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As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But there are some words that evoke stronger feelings than others.

One such word is “toxic,” which, the Oxford Dictionary dubbed 2018’s “Word of the Year,” based in large part on how often the word was entered into online search engines.

But as Scott Mautz points out in his Inc.article, the really intriguing thing about this “poisonous” “Word of the Year” is what it signifies about the modern workplace.

Among the top 10 searches in which “toxic” appeared were:

  • Toxic masculinity (#2)
  • Toxic environment (#5)
  • Toxic relationship (#6)
  • Toxic culture (#7)

“Toxic masculinity,” Mautz writes, is probably a misnomer. It actually should be toxic misogyny or a toxic prejudice of men toward women – basically sexual harassment or general hostility toward women.

As Mautz describes them, the characteristics of a “toxic culture” are not being able to speak your mind and that taking risks does not get rewarded. “Toxic relationships” are signified by lashing out versus listening and dishing out more criticism than praise.

I don’t know about you, but the most-searched word in 2018 does not leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling at the start of the new year.

It did, though, remind me of a project I did several years ago to determine the issues causing a “negative” work environment in a manufacturing facility. Over a couple of days, another consultant and I conducted individual confidential interviews with supervisors and the management team.

When each day was done, I met my colleague at the entrance to the plant and we drove back to the hotel in silence. When I got to my room, I couldn’t wait to get my clothes off and get into the shower. It was that bad. I just felt dirty.

My colleague and I got together for dinner and began to summarize the plant’s issues. This was long before “toxic” was in vogue but if it had been – or had we conducted this project in 2018 – we would have used that word in our report, which described and substantiated all the issues we had identified.

While the solutions were obvious, we did not feel that management would take appropriate action… and we said so, even though I knew I was taking both a performance and interpersonal risk (which are both aspects of learning agility that I didn’t know at the time).

About six months later, the plant manager and two of his department heads were terminated. The incoming plant manager read our report and dismissed it. He put it in a file and, two years later, reread the report, called me and said that we had accurately described every issue he had had to address.

While I admittedly felt some level of satisfaction at being vindicated, I told the new plant manager that it was unfortunate so many people had to suffer for so long as the situation reached the level it had when we came in to evaluate.

So, what’s the point?

I didn’t enjoy Mautz’s article. I certainly don’t enjoy toxic people or toxic environments, and I have worked with and in both. I don’t view the world through rose colored glasses, but if given the opportunity, I want to build capable employees and productive work environments.

People who know me know my passion is (and will be for the rest of my career) learning agility. Learning agility is finding yourself in an environment in which you have never been before, not knowing what to do and then figuring it out.

It consists of nine dimensions:

  • Speed
  • Flexibility
  • Performance Risk Taking
  • Interpersonal Risk Taking
  • Collaborating
  • Feedback Seeking
  • Information Gathering
  • Experimenting
  • Feedback Seeking

In terms of toxic environments, you have two choices: 1) change them; or 2) change environments/jobs.  Technically, there is a third – put up with it – but in 2019, for me, that is not an option.

So, if I made the decision to stay, what would I do? I’d employ learning agility.

First, I would try to find some like-minded people (Collaborating). You could always go it alone, but there is strength in numbers. Second, I would speak up when something was unacceptable (Interpersonal Risk Taking). Next might be showing others what appropriate looks like (Performance Risk Taking).

I might try to gauge other’s views (Feedback Seeking) to identify supporters and detractors. I might also engage in some Information Gathering to more strongly support my position.

Of course, doing something like this, you may get met with resistance (ex: “Don’t confuse me with the facts”). I didn’t say this was going to be easy.  Don’t assume that just because you’re taking the high road that others – particularly those who are contributing to a toxic workplace – are going to join you.

Personally, I am not going to accept this inappropriate type of behavior without trying to change it using the high road.

David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at E·A·S·I-Consult®. E·A·S·I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E·A·S·I-Consult specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E·A·S·I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.