Monthly Archives: April 2009

Poor Office Process, Poisonous Office Environment (and costs that will send you into toxic shock)


Are engineering and sales pointing fingers at each other? How about customer service and parts? Or HR and branch locations? How about sales and marketing management? Or IT and the rest of the front and back office? Okay, you’re like any other company. But do you have even the slightest sense of what all this dissonance is costing you?

Probably not. In which case you ought to grab or access the April 2009 edition of “Harvard Business Review” and read some sobering data. Very sobering.

April’s HBR features a very pithy one-page abstract by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, How Toxic Colleagues Corrode Performance, which may very well peel back your eyelids. Their data alone might scare you into action–including running some toxic employees out of town.
You can’t fire the problem

But here’s the irony. Just firing these people won’t accomplish much, because a new set of “bad actors” will quickly fill their shoes. A relatively small percentage of inherently dysfunctional folks notwithstanding, the vast majority of these toxic employees didn’t start off toxic. Instead, their work environment created interpersonal strife by giving people and functions conflicting messages and conflicting goals, and they eventually succumbed to the venal side of human nature. 

The primary culprit is bad work design, not bad people.

That’s the case in almost every one of these toxic situations we’ve walked into over many years of consulting. Poorly designed office process creates conflicting sets of personal and functional interests, and when people and functions pursue their self-interests, the sparks fly. That, in turn, brings out the basest human instincts in some; causes others to withdraw or flee; pushes people who can get past their self-interests into the line of fire (punish the innocent); creates discord everywhere; triggers retribution–until the whole office goes dysfunctional. And then the company cans a few perps, only to have new ones almost immediately step up to the plate.

That’s usually the time when clients engage us–when it becomes painfully obvious that replacing people isn’t the answer–and eliminating sources of toxicity is. Unfortunately, a considerable amount of damage has already occurred.

But isn’t this the norm?

Hey–every office is a bit dysfunctional, no? So why get all bent out of shape? Here’s where Porath and Pearson really shine. While I don’t want to violate HBR’s copyright, I will give you this juicy quote:

Berating bosses; employees who take credit for others’ work, assign blame or spread rumors; and coworkers who exclude teammates from networks–all these can cut a swath of destruction visible only to the immediate victims.

Visible only to the immediate victims, perhaps, but damaging the entire company, especially the bottom line.

How much damage?

Unfortunately, the authors lack the data to convert negative employee behavior into specific dollar costs, but they have quantified the frequency of different types of negative employee reactions to office dysfunction. From there, it doesn’t take much imagination to project whether the size of the dollar loss is a golf ball, a baseball, a softball, a soccer ball or a basketball. It’s a damn blimp!

How employees react to dysfunctional office environments

Again, I don’t want to give away the goods so you won’t go buy the magazine, especially because the article is only a page long. But between 80% and 38% of employees reported specific reactions ranging from loss of commitment to the organization to decreased work quality.  From a process designer’s perspective, when I add it all up it’s not a trickle, not a flow, but a damn gusher of dollars flowing out the door.

But since we’re in a recession, we can afford it, eh?