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July 2, 2009 3:40 PM Age: 11 yrs

Does Your Organization Suffer from Toxic Work Environment Syndrome?

Category: Larry Checco
Source:  Larry Checco

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We’ve all sat in on those meetings.  You know, the ones around the conference table when a decision is about to be made.  Knowing something of consequence is going to be discussed and acted on, the first thing most of us do is start to take a reading of the others gathered around the table.  We note their general moods, attitudes, facial expressions, side conversations, even their body language.  

Which way is the crowd leaning and how much of a risk am I willing to take if I decide to go against the will of the majority?  It’s a difficult question, especially when personal standing with one’s boss and co-workers is on the line, perhaps even one’s job.

It’s also a sign of toxic work environment syndrome, which can do great harm to an organization’s brand.

Case in Point

On Tuesday, October 26, 2007, the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA, held a press conference—of sorts.   Wild fires were burning out of control in Southern California.  At least 1,500 homes had been destroyed and over 500,000 acres of land burned from Santa Barbara to the U.S. Mexican border.  Nine people died as a direct result of the fires; 85 others were injured, including at least 61 firefighters.   Newsworthy stuff. 

Evidently FEMA was desperate  to get information out to the public about the assistance it was providing—as well as to “spin” what the agency believed was the good work it was doing to help victims. 

Reporters were notified a mere 15 minutes before the start of the event.  It should not have surprised anyone at FEMA that none were able to attend this quickly assembled “news” event.   

The briefing, which was being broadcast live by Fox News and MSNBC, had all the markings of a legitimate press conference,  FEMA's press secretary at one point cautioned that he would allow just "two more questions", then called later for a "last question".  

The problem was that in the absence of any legitimate press, those posing the questions were FEMA employees—including the agency’s deputy director of public affairs and its director of external affairs!  They had planted themselves in the audience to query their own agency’s Deputy Administrator with questions The New York Times would later call "decidedly friendly”, such as "What type of commodities are you pledging to California?", "What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?" and "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?"

Of course, to the great embarrassment of FEMA and the administration, this was all quickly unearthed and endlessly reported by the media.  In the end, FEMA was forced to issue an apology, calling it “an error in judgment”.  Then-Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, said it was the “stupidest” thing he’d ever seen in government. 

But the question remains: How did this public agency, whose reputation, or brand, was already in tatters because of its dismal response to Hurricane Katrina just two years prior, expect to get away with this ruse? Where was the rational, common-sense braveheart sitting at the conference table while this plan was being hatched who should have been frantically waving his or her arms and shouting, “This is not the right thing for us to be doing.   Our agency already is suffering from the public’s lack of trust in our ability to carry out our mission.  When this gets discovered (and how could it not!   This was taking place in Washington, DC, after all), it’s not going to help our cause.  It’s only going to reinforce the public’s distrust and perception of our ineptitude.”   

A partial answer may lie in the cascade effect.

The Cascade Effect

Some refer to it as an “information cascade.” 

The problem often starts when people make their decisions in sequence rather than all at once.   In his book entitled “The Wisdom of Crowds,” author James Surowiecki says that “The fundamental problem with an information cascade is that after a certain point it becomes rational for people to stop paying attention to their own information –their private information—and to start looking instead at the actions of others and imitate them.” 

I would add that this type of negative cascade effect is exacerbated in organizations where senior and mid-level managers would rather be seen as authoritative figures, obeyed and followed, than transformative leaders who, when presented with honest, constructive criticism, take it into serious consideration and possibly alter their mindsets.

An information cascade is similar to groupthink, whereby a group of people manifest conformity in their thoughts and behavior, especially an unthinking acceptance of majority opinions. Groupthink reinforces collective thought, not so much from a base of common sense, or rational thinking, but because of a strong hierarchical pecking order often in combination with strong peer pressure.

The simple fact is that when the ability to speak one’s truth to authority is leached from the environment, many organizations either fail in their missions or create emotionally unhealthy workplaces, which result in bad decision making.   In toxic environments like these, it doesn’t take long to reach a tipping point where negative groupthink and the information cascade replace good, old fashion common sense.

I firmly believe this is the reason for our current financial crisis.  There were many people in financial institutions who knew what was going on, knew it wasn’t right, but were afraid to upset the corporate applecart, as well as to face ostracism by fellow coworkers and perhaps even risk their job security.

What can be done.

This is a leadership style issue and requires a change in corporate culture.

Here are some suggestions for getting started:

·         Allow staff to speak its truth to your authority without fear of reprisal or retribution.  You’d be surprised what you might learn.

·         Avoid bully management.  It may work to meet short-term tactical deadlines but not long term strategic goals.

·         Solicit the opinions of others.  Staff don’t necessarily always want their way, but they do want to know that they’ve been listened to.  Listening can often diffuse tense situations.

·         Be open to change.  Ideological thinking may not be the best strategy, especially for these fast-changing times.  Be open, rather than threatened, by new ideas that come from your staff.

·         Be respectful.  “Thank you” are the two most undervalued words in the English language.  Coupled with “Good morning” and a smile every now and then, can often relieve a lot of daily office tension—and may just produce a lot better, more honest, process when it comes to decision making.


Published by: Corporate Governance & Accountability Advisors, Inc. Content & Concepts ©2008 by CG&AA, Inc. All rights reserved