Workplace toxicity and habits that follow you

Six years ago Google Rework posted a list of five dynamics that teams need to be successful. This list is familiar if you've been working in and around office cultures for tech companies.

  1. Psychological Safety. Team members feel safe to take risks.
  2. Dependability. Team members get done what they promise (see below).
  3. Structure & Clarity. People have clear plans, goals, and roles.
  4. Meaning. Work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact. Team members think their work matters.

Well, the first item on this list is familiar. In my experience the other four points get lost in the overall discussion, even if internal functions focusing on 'office culture' do pay attention to the whole list. Overlooking the rest of these is a problem for one big reason:

People maintain psychological safety above anything else, even if it means adopting toxic coping strategies. They can put a "5" down on the "I feel safe to share my opinions" question in the bi-annual employee sentiment survey, while also sarcastically belittling anyone who disagrees with them. They can put a 5 down on that question because they know, in the core of their being, that their opinion only matters to their teammates and their team is completely ignored otherwise. You can get deep workplace toxicity while also having psychological safety.

If your teams are missing any one of these points your teams are adopting toxic behaviors to compensate.

This list was intentionally structured, if you miss on one point you can't have the points below it on the list.

This blog series will cover the overlooked four points in detail.

First up is dependability: Team members get done what they promise.

If you can't trust your coworkers to get done what they say they will:

  • You learn to only accept work you can do entirely yourself.
  • When someone offers to help you, you always have a plan for how to deal with them not following through on their promise.
  • If you find out that you actually need help, you will reach out for help as the absolute last step. You will do everything you can to avoid that, because asking for help almost never works out.

Question: In your working life, have you felt this? What taught you that others couldn't be trusted? How did that follow you to later jobs?

When I was in middle-school (roughly ages 10 through 13) American education was fond of peer education as a teaching technique. On paper it looks fine, by teaching a thing you learn it better, and by having a peer teach the thing you get more cultural context than the capital-T Teacher doing it. In my case, it was called "foursomes" because my class was split into groups of four. To provide an incentive, the team's grade would be based on the whole team's work. The mix of students in these foursomes was distinctive: 1 high achiever, 1 to 2 middle achievers, and 1 to 2 slackers (the exact mix depended on the class). We absolutely were not allowed to self-select the teams.

This team dynamic failed dependability for the high achiever. By tying the overall grade to the efforts of the whole team, the high achiever could only maintain high achieving by spurring everyone else to their high standard. Or, as happened way more often, by doing most of the work while seething with resentment. When talking to fellow high achievers once I got to college, our universal experience was that we couldn't trust anyone to help us in our academic work, and others would happily freeload off our efforts. Toxicity poisoned us all, and this carried over into my working career.

There is another area where a person's sense of dependability is compromised, and that is from having worked in a pathological environment. Pathological environments are driven by power, your ability to get anything done is 100% related to how much power you wield. People with power over you can make you do things. Maintaining your power is key to getting anything done. Because everyone is playing power games, you can't depend on your coworkers to follow through on promises -- they'll only do it if they get something from it, won't hurt their own power, or betraying you later helps them more.

The thing is, if you don't have dependability, you can't have the other points. If you can't trust your coworkers to do what they promise:

  • The roles, goals, and plans your team has (structure & clarity) don't matter because you can't trust any of the promises that roles, goals, and plans are built upon.
  • If you have a sense of personal meaning in your work, it isn't because of who you are working with. Or for.
  • The sense that your team has impact in the greater organization is heavily compromised because you can't trust your coworkers to do what they need to do.

If you are a manager or team-leader, you can help people retrain from past experiences where dependability was a problem. The first step is recognizing when a new person could be applying inappropriate past coping strategies to your team.

The number one signal is that they never, ever ask for help. If they get stuck, they spiral in a vortex of self-hate, pretend nothing is wrong, go deep into expectation-management to buy themselves enough time to train up on the thing, or reach out to their non-work friend-group for help because they don't trust your team to be helpful. Or all of these.

The trick here is figuring out where this is coming from. Someone who spent a lot of time in volunteer-run organizations where people didn't prioritize the work is coming from a different place than someone coming from pathological environments where trust was a weapon. You the manager (or team leader) have power over them, and if you find they are managing your expectations of them or are hiding a lot of their troubles, you're probably dealing with someone carrying a lot pathological environment damage.

You can help decompensate by gently pointing out how this environment is different than their old ones. This will take time. They adopted this stance to keep themselves safe, and people don't give up safety techniques lightly. As with all of the advice I give in this series, your enemy is confirmation bias; all it takes is one event to 'prove' that this job is just like the others and they lose all the ground they gained.

  • Point out instances where people asked for help, got it, and faced no negative consequences.
  • In 1:1 meetings, ask how their previous jobs handled risk-taking (asking for help is a risk). This will give you the context you need to illustrate how this team is different. It'll also give you a chance to build rapport by sharing your own experiences.
  • Reward them taking the risk of trusting others, positive reinforcement.
  • If you see instances of help-shaming on your team, visibly smack it down. You need to demonstrate to the new person that this behavior is not allowed.

There is another pathology that also comes from terrible environments: having to 'prove' yourself before you let yourself trust others. Many pre-DevOps Operations teams worked this way, the newbie had to prove they had what it takes before getting fully embraced. The key concept here is credibility. If someone has credibility dynamics in their head, they know that the new person (them) gets griefed and harassed until they can prove themselves.

As a team lead or manager you can help short circuit this by explicitly granting them credibility:

  • Call on them in meetings.
  • Ask their opinion in private, and in a meeting say that their idea was a good one.
  • Give them easy-win projects.