In a fascinating article in Harvard Business Review, author Celia Swanson describes how she fired a valuable and high performing employee, after discovering the individual in question was causing negativity and upset in her team.

illustration of a man with a toxic sign shaking hands with a woman

It’s a situation that will be familiar to many. Most of us will have come across ‘toxic’ individuals at work. People who undermine or bully others, talk their colleagues down, take credit for their peers’ efforts and generally set about making everyone’s lives as unpleasant and difficult as possible.

What’s interesting about this story, however, is that until one employee took a decision to speak up about the hostile and damaging behaviour, the leader was completely unaware of what was happening and the impact it was having on her team.

Creating cultures where people feel free to speak up – whether it’s about toxic behaviour, stress or organisational wrong-doing – continues to be a real challenge for organisations. Recent research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education, for example, shows that employees are routinely sitting on potentially damaging organisational ‘secrets’, with one in five junior employees believing they would be punished if they spoke up.

So what can HR do to support leaders and managers in creating positive workplace cultures where open and honest dialogue is the norm and toxic behaviour is not allowed to flourish?

1. Appreciate how hard it is for people to speak up.

People in leadership positions are often blind to the fact of just how difficult it is for others to speak up to them. As Megan Reitz says in this recent Management Today article,  we are often more scary than we realise – and no matter how approachable we try to be, employees will always think carefully about what they say and will only disclose what they think is ‘safe’ or politically acceptable. HR needs to help managers understand the dynamics of ‘speaking truth to power’ – a good start would be to make sure it is given proper attention in any management development programmes that are arranged. Leadership style also has a key role to play. If the overall culture is authoritative and directive, people are less likely to speak up. Even subtle messages can make a real difference. The often quoted mantra of ‘don’t come to me with problems, come with solutions’, for example, is a good example of a management message that may send a ‘shut up’ rather than ‘speak up’ message to employees.

2. Understand how to manage conflict effectively

One of the biggest unmet training needs is the ability to manage conflict effectively in the workplace. It’s a vital skill for managers to have in their toolkit. The CIPD estimates that four out of ten employees in the UK has experienced some form of interpersonal conflict within the past 12 months, while the CBI says unresolved conflict is costing the UK a staggering £33 billion at year. Of course not all conflict is bad – a certain amount of spirited debate and divided opinion is healthy. People will always have varying views, beliefs and opinions about how things should be done – and innovation happens when people are able to discuss these in a supportive and safe environment. HR has a role to play in helping managers to strike the balance -and to spot where functional conflict is in danger of tipping over into the kind of subtle, insidious behaviour which can develop into bullying, harassment or discrimination. It’s an investment that will pay dividends beyond the ability to sort out spats in the team – the communication, listening and facilitation skills managers will learn will be useful across all aspects of their working lives.

3. Lead by example

HR has a key role to play in role-modelling the kind of open, honest conversations that need to take place in organisations – and in demonstrating that toxic behaviour, in all its various forms, will not be tolerated. It’s clear that many organisational cultures are still not conducive to people feeling able to be their authentic selves and to talk about issues that are troubling them. A poll out this week highlights the continuing taboo around mental health, for example, with employees routinely calling in physically sick in order to hide the fact that their absence is down to stress, depression or anxiety. Embracing the trend towards more regular, informal, performance conversations will pave the way for more honest and frequent discussions between managers and their teams. Conflict management expert David Liddle says HR also needs to take a fresh look at the traditional disciplinary and grievance procedures, which he believes are divisive, destructive, and often cause more harm than good. “If we want to develop more people-centred, values-driven cultures, we need to reduce our reliance on these formal processes and move towards more “collaborative, constructive and compassionate approaches”, he says.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.