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Managing Toxicity The Chanakya Way

The issue is not whether the ability to recognize and determine the actions exists. The issue is whether the organization is willing to live with the consequences of the actions that it embarks upon.

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Workplace toxicity (defined simply by Google) is the quality of being harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way. It stems from behaviors unacceptable in the norms of professional life. In most cases such behaviours are also unacceptable in the personal spheres, but several continue with them, primarily due to the tolerance of those at the receiving end, in some cases taking them for granted and in others, taking advantage of their situation, dependent or otherwise. 

The adage of doing unto others like you would have others do to you in general does not apply to those who engage in it. Firstly, constructed of a different mettle, these folks generally move in their professions with bars low enough for themselves on what is acceptable to them. Thus beginning a journey of degradation of the standards of acceptable behaviour at the workplaces that they inhabit. 

In fact the higher the position of such toxicity, the larger the impact, going to the extent of damaging the moral fabric of an organization. The vicious circle thus impacting those who would rather live with higher standards of values and behaviour. Organizations transform into lesser versions of themselves under such leadership. However, in some cases, toxicity could also stem at lower levels, beginning with smaller spheres of influence and then as the chain of reactions spread, with all assuming a certain level of acceptance, thus finding their comfort zones in what would otherwise have been behavioural faux passe. 

Continuing unabated, it has the potential to spread like a disease to the extent of causing the rot to feast on the host. Organizations take a long time to realize the damage done, and longer does it take to undo it. The process painful, the casualties several. Business suffers or perhaps continues in an inexplicable downward spiral awaiting resurrection. Hence, the urgency exists of recognizing it and nipping it at the bud. Tough as it may sound, tougher is its implementation when dealing with someone who may be at a very senior level. However, such signs usually appear much earlier in people's ascend to the higher echelons. The key is to recognize them, and deal with them while they still have limited influence.

Saam, daam, dand, bhed... Chanakya's principles as espoused for rulers and kings to drive the right actions and decisions, are as applicable when dealing with toxic employees as they were with running empires. 

“Saam” or the need to explain, to discuss without any assumptions and with equanimity, in order for the other person to understand. It basically would require a leader or manager to be able to recognize the possibility of willingness to change. More importantly, the openness to feedback lies at the crux of it. This particular tool is usually best used in case of employees who have not had too long a tenure wallowing in their toxicity or have had a limited influence in undertaking such behaviour. The latter of course being an indication of the strength of the rest of the organization in being benign and thus neutralizing such behaviour.

“Daam” or the reward if one were to discontinue toxic behaviour would be a logical next step in case one is unable to get through to a person who is unabatedly continuing with the toxic behaviour, despite the efforts at giving feedback and driving an understanding of what is right or wrong. The assumption being that such a person is worthy of the reward one may have lined up, either by virtue of the unique skills one brings to the table or the fact that the person may have displayed the right behaviours in the past and is typically misled with an assumption of contradicting behaviours being the way to ascension. The key is the belief in worthiness of using the carrot (of the carrot and stick approach). In the absence of the worthiness, the next step would be to move to “Dand” or punishment- the stick that is. 

Typically organizations would use this when both the above steps fail. In other words, neither is an employee willing to listen and nor is he willing to change for betterment of position or another reward. However, the ability of an organization or a leader to move from one to another in a step-by-step format is determined by the time at hand. In other words, the extent of toxicity that an individual is able to spread and its impact on others would determine whether one goes step by step or moves directly to this stage. Whether in the form of documented feedback or a poor rating, one sees the impact of messaging that such actions drive for an employee who needs to mend his or her ways. 

However, many a times, neither of the above yield the results one seeks or seeks within the time frame that is logically available to change behaviours. And that is when the need to move to “Bhed” or the need to threaten with consequences- which of course translate into a demotion or even termination of employment. In certain cases, it is not unheard of to also have the law of the land be evoked to deal with such employees- the impact justifying the means of dealing and thus dissuading others who may have an iota of inclination in going down the same route. 

As mentioned earlier, one may follow the above steps or skip to move directly to the later ones. The assessment of the need to go one way or the other is a function of several factors as well as the ability of an organization or its leader(s) to bell the cat and live with the consequences. 

The issue is not whether the ability to recognize and determine the actions exists. The issue is whether the organization is willing to live with the consequences of the actions that it embarks upon. For sure the hockey stick would happen, but it takes the conviction of the leadership in accepting the interim dip before the positive impact starts moving an organization in the right direction. This especially if the toxicity began at or very close to the top!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Bhavana Bindra

A graduate of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore, Bhavana joined the corporate world starting with Consulting at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), followed by almost 13 years in the Manufacturing & Engineering sector with the US MNC Cummins India Limited. Setting up and running businesses with expertise in the areas of leadership, strategic thinking, sales and marketing, Bhavana believes learning is continuous and experiments worth the time spent. This explains explaining her stint at a start-up in the Data analytics space, as well as her last role in the Chemicals industry as the Managing Director of a Dutch company in India.

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