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Toxic Work Environments: Yeah, It Is That Deep

During one of the first sessions for every cohort of the Authentically Me Fellowship, we walk participants through the characteristics of White supremacy culture that show up in organizations. It’s always a sobering feeling seeing so many women of color awaken in real time to how they’ve been disrespected and mistreated in their places of work and how enlightened yet hurt they feel finally being able to put a descriptor on their experiences.

While it’s become more acceptable to speak about toxic workplaces openly (see examples from cultures that have been exposed through celebrities and public figures like Lizzo, Jimmy Fallon, and Ibram X. Kendi), the personal toll that it takes on those of the receiving end of the abuse cannot be understated. Toxic workplaces directly result from White supremacist values in action and are the largest driver of turnover and decreased mental health among employees. These damaging workspaces, then, are not a one-off experience from a disgruntled or overly-sensitive employee but have real consequences on the health, safety, economic stability, and professional growth of the individuals that inhabit them.

Looking at toxic workspaces through a DEI lens is the antidote needed to cultivate working cultures that are built on respect, trust, appreciation, and connectivity. A ‘difficult boss’ is not just a difficult boss when their power has the ability to shift the experiences of their direct reports negatively. Viewing behaviors like micromanaging, making back-door decisions, or bullying as inequitable and unjust practices can help to shift cultures from believing those things are commonplace to treating them as symptoms of oppression.

Behaviors that are intrinsic to toxic workspaces get transferred over and handed down to other employees over time if they are not mindful of them or if they don’t feel empowered to challenge said behaviors. This is how many Black and Brown people end up with managers who look like them yet treat them with the same discontent that they might encounter from a White supervisor. A toxic working culture picks up on the worst elements of our society and uses them as the standard way to get things done– but an effective DEI strategy has the power to shift this dynamic. Everyday actions that can be taken to change course include:

Leaning Into Discomfort and Disagreement

I once coached a young woman who was bullied by her direct supervisor for the entirety of her first year on the job. When she finally built up the courage to address the mistreatment head-on, the supervisor abruptly ended the conversation, flipped a chair over, and stormed out of the room. The supervisor immediately ran to the vice president of their department to report the incident in a way that painted her as a victim.

While that is a more obvious example of what not to do as a leader, many People Managers employ similar violent behavior by shutting down room for critical feedback. Leaning into disagreement is an opportunity for growth. Responding instead of reacting to the feedback direct reports share on their experiences with you as their manager is a crucial first step in changing an unhealthy dynamic.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

A tell-tale sign of a toxic work culture (and one that too often impacts Black and Brown women) is the inability of managers to delegate meaningful responsibilities to their teams. Without a system and practice for sharing responsibilities in place, employees can quickly and easily spot that they are not trusted and their abilities are doubted. Believing that employees need to be ‘ramped up’ into the very role that they were hired for is a mask for hiding the fact that there is only one proper way to approach work in that culture. Delegating responsibilities and trusting employees to deliver on the work in the way that they see fit strengthens the work culture.

In a capitalistic world where we will spend more than 80% of our lives working, it’s urgent to create working cultures and systems that inspire employees to be their most authentic and best selves. Encountering a toxic work environment can drain the life out of you. If you’re a leader struggling with that demoralizing experience or an organization ready to truly make change, schedule a consultation with ShiftED Consulting today.

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