Does Your Company Suffer From Toxic Behavior Carryover?
This blog post was originally published on Built In on September 11, 2023.
Have you ever had a bad flu wipe out your office for a week? It starts with John from accounting catching the bug on a plane back from his vacation, and he spreads it to his cubicle mate, who gives it to the weekly meeting. Before you know it, everyone is down for the count.
The virus I’d like to discuss today may not cause employees to show symptoms as quickly as the flu, but if the spread is left untreated, it’ll wipe your office out for longer than a few sick days. I call it Toxic Behavior Carryover, or TBC.
Here’s how TBC works: A company rallies everyone around its mission and brings in top talent to make that vision a reality. Then leadership works employees to the bone, refuses to offer more to support the culture than the occasional forced happy hour, and creates an environment that rewards the wrong values. Then, whether the employee gets fed up and quits or accepts a job elsewhere, they’re primed to carry toxicity into their new role, allowing TBC to spread.
A startup can too easily fall prey to TBC, whether from leadership allowing the virus to take hold or from new employees bringing the disorder in from the outside and spreading it among their colleagues. That’s why I’ve developed a few strategies for preventative care against TBC that I’ll share with you here.
What is Toxic Behavior Carryover?
Toxic Behavior Carryover (TBC) refers to the unconscious adoption of harmful behavioral patterns from prior experiences, which can come from employers, external environments, or relationships. These patterns are often defense mechanisms developed to safeguard against perceived or actual threats. Mistaking these behaviors as normal or protective, individuals unknowingly bring them to new jobs. TBC may include passive-aggressiveness, microaggressions, and excessive competitiveness, negatively impacting workplace culture and collaboration. Recognizing and addressing TBC is crucial for cultivating a healthy work environment.
Treatment Starts With the Interview
We wash our hands and cover our sneezes to avoid catching or passing the flu. Likewise, businesses should take proactive steps and address TBC before it starts to halt its spread. In this instance, the handwashing happens in the interview process. Interviews are often geared toward understanding whether the candidate has the right skills for the role, but understanding how they fit into your culture is just as important.
Typically, our team asks candidates to set aside their resumes until our final stage interviews. Names and dates prove a candidate spent time at a job, but the bullet points are easily embellished, and references are going to give glowing reviews — otherwise, they wouldn’t be a reference. Instead, the interview should be a conversation focused on who the candidate is as a person. What are their likes and dislikes? How do they think about their past failures? What keeps them up at night?
We’re looking for signs the candidate may have developed TBC at a prior job. Maybe they’re not great at self-evaluation, or they’re unclear about where they want to learn and grow. These red flags may mean we choose not to hire the candidate. If we do move forward, however, we want to understand what makes them tick so we can help them get better. The good news is that with the right support and the right environment, TBC is curable.
The Manager/Report Relationship Is Vital for Health
Once new employees start in a role, over their first few days, they’ll begin forming relationships with colleagues at their levels. Those bonds will help determine what type of contributors they become. But perhaps the most important relationships they’ll form are with their managers. Managers are the ones who track the employees’ growth and development, communicate with other leaders who also work with their direct reports, and help their employees progress toward yearly goals/objectives. Bottom line: They’re most likely to see a case of TBC as it’s developing.
The most important meetings our leaders have every week are one-on-ones with their direct reports, and we’ll move heaven and earth to avoid canceling them. These check-ins are an opportunity to discuss both successes and struggles that impact the person’s work. They’re also an opportunity for the leader to better understand their report’s attitude toward their co-workers and their workload. Some questions worth asking during one-on-ones:
- What project/task made you feel most accomplished this week? Ask this as opposed to “What was your greatest accomplishment this week?,” as that can frame the one-on-one as an interrogation)
- What frustrations did you encounter this week?
- How can I best reduce roadblocks to completing your current projects?
- What are your priorities for next week? What resources do you need to complete them effectively?
By encouraging frank conversation during one-on-ones, we can appropriately address problems that might otherwise fester and avoid letting them spill over into an employee’s other tasks.
Leadership Sets the Example
Building a workplace that actively prevents TBC certainly requires leaders to avoid an “all work, no play” mentality, but that doesn’t mean approaching work with all smiles 24/7 will be any more effective. Employees can sense when leadership isn’t being honest, so trying to pretend everything is rosy when it isn’t will foster suspicion and distrust in a workforce. And that distrust will likely stick with those employees in their next roles, too.
Leadership sets the tone for middle managers, who in turn do the same for their teams. Some strategies for setting an effective example:
- Recognize there’s no task too small for senior leadership to complete. If that means the CEO needs to get on the phone to do some cold calling, then pass the leads to sales, they should. Eliminate any sense of “us vs. them” and demonstrate you all work as one team.
- Open up about your own fears and failures. In an era of LinkedIn clout and magazine power lists, it’s tempting for senior leadership to create a mystique of high-powered success while downplaying the rocky road to getting there. Admitting when you’re wrong and holding yourself accountable to your employees makes you a more trustworthy leader.
- Don’t sugarcoat the difficult aspects of the job. The nature of working in tech is that work weeks are often longer than 40 hours. Hiding that fact behind pool tables and happy hours while pretending everything is fine will lead to burnout fast. Instead, regularly communicate with employees why hours might be long this week, the unique role they play that makes the extra hours important, and when you expect things will calm down. Open conversations are more likely to garner employee buy-in.
Leadership based on transparency and openness will fuel a more positive company culture, ultimately leading to employees who carry that culture into their next role.
Focus on Prevention From Every Angle
Successful companies, whether they’re tiny startups or industry-leading giants, understand that they cannot rely on products alone to grow. When leadership builds a culture that uplifts and empowers employees, the results are felt not only in how employees act as brand ambassadors but also in the care and attention paid to delivering a great product. That’s why every leader must do their part to avoid letting toxic behavior leave their office and to prevent TBC from reaching their own.
By watching for the signs of TBC in the interview and during one-on-ones, building a comprehensive plan to help employees heal from their TBC, and setting an example for management and their direct reports to follow, business and people leaders can avoid the perils of TBC and build a culture that lives up to its promise.