The key to advocating for healthy workplaces

A few years into my advocacy for workplace abuse legislation, I co-led a small business. I quickly realized that knowing what not to do didn’t necessarily translate well into what to do. What were best practices for bringing out the best in employees? How could I work to help workers feel fulfilled and strong? What did I need to gain self-awareness of to prevent a toxic culture? These questions led me to dive into what it took to create a healthy workplace.

The toxic culture
In his book The Bully’s Trap, Andrew Faas dissects the cultures that lead to abuse in the first place. He says that in toxic cultures, employers see employees as expendable. When employers consider workers a means to an end rather than associates, that’s exploitation. Here are some key factors in a toxic culture:

  • Higher-ups are out of touch. They focus on short-term results at the expense of long-term performance. They focus on power to bring about those short-term results. Power is addictive, and fear fuels power. (Fear is a substitute for motivation.)
  • Managers aren’t transparent. They enforce few checks and balances, advance employees using subjective and ambiguous standards, and condone lax ethical standards.
  • Employees don’t respect management. They’re consumed with fear, hate, and retaliation. They fingerpoint to protect themselves rather than address problems or go the extra mile. They operate in survival mode.
  • Managers who say they uphold dignity and respect but don’t back it up are seen as hypocrites. Employees notice.
  • Those who remain suffer from depression, anxiety, and burnout.
  • The more targets push back, the more determined management is to get rid of them. It’s about power, not facts.

Two types of toxic cultures
Faas further breaks toxic cultures down into two types: dictatorial and disjointed.

  • In dictatorial cultures, blind obedience is expected around a hierarchy. Managers don’t treat employees like humans, including leaving them out of decision-making and collaboration. Unethical activities are the norm, and managers blame and punish employees when things go wrong or employees blow the whistle to keep them in line.
  • In disjointed cultures, managers are weak and passive. They aren’t aligned to purpose, values, and vision. There’s little structure, discipline, rule enforcement, motivation, and expectations. Managers don’t consistently enforce rules but instead react. They cover up wrongdoings and discredit others.

The stable culture
Contrast the toxic culture with the stable culture, where:

  • There’s a common and well-understood vision, purpose, and long-term plan.
  • Managers use compassion to lead rather than fear.
  • Leaders consistently apply rules and clearly define roles, responsibilities, and accountability.
  • Managers values teams over individuals.
  • Managers model respect, honesty, and open communication.
  • Managers talk through goals in regular conversations where managers treat subordinates more like customers, asking subordinates what they need from them.
  • Employees aren’t afraid to experiment with new ideas.
  • Managers dampen rather than amplify power and pay differentials. They realize there’s a pecking order but downplay it as much as possible.
  • Leaders mix in with employees as they work and ask questions about how they can make things better for them.
  • Leaders forbid extreme internal competition.
  • Because of the high level of transparency, there’s no fear of retaliation from whistleblowing or mistakes (which are learning opportunities).
  • Leaders make it easy to switch internal teams so they can figure out which managers aren’t treating team members right.
  • Leaders know what abuse looks like (because everyone in the organization knows what it looks like) and hold abusers accountable for their behaviors.

Devaluation is the intentional process of making you feel so very small so that they can feel big.


So how do these ideas apply to advocacy?
It’s easy to fall into patterns of creating hierarchies through power grabs: preaching, dictating, ignoring, stealing credit, controlling, and positioning oneself as the one who has the answers, for example.

Yet according to Faas’ research, working well with others is at its root about respecting others’ needs and our own. It’s about collaborating and supporting each other. It’s about understanding that greatness calls for us to all acknowledge our power and our strengths and weaknesses — and that of others — and to use that confidence and awareness to advance the cause.

With the issue of workplace abuse, these values are even more important. The culture we create within our own advocacy is as important as the cultures we’re working to create and encourage.

We’re all responsible for upholding human dignity right now, in the moment.

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