Resist Toxic Culture
The Nap Ministry | Enmeshment | Can Toxic Workplaces Be Fixed?
Quote of the Moment: The Nap Ministry
Grind culture has normalized pushing our bodies to the brink of destruction. We proudly proclaim showing up to work or an event despite an injury, sickness, or mental break. We are praised and rewarded for ignoring our body’s need for rest, care, and repair. The cycle of grinding like a machine continues and becomes internalized.
| Tricia Hersey, Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto
I read about Tricia Hersey’s experiences that led to her creating The Ministry of Nap, where she was exhausted and nearly burned out from the grueling stress of graduate school work. One day she simply allowed herself to nap, and blam:
The epiphany happened nearly a decade ago, and in the intervening years she has turned her personal transformation into a movement.
Hersey, now 48, began inviting people to nap collectively while she offered soothing sermons about the sheer power of sleep and dreaming. She shared the notion that “rest is resistance” with a growing and enthusiastic group of followers, both in person and online, who were also weary of the grind.
Thus the Nap Ministry was born, and Hersey anointed herself its Nap Bishop. She urges followers to use time they might otherwise devote to extra work to sleeping instead, the stretches they’d spend staring at a screen to staring into space. Tense moments given over to worry about disappointing others would be better spent reflecting on our own needs and comforts, Hersey said. It’s about collectively refusing to run ourselves into the ground.
I read Not here to make friends, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher and came away disagreeing with most of her arguments about the benefits of work friendships, particularly as an antidote to burnout. My theory is that we should solve burnout at its core (see Burnout or Betrayal?) and not adopt palliatives. However, I am grateful that she introduced me to the term enmeshment:
If you’re not familiar with the term, enmeshment is a psychological concept usually used to describe family systems where boundaries between people are unclear or nonexistent — such as a parent who is so involved in their child’s life, the child struggles to form an independent identity, or is even punished for doing so. Applied to work, enmeshment might mean adopting a company’s goals as your own, prioritizing work above all else, and identifying so strongly with your career that you’re not even sure who you are without it.
In other words, it’s what a lot of professional work culture touted as totally normal before the pandemic.
Instead, we should work to end the whole deceit of ‘work as family’ as Joshua A. Luna makes clear:
If you’re promoting a family culture, does that make the employer the parents and the employees the children? Not everyone has a good relationship with their parents or siblings and emotions from family dynamics can easily bleed into professional relationships, if allowed.
These dynamics can also leave employees feeling unempowered (the parents usually decide, and the children follow orders) to stand up for themselves and take on work that falls outside of their comfort zone. This allows personalities and pre-determined dynamics to take precedent over what is expected to do their job well.
Another problem arises when it comes down to letting someone go or sharing constructive feedback. In a “family” culture, it almost always will feel personal. You don’t fire a family member, nor do you put them through performance improvement plans. Relationships between employees and employers are temporary in nature, and at some point, have to come to an end. So to liken the relationship to a family creates an allusion that the bond will last indefinitely.
You’ll also risk masking illicit behavior among close-knit coworkers, because how often do you tattle on your family? Studies show that employees who operate within a “familial culture” often fail to report any wrongdoing when they feel closer ties to the perpetrator. Feelings of fear the damage might cause to the perpetrator keep fellow employees quiet and complicit.
This is one form of toxic culture, not an aspirin to cure a burnout headache.
Can Toxic Workplaces be Fixed?
North American CEOs rate healthy company culture as one of the top three among all factors impacting results, and 90% believe improving culture would boost financial performance. However, as with so many other critically important issues, more than 80% say their organization’s culture is not as healthy as it should be, according to Donald Sull and Charles Sull.
In a meta-meta analysis of research into toxic culture (yes, a meta-analysis of earlier meta-analyses) the researchers come away with some great insights and solid recommendations.
One important takeaway: Leadership consistently emerged as the best predictor of toxic culture.
The researchers noted a remarkable level of consistency across the thousands of studies in their meta-meta-analysis of what leads to toxic behavior in the workplace, and as usual, fish stink from the head down.
The authors quote Ed Schein, who pioneered the study of organizational culture:
The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.
Luckily, corporate leaders can take actions that can diminish toxicity, in three critical areas. Here are several points from the first — leadership — and the other two are social norms and work design, which I hope to return to in a follow-up on toxic workplaces.
Quantify the benefits of cultural detox to keep it on the top team’s agenda — There are numerous world-changing challenges that can pull attention away from the critical job of detoxifying culture. But, the authors point out ‘in our experience, the vast majority of CEOs are genuinely concerned about their employees and want to do the right thing’, and leaders need to consistently link culture to hard bottom-line metrics, like employee turnover and health care costs. This helps ground the potentially nebulous aspects of bettering culture with tangible and material aims.
Publicly report progress to keep the pressure on — Keep track of metrics linked to toxic culture, and share them. At this time, ‘As of September 2021, only 11% of the largest 1,000 U.S. companies disclosed their results or more granular data. Large public companies might feel more pressure to report progress in the future as institutional investors push for clarity on how they treat their employees.’
Model the behavior you expect from employees — Senior management must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. What is done in the C-Suite signals what behaviors are allowed.
‘Many employees are justifiably skeptical about how well their leaders live corporate values in their daily actions. More than 80% of large U.S. companies have official core values, with integrity, respect, and diversity among the most frequently listed, but there is no correlation between what companies aspire to and how employees assess them on corporate core values. When leaders act consistently with core values, however, it is one of the most powerful predictors of how positively employees rate their corporate culture.’
Track progress with honest data — Look to external sources like Glassdoor or Indeed to gather ‘unvarnished feedback’ on how the organization is doing. The authors report that ‘The topics employees discuss in online reviews can reliably predict whether a company is likely to commit corporate misconduct or be sued. Leaders cannot afford to disregard external employee reviews when trying to assess their corporate culture, warts and all.’
The researchers also detail how middle management — ‘distributed management’ in their words — has an important and amplifying impact, and can be the source of dangerous toxicity, such as when psychopaths are promoted. ‘Managers who score higher on measures of psychopathy, for example, are more likely to abuse other people. These managers, characterized by aggression and a lack of empathy, are also less likely to modify their behavior even when they understand the pain they cause subordinates.’
I wrote about psychopaths at work in Yes, Your Boss Is A Psychopath:
If you find yourself working for a manipulative, cold, irresponsible boss, you are not alone. But you might not think he’s a realio-trulio psychopath. But he truly could be. (And it’s almost always ‘he’, not ‘she’.)
And when you ask yourself how could this psychopath been promoted into a role theoretically based on sound judgment and acting responsibly, you have to realize that senior executives in the company may have quite different perceptions of your manager than you and your co-workers do. In particular, the traits your boss is demonstrating to his superiors may be considered the hallmarks of management potential, because a surprisingly high number of managers — especially senior executives — are looking for people with psychopathic traits to promote.
Clive Boddy, in A Climate Of Fear: Stone Cold Psychopaths At Work, summarized research on the numbers:
Estimations are that while about 1% of junior employees are corporate psychopaths (assuming an even distribution of psychopaths across society) they exist at a higher incidence of about 4% at senior organizational levels. Notably, these percentages may be even higher in certain types of organizations, as corporate psychopaths are thought to gravitate towards organizations where they can acquire money, power and control, as well as honours and prestige, rather than to the less rewarded and less well-remunerated caring professions. Caring for other people is simply not on their agenda.
Estimates for the proportion of senior executives go even higher.
As I cite in that post, some researchers believe corporate psychopaths are literally killing off internal competitors: so-called red-collar crime.
Homicide is the third most common cause of workplace death.