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Staff Turnover and Combating Toxic Management

I think that you would be hard pressed to find a large business or organization without some kind of expectation statement about how employees should be treated. It usually includes values like encouraging diversity, supporting personal development and interactions being managed with respect. Yet I think you would be equally hard pressed to find an individual who has worked for one of these organizations who does not have a story where they or someone they knew has been mistreated severely by their place of employment. Some explain this discrepancy by labeling the values statement as a cynical exercise, an empty document meant to placate some combination of unions, government regulators, consumers or shareholders. Certainly there have been and probably are examples of this kind of hypocrisy but I don’t think that can be said of the vast majority of corporations and organizations.

Executives and members of Boards of Management are in the main not the “dark lords” that Hollywood frequently portrays, so why then does this discrepancy occur? Why are employees sometimes treated very differently to the written intent of the organization? Particularly given how important morale is to an organization’s culture and profitability. While there are likely a number of factors, part of the answer I believe is the presence of bad middle managers. These bad managers, aided by a general reluctance by employees to complain about their superiors, are adept at hiding the toxic environments they create. They use the natural trust that busy businesses depend upon to deflect blame from themselves. This is particularly so when production or sales or other primary targets are being meet. Importantly, bad managers are very convincing because they are true believers in their own version of reality.

So where does this leave business? Can senior executives comfort themselves that this is not occurring in their organizations because it is not visible to them or should they do more? And if so, then what should they do? Certainly, there is a lot of noise to filter out, such as the dysfunctional employee who accuses their hard pressed manager of bullying; when the manager is simply expecting or telling that employee to do the job they are paid to do. I would argue that Senior Executives, supported by their human resources areas, have a responsibility to address toxic management.

And if they care to look the evidence will be there. For example, while not ‘stand-alone’ pieces of data, staff turnover should be monitored and exit interviewed should be valued. Unusually high staff turnover in a particular area should be investigated. It may be benign but it might actually be a sign that there is an issue. Leaders need to be brave enough to want to know and act on the truth. Apart from the moral obligation I would expect that the tangible results would be significant. Employees want to do a good job, it is important to give meaning to their lives. Give them the tools, resources and environment and they will do a good job for their organizations.