosphere by bullying, disrespecting people, playing political games, undermining others, and blocking colleagues’ initiative and progression. It’s hard to pin down, but wherever they go trust drops and nastiness grows.

When this happens our best people leave for healthier environments, and those who remain find themselves inexorably pulled down until they begin showing symptoms of nastiness too. When toxicity rules, mental health problems escalate. People become depressed, paranoid and anxious.

The tragedy is that toxicity seems to be the norm in so many organisations, so those entering them assume naturally that this is the way managers should behave. Demands for exaggerated status and demonstrations of respect (“Call me madam”) mean underlings dare not speak truth to power. They put their heads down and do the very minimum lest any initiative attract an attack. They are disempowered and have to leave or become a pitiful mini-me of the boss.

Those who own and run their own companies have an opportunity to counter both mentalillness and toxicity by the integrity and respect shown in their actions and words. This is not just a good thing to do, but an essential part of building the healthy company culture in which people thrive and do their best work – for the benefit of the customer, the owner and themselves.

I have just completed a series of columns here featuring coaching of people at different levels in a company. I began it on 31 May this year with an introductory piece that suggested that times like these require a coaching approach, not just from professional coaches, but from line managers and business owners.

We owe it to ourselves, to our teams, and to society in general to lead in a way that affirms the human dignity and potential of each person – even or especially those we disagree with, dislike, or differ from. It is easy to respect those we admire; the real test of character is to treat those we do not admire with the respect due to them as human beings, regardless of how little we believe they may have earned it. To meet disrespect with more disrespect is to continue the rise of toxicity in an arms race of nastiness.

This does not at all mean allowing people to get away with poor performance; it means “speaking the truth in love”. Toxic people must change or go. Organisational culture is not a soft topic or nice-to-have. The “way we do things” deeply influences how people behave in the company, and therefore how customers or clients are treated; and this influences the kind of society we all live in.

The wise leader will look out for early symptoms of toxicity and nip them in the bud, both by demonstrating deep respect for everyone and by making respect for each other a performance requirement for each person in the company.

Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 5 September 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-09-05-jonathan-cook-requiring-respect-at-work-counters-toxicity-and-builds-health/ ).

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