Staffing Management

Navigating the Toxic Triangle of People Management

By Mary-Clare Race

May. 20, 2019

Relationships are complex, particularly so at work since employees have limited control over who they interact with.

While there’s no shortage of advice on how to deal with matters of the heart, working relationships are rarely discussed until it becomes painfully obvious they’re not working. In the wake of the #MeToo movement there has been an increasing focus on fostering more respectful workplace environments.

Yet most managers receive little guidance when it comes to building, maintaining and repairing healthy relationships that often foster toxic workplaces. In many instances they evolve into one of three types of supervisor: the buddy, the boss or the bully.

In a study of what makes a manager effective, the quality of their relationships was found to make the biggest difference to their success. Understand how to do relationships well and everything else becomes easier. Feedback is better received, delegation of duties becomes more straightforward and employees find it easier to cope with change.

Individuals who report good relationships with their managers are healthier, happier and have more fulfilling careers. They perform better, put in more discretionary effort, are more innovative, more resilient and more likely to stay with the organization.

Relationships between team colleagues are also critical. For example, in a study of hospital wards in England, teams who worked well together saw a 3.3 percent drop in mortality rates, the equivalent to saving 40 lives per year.

Destructive relationships wreak havoc for individuals and for organizations. Studies show that for three-quarters of employees, the most stressful part of their job is their boss. A 2015 Gallup survey revealed that half of respondents claimed to have left their most recent job due to a poor relationship with their boss.

As well as the human costs, the financial repercussions of toxic workplace behavior can reach the millions. Considering that managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement, the disengagement caused by bad bosses costs businesses upward of a half-billion dollars annually.

While this is not a new trend (with research dating back to the 1990s showing “job stress” related to poor management being cited in 75 percent of workers’ compensation claims) the need to address it has become more pressing in the age of #MeToo.

The Buddy, the Boss and the Bully

Psychologists in 2007 identified a “toxic triangle” of factors that foster negative relationships between leaders and followers. The combination of dysfunctional leaders, silent subjects and a permissive environment create a situation where relationships are likely to break down in a detrimental way.

Dysfunctional leaders. Most people have a dark side that comes out, particularly during times of pressure. Without clear guidance on managing the more complex aspects of workers’ personalities, managers often revert to behavioral patterns developed in childhood.

In 1950, psychologist Karen Horney published important research that outlined three patterns of coping behavior that children rely upon in times of stress. Some naturally turn toward people, seeking out closeness in order to feel comforted. Others turn away, preferring to cope independently. The third group actively turn against other people, choosing to fight.

Adults draw on a combination of these coping mechanisms but usually have a preference for one over the other. When taken to its extreme, this preference becomes dysfunctional and can result in some bad behavior.

First, we have the manager who prefers to turn toward others. These leaders want to be everybody’s friend, seeking approval in order to validate themselves. The manager morphs into the Buddy.

On its face this might seem OK, but this type of relationship can go horribly wrong. Amy Gallo, author of the “HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict,” warns that these managers can shy away from giving feedback, avoid going to bat for their teams and give in too easily to demands. Their need for approval can create an overly politicized, clique-y organization where personal boundaries are frequently abused.

Then there is the “turn away” manager who doesn’t care what other people think of them so long as the job gets done. They are the stereotypical detached Boss, interested in delivering to deadline at the expense of everything else. They have no interest in building healthy relationships, believe in reinforcing hierarchy and don’t care if they are overburdening people. This focus on results at the expense of relationships means teams are less loyal, less happy and ultimately less likely to give it their all.

The “turn against” manager arguably takes the crown as the worst supervisor. They care about relationships but only so they can twist and manipulate them for their own gain. They are the quintessential Bully. They love relationships for the opportunities they give them to take advantage and get what they want.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace are more common than you’d think; considering that three-quarters of employees report that they’ve experienced it at some point in their career. And the worrying reality is that we’re all at risk of straying into these toxic personas from time to time; it’s not just the extreme characters that cause havoc. As people gain more power in their careers, the skills they need to be successful, such as empathy and collaboration, tend to be less important, and so a vicious cycle ensues.

Silent Subjects. For dysfunctional leaders to flourish to the extent that relationships break down irreparably, they need followers who for a variety of reasons avoid speaking out. This can mean conformers — those who are typically obedient to authority, prone to group-think, don’t feel that it’s safe to speak up or are unwilling to challenge the status quo. Sometimes people don’t even know the behaviors to look out for or what to do when they see it.

It can also be in the form of colluders who see benefit in aligning themselves with a destructive leader. Colluders reinforce the leader’s bad behavior, repress any would-be whistleblowers and help the toxic cycle continue.

Permissive Environment. A permissive workplace environment is one that permits or may even encourage bad relationships to flourish. If the culture is overly politicized and consensus is valued above all else, the inner Buddy will come to the fore. If it’s a results-driven environment in which targets must be met at all costs, the Boss is likely to emerge. And in a dog-eat-dog culture where aggression and intimidation are par for the course the Bully will come to the fore. These are all extremes, of course, but every company’s policies and processes as well as the culture, values and norms will nudge its leaders to behave in a certain way.

There are methods to limit the buddy-boss-bully syndrome and create a workplace atmosphere more conducive to building strong manager-report relationships. Here are five focus areas for making a difference to building a culture of good working relationships.

Limit the abuse of power. As an executive, encourage self-awareness and introspection in leaders. The right balance is being respectful of boundaries while also providing descriptive feedback, precision coaching and stretching but not straining targets. Organizations should consider the strategies they use to select their leaders. Is enough being done to weed out the bad apples or are there entrenched, bias-laden approaches that toxic leaders can take advantage of? Organizations might be better off hiring decent leaders than hyper-talented individuals with an uncontrollable dark side.

Establish norms and boundaries. Working relationships work best when managers strike the right balance. Overly focusing on the relationship could allow for goals to slip out of reach. Ignore your team’s needs though, and commitment to work could falter. Managers need to set standards for their team by role-modeling respectful, inclusionary behavior and being clear on the behaviors that are appropriate and the boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. This applies in every interaction, from giving feedback and dealing with poor performance to inquiring about a team member’s well-being and sharing personal details.

Contract from the start. In every manager-report relationship there exists a psychological contract about how each should behave, although these rules usually remain unspoken. Managers should be encouraged to have a frank conversation with their reports about what each side expects from the relationship, where you draw the line and any behavioral nonnegotiables. Making these assumptions explicit means there’ll be no room for misunderstanding, and avoids relationship breaking down.

Give permission and voice. The first challenge is helping people see the toxic behavior for what it is. The second is helping them to understand that there’s nothing wrong with calling out disrespectful behavior in a professional way. With many people, their self-identity can get in the way as there is a dissonance between how people see themselves (successful, confident) and not wanting to appear as the victim.

Repair ruptures. Despite our best efforts, relationships will go awry. When that happens, refer to a quick, effective repair kit. This comes in four stages:

• Pause. Step back from the heat of the moment and do whatever needs to be done in order to emotionally reset.

• Contain. Address the conflict in the moment and keep it isolated to that specific incident to prevent toxicity from seeping into the relationship as a whole.

• Play back. Share thoughts and feelings and be open to hearing what others are saying. Play back what’s been said so they feel listened to.

• Reassure. Remind yourself and the other person that conflict is inevitable, and if handled well can strengthen the relationship in the long run.

Nobody said it would be easy but given the impact of relationships on almost every measure of workplace success, it pays to understand how to make our working relationships work.

Mary-Clare Race is the president and chief creative officer of Mind Gym. Race has more than 15 years of experience and has consulted to a range of clients in financial services, pharma, luxury brands, consumer goods and government.

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