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Practising respect can counter workplace toxicity

7th April 2022

Will Smith’s Oscar slap has generated a huge debate about toxic masculinity, with some decrying his hitting Chris Rock on stage as an example of how men are programmed socially to be violent, some supporting his courage in defending his wife, and others looking for reasons in his childhood to explain his bizarre reaction.

But toxicity is gender-neutral. It is true the damage caused by male toxicity is clearly evident every day – not just in cases of individual physical and verbal violence, but also in the systemic oppression that still today condemns many women in many places to powerlessness and deemed inferiority.

I really do not want to go there; but I do want to use the occasion to address toxicity at the workplace. It is huge and destructive.

Every day good people come home, pushed into bad behaviour by sheer rage, frustration and helplessness by horrible bosses, careless colleagues, dishonest suppliers and impossible customers.

This leads to mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, family violence, and the perpetuation of dysfunctional patterns in social life.

Why do we do this to each other?

More importantly, how can we stop it?

The “Why?” question can be answered by the three great origins of behaviour: genes, environment and choice. The nature/nurture debate has pretty well been settled by good research that shows that genes and upbringing both interact to create the propensity to act.

For example, evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson studied homicide in different places. They have a fascinating graph comparing homicides In Chicago from 1965 to 1990 and England and Wales from 1974 to 1990. Firstly, it records male perpetrators only, because women committed too few homicides to appear on the graph. Secondly, the age distribution of homicide for the two places is indistinguishable – both rise steeply to peak at about 21 or 22, and then fall steadily to approach zero after age 65.

This identical line for Chicago and England & Wales would suggest genetic factors as the origin of violence, acting for example through testosterone. But astonishingly, the incidence in Chicago was thirty times higher than in England and Wales! That clearly supports environmental origins of violence.

I hope people are not killing each other physically at your workplace, but I am pretty sure they damage each other regularly through non-physical assaults. This research on homicide suggests that while some of us may be more prone to antisocial behaviour than others of us, the emergence of this toxicity is highly subject to the culture in which we find ourselves.

This brings us to the third determinant of behaviour: choice. There are many things we cannot choose, but given time to practise, we can choose to develop habits that do not surrender to our instincts or toxic role models. We do this by practising respect – both for others and ourselves. This is not a choice made in the heat of the moment, but the result of a lifetime of practice. Even those not blessed with parents who taught them to respect others can still learn this key lesson when taught by caring and insistent leaders. Sometimes a coach or therapist can help develop new habits.

Will Smith might have felt driven by his inner demons when he jumped up to hit Chris Rock. Maybe he experienced little choice then. But he does have a choice now to practise constructive responses over the rest his life, so that next time his automatic reaction will be constructive. And those of us privileged to manage others can choose to treat our colleagues with dignity and create a culture in which people learn to exercise choices responsibly. The true test of leadership is what our followers choose to do.

Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute.


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