Legal Poisons at Work

Awhile back, I met a brilliant CEO whose grimaces, body language, cutting glances and sarcastic public insults could shut off a debate in a second or two at most.  One senior executive told me that this leader’s comments, eye rolls, and headshakes convinced him that he did not want to hear concerns regarding major initiatives, only agreement. Encountering familiar behaviors in a $2 billion deal in which he was involved, he kept his reservations to himself. Though the CEO’s conduct in this instance allowed the possibility for unnecessary risk, it didn’t cross a clear legal line.

poison resized 600Behaviors, like noxious gases, can be poisonous at work. There are racial epithets, sexual demands or overt job threats that compel a pressing urgency to act when we find out about them.  Corrective steps are easy to identify and implement when significant legal risk stares us in the face.

Different forms of behavior – silent killers, to stretch the medical metaphor – can be just as toxic at work. The subtle way intent is communicated through behaviors like tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions and body language, can diminish the productivity of others, affect quality, safety and thwart other business objectives. And, as in this CEO’s case, they can force silence when it’s vital for individuals to speak up and raise the equivalent of code blue alarms.

Here are several questions that organizations have to answer before they can address these forms of behavioral risk.

  1. Can specific behaviors be identified that leaders will agree cause organizational harm?  Without such agreement, it’s impossible to change widespread organizational behavior. Surveys and anecdotal interviews can be used to identify major issues.
  2. Are senior leaders willing to change their own behavior?  If leaders won’t themselves attempt to change their conduct, enduring change won’t stick.
  3. Is the organization willing to encourage its community to speak up about a range of behaviors that can be addressed and changed throughout or in distinct pockets of its system? Some behaviors may be offensive to one group but not offensive to another due to regional, cultural or other reasons. Even so, they can be toxic There’s only one workable way to address them. Individuals who are observing or receiving “subtle” behavioral cues should be encouraged to speak up and their concerns should be welcomed. Those who receive them should be prepared to listen and consider the impact of their conduct.
  4. Will the organization encourage and teach leaders and others how to apologize for subtle harms and for those affected by such behavior to accept their apologies and move forward?  As some “subtle” communication may be truly unintended, unconsciously delivered, or misinterpreted by the recipients, it’s vital for people to discuss these issues, adapt their conduct or their responses to it, apologize when proper, and move on.

Overall, changing behavioral standards – particularly involving non-blatant and at times highly-nuanced and contextual forms of behavior – can’t be changed by starting with a classroom or desktop learning experience. Leaders must directly and personally lead the charge and the change.  Their positive actions will spread as virally as the example of the $2 billion grimace and head roll which put a talented CEO’s company at unnecessary risk.

  • Marcus Lashley says:

    Hi Steve – this is Marcus Lashley. Even though I recently retired after around 34 years of Federal civil rights service, I will still faithfully follow your blogs on the ELIINC website, because I find them to be “nuggets of effective leadership mini-lessons”. I would love to share this message on Legal Poisons at Work with the Executives at DeCA, my former Federal agency. Please contact me to advise. Thank you for the great support from the ELI Team.

  • Tristan says:

    Working culture is the work environment that the employers supply for employees to achieve their goal. A working environment motivated and most satisfied all the employees when the work culture fulfills their needs and values are consistent. Getting a better working culture plays a vital role in our performance, a good and healthy working environment always responsible for a better performance by employees.

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