You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Man with megaphone yelling at a woman who is seated with her head in her hands

Prasong Maulae/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Despite the many benefits of working in higher education—an uplifting mission, an often-lovely campus setting, a focus on learning and discovery—not every employee is happy. And failure to deal with unhappy employees, whether in colleges and universities or beyond, is a problem for all involved.

Research has amply demonstrated the costs of ignoring toxic workplace dynamics. Management’s failure to act on behaviors such as bullying and persistent negativity is a leading reason why employees leave an organization—more significant than salaries or wages. A study from MIT Sloan found “toxic corporate culture” to be 10.4 times more important than compensation in an employee’s decision to resign.

In my work as an employee relations consultant, I frequently encounter managers who admit, often sheepishly, how flummoxed and intimidated they are by employees who complain, resist change and generally create a noxious atmosphere in their unit or team. Some leaders feel powerless to address the situation. They turn a blind eye, hope for the best and sink into a sort of management paralysis. Toxic employee situations can be compounded in higher education if the problematic employee enjoys the favor of a tenured faculty member.

But inaction in the face of toxicity is not an option. It’s magical thinking to believe that unprofessional behavior will simply disappear without intervention. If not addressed promptly, toxic behavior will negatively impact team morale and undermine your credibility as a leader. In extreme situations, it can lead to claims of harassment and discrimination. As a college or university leader, you can’t afford to have high performers at your institution wonder why you aren’t doing anything to protect their well-being.

It might seem that each toxic workplace situation is unique, but experience shows that many have roots in common contexts: an internal candidate passed over for a promotion, a staff member who bristles unduly at constructive feedback, a longtime staffer who hoards information from teammates, an employee unchallenged by their work and acting out due to boredom or disengagement.

Toxic Behavior in Academe

A newly hired department head coming from the corporate world makes little effort to familiarize herself with the higher ed landscape. She immediately begins making sweeping changes without involving knowledgeable stakeholders in the department. Those who ask questions are perceived as change-resistant or actively thwarting the department head’s efforts. In the resulting environment of favoritism, paranoia and lack of trust, work streams grind to a halt.

A search committee recommends a Ph.D. candidate for an administrative support position, believing that his advanced educational credentials will add value to the department despite his lacking the necessary office administration skills. In taking this job, the A.B.D. student harbors secret hopes that the role will lead to teaching responsibilities if he simply bides his time. He resents the responsibilities in his job description and frequently complains to the other administrative staff that he’s being underutilized and demeaned. His colleagues resent that he leaves the more routine tasks to them and never offers to help. This behavior creates ongoing friction, low morale and a lack of collaboration on key projects.

Two married lab managers are regularly at odds with each other in the workplace. Their direct reports have observed tension between them in meetings and overheard loud swearing and accusations in the hallway. Each manager has disparaged the other to their direct reports with the hopes that they will take sides. Their direct reports feel caught in the middle and worry about retaliation if they don’t respond. This behavior creates a divisive and unproductive work environment.

5 Strategies

If you recognize those or related behaviors among the people you supervise, resist the temptation to put your head in the sand. Instead, confront the problem, guided by these five strategies.

  1. Be crystal clear that behavior is a vital part of overall job performance. It’s necessary but not sufficient for an employee to complete a task or deliver on a project to stated standards. How they perform their work matters. Everyone in a workplace is called to fulfill their roles in a way that is collaborative, positive and respectful. As a leader, it is your responsibility to address negativity, inflexibility and related toxic behaviors before they impact team morale and impede productivity.
  1. Don’t let problems fester. When you observe negative behavior in a meeting, ask to meet with the individual as soon as possible. Describe what you witnessed and the impact their body language, audible sighs or lack of engagement had on the team. Ask whether they were aware they were projecting dissatisfaction or boredom. Let them know that if they are unhappy with something on the agenda, they should schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss and solve the problem.
  2. Document—and then document some more. Every manager learns this, but few actually do it. When you meet with an employee to give constructive feedback, follow up with an email summarizing the conversation and what you both agreed to. Ask whether you captured the meeting fully and accurately. Consider this the beginning of a potentially ongoing process of documenting, with dates and specifics, any continuing instances of negative behavior.
  3. Set the scene for constructive feedback. When providing difficult feedback to a defensive staff member, find a private space to talk. If possible, schedule the meeting for the end of the workday so the person can depart directly after. If the individual blames others, shirks responsibility or tries to deflect the conversation, calmly redirect them to the topic at hand. If they are visibly distraught, acknowledge their distress and ask if they need a short break. If they are too upset to talk, reschedule for the next workday, but don’t drop the meeting. Articulate the specific and measurable improvements you want to see.
  4. Reward strong performance even if promotion is not on the table. Remember the internal candidate who didn’t get the job? Reach out to them promptly and commend them for the work they did before you arrived. Tell them that you value their expertise and hope to call upon them as a trusted thought partner as you work through new initiatives. If possible, assign them to higher-level projects or supervisory responsibilities that will position them for future opportunities. Consult with others in the human resources department to see if you can offer them a new title and salary increase that reflects their expanded work responsibilities.

It’s human nature to avoid difficult people; it’s transformational to overcome that inclination. Leaders who confront toxic behaviors gain credibility and trust. They retain valued employees because those contributors recognize that leadership has their back. No one is born knowing how to manage difficult people, but doing so is a skill set like any other. You can do it.

Jenny Silver is a leadership coach and employee relations consultant to colleges, universities and related nonprofits.

Next Story

Written By

More from Advancing as an Administrator