Last month I wrote about the positive impact that an early boss, Liz Resner, had on me. Bosses matter. But their impact is not always positive.
Recent news coverage about toxic work environments – from the White House to tech companies like Uber and Amazon – has left me thinking about how damaging bad bosses can be.
In my first full-time job, my boss was nothing like Liz Resner. Sometimes she praised me. But sometimes she yelled and swore at me. I couldn’t distinguish what type of behavior on my part produced praise vs. yelling. Every day at work was like walking on eggshells. The job was a huge opportunity – a chance to do substantive work on a subject I cared about deeply. Even the pay was excellent. And yet, I left after just six months. It wasn’t worth the cost to my sanity.
Pop culture can reinforce the notion that a toxic workplace is a normal environment. A few years back, when I needed a good laugh, a friend suggested that I watch a popular sit-com, The Office. I love comedy, but this show did not seem funny to me. How is it funny when a manager belittles and offends his employees?
I believe that a cardinal rule of leadership, as in medicine, is first do no harm. Being a great boss, a boss who helps her employees to develop to their full potential and has a long-term positive impact on their lives – that is hard. But being a harm-less boss – that should just be basic.
In my view, a leader’s first responsibility is to create a workplace culture of civility and respect. The tone is set from the top. When we have the privilege of leadership, we also have the responsibility of treating those who work for us professionally and with dignity.
In nonprofits with multiple layers of leadership, this means more than just taking it upon oneself to treat others politely. It also means setting boundaries on acceptable behavior by middle managers. It’s not enough for a nonprofit leader to hold himself to a high standard of civility – but to turn a blind eye when the finance director berates a bookkeeper or a program director demeans a social worker.
When hiring for management positions, it’s essential to seek candidates who value a respectful workplace culture. Providing appropriate in-service training for managers also can reinforce this ethos. But when an individual manager mistreats staff, coaching is called for. And if mistreatment continues despite coaching, it is time to find a different manager.
In a healthy nonprofit workplace, all should feel at ease about how they will be spoken to by others. This means staff, board, and clients, too. Creating a culture of civility and respect means making it normal to treat people well.