I suspect that over the course of our careers, at one point or another we’ll find ourselves in some pretty unpleasant environments. As a former Inspector General tasked with conducting sensing sessions in organizations struggling to perform, I saw a few of these difficult situations. Here are a few lessons worth considering.


Perhaps in the worst cases, employees find themselves divided into distinct groups or tribes. Among them are those who believe they can work hard and achieve significant goals. There are those more indifferent to the whole prospect, but who still pitch in. There are those who are more cynical and believe it’s all for nothing and, so, only go through the motions from day to day. Then there are those completely lost, hypercritical, who belittle the rest—behind their backs, in meetings before colleagues, in whispers in the hallway, after work over a few drinks, a home with the family. And there are those free radicals bouncing around looking for some connection, somewhere, with some one or another of the groups. It’s a toxic environment.


These sorts of office dynamics are disastrous. They’re disastrous both in the short and the long term. They’re disastrous for both the organization and for those working there. They’re disastrous for both the people who participate and for those who just watch from the sidelines—and try to get some good work done. “Incivility can fracture a team, destroying collaboration, splintering members’ sense of psychological safety, and hampering team effectiveness,” writes Harvard Business Review contributor Christine Porath. “Belittling and demeaning comments, insults, backbiting, and other rude behavior can deflate confidence, sink trust, and erode helpfulness — even for those who aren’t the target of these behaviors.”

Poratch cites a recent medical study in which teams of physicians caring for premature infants were exposed to varying degrees of criticism and vitriolic commentary. The result? “The teams exposed to rudeness displayed lower capabilities in all diagnostic and procedural performance metrics, markedly diminishing the infant’s chances of survival,” Porath writes. “This was mainly because teams exposed to rudeness didn’t share information as readily and stopped seeking help from their teammates.”


We may have found ourselves among any one of these groups at one time or another. We may have participated in the past, or more recently, perhaps without even really realizing how debilitating our behavior is to others. Oftentimes, joining a group is a matter of day to day emotional survival, at best, and professional survival, at worst. And once the lines are drawn, to dismantle the whole thing is incredibly difficult. Simple civility, however, can go a long, long way. “Civility helps teams to function better in large part by helping employees feel safer, happier, and better,” writes Porath. “By creating a civil climate, you can enable greater collaboration marked by people who reciprocate respectful behavior.”

Changing these sorts of office dynamics takes time, kindness, and compassion. And according to Porath, it absolutely has to start at the top, with the leadership (though I think that leadership aside, we can treat each other with kindness and compassion and really make change from the bottom up). Porath writes, “Leaders set the tone. A study of cross-functional product teams revealed that when leaders treated members of their team well and fairly, the team members were more productive individually and as a team. They also were more likely to go above and beyond their job requirements. It all starts at the top.”


We go to work every day to earn a living, at least. There’s good reason to go to work every day for something more—to help others, both our colleagues and those who benefit from the work the organization does; to treat one another with genuine kindness and compassion, both for our own peace of mind and the well-being of those with whom we interact. And if for nothing else, simply because an emotionally healthy work environment is more productive and effective in accomplishing the mission, whatever that mission may be.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.