Creating a positive workplace

Min-Hsuan Tu, an expert on power and leadership, shares how you can improve organizational culture amid the Great Resignation

Four employees gathered around a computer to work.

By Min-Hsuan Tu

Min-Hsuan Tu.
Min-Hsuan Tu

In the last several years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns and remote work, we’ve witnessed a steady rise in online content of people venting about toxicity at their workplace and even quitting their jobs. Categorized under the hashtag #worktok, TikTok videos have attracted billions of views and engagement from other Internet citizens who feel similarly about their treatment at work.

More often than not, those who post these videos express frustrations over the behaviors and expectations of their co-workers or leadership. While some feel undervalued and overworked by their team, others are burdened by micromanaging supervisors with unreasonable demands or by inappropriate bosses who cross work-life boundaries. It’s common for TikTok users to pair their complaints with actual, recorded evidence of abuse.

Classic theories in management textbooks, some published more than 50 years ago, clearly indicate that taking care of a company’s people is critical to fostering a positive, safe and productive work environment. And yet, data suggests that toxic workplaces remain common today, and many people hate their jobs because of the individuals they work with.

So, how do our colleagues make a workplace better or worse? And what can we, as leaders, do to secure more professional and effective work environments?

Foster collegial relationships

First, positive relationships have been documented to contribute to employees’ commitment to and satisfaction at work. Having enriching and respectful work relationships not only provides us with the support needed to succeed in our careers (for example, task-related help, constructive criticism, career advice or mentorship), but also contributes to our social and personal fulfillment. Most importantly, this exchange of resources — mutually supporting and receiving support — helps us better manage our workloads, communicate openly and feel satisfaction in collective growth.

Organizations — and the managers who run them — are responsible for making these relationships easier to form. Leaders can facilitate a collaborative work culture versus a competitive one, and invest in building employees’ interpersonal skills and empathy through coaching and sensitivity training. In addition, offering group activities, hosting office happy hours and handing out peer-nominated awards are other ways for employees to develop positive workplace relationships. These resources also help employees to honestly voice their concerns and needs as they arise without the fear of penalty or castigation.

Break the toxic cycle

Second, removing toxic people from work is essential. Toxic behavior is contagious, creating a chain reaction of miscommunication, disrespect and conflict, which translates into employee dissatisfaction. Organizations must promptly respond to complaints of toxic behaviors and remove individuals who have track records of sowing discord in the workplace.

This rule, of course, must extend to leadership. A report from the American Institute of Stress suggests the most common source of employees’ work stress is their boss. Members of leadership may be hard to let go, given that they may have seniority or perform their roles well. Still, organizations must be willing to cut leaders who repeatedly create adverse workplaces for their subordinates and parallel teams. After all, our research shows that today’s toxic bosses create the next generation of toxic bosses: Employees learn abusive behaviors from their higher-ups and, though abused themselves, ultimately uphold or enable a hostile work culture.

Help employees improve work-life balance

Finally, organizations must remain attentive to their employees’ holistic well-being (physically, mentally, financially, professionally) and take measures to help them maintain an adequate work-life balance. Research shows when employees are exhausted or mentally depleted, they begin to conserve what little psychological resources they have remaining. As a result, they stop using their energy to behave in ways that foster good work relationships and, more seriously, become less capable of withholding aggressive or emotional outbursts.

Some practical ways to improve employees’ well-being include encouraging breaks at work, trusting employees to build flexible work schedules and modes (for example, hybrid or remote work availability), and promoting accessible well-being programs. Such offerings are particularly important for managers and others with multiple direct reports, whose positions are defined by heavy loads of responsibility, challenging quotas and deadlines. Exhaustion is one common determinant of managers who are likely to engage aggressively with their teams or lead with inefficiency.

Workplaces — and people’s expectations of the organizations they labor for — are changing. Remote work accommodations are becoming a corporate standard, work values and career goals vary across generations, and people are taking their complaints from the breakroom to online forums that garner the world’s attention.

Yet, a key factor that makes or breaks a workplace remains the behaviors and attitudes of people and the relationships they build. To maintain efficiency and retain talent and institutional knowledge, leaders must pay close attention to and drive new investments toward doing good by their people.

The article was first published as part of 52 Weeks of Leadership, a program hosted by the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness.

Min-Hsuan Tu, PhD, is assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management. In her research, Tu studies power and leader mistreatment in the workplace, with the ultimate goal of finding simple and helpful techniques to develop better leaders and high-quality employee relationships.

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