Trust, communications, effectiveness: all gone
Toxic Personalities, Part 2
By: Dwayne Orrick
"When allowed to go unchecked, toxic personalities poison an organizational environment."
Toxic behavior can manifest itself anywhere in a department and in an almost unlimited number of ways. When employees are exposed to toxic behavior, interpersonal relationships are adversely affected. As a result, individual, unit, and organizational performance are significantly reduced. In the end, the result is often a dysfunctional organizational culture marked by a lack of trust, poor communications, ineffectiveness, and an inability to attract and retain talent.
Trust is the glue that binds organizations together. Unfortunately, toxic personalities serve as an effective solvent of this trust. When employees are exposed to an environment filled with toxic behaviors, they are likely to experience a degradation of trust in their co-workers, supervisors or department.
Lack of trust stymies creative problem solving when officers believe co-workers are prone to criticize their efforts, start rumors, or misrepresent their intentions. When individuals experience these types of behavior, they are less likely to demonstrate initiative or seek innovative solutions.
When there is little trust between individuals, information is not readily exchanged and operational effectiveness is reduced. This is often seen when patrol and investigative units do not readily share information with each other.
Trust of organizational leaders can be destroyed when leaders do not take steps to resolve toxic behaviors. Essentially, the organization is endorsing the behavior when they do not take corrective action. As a result, the toxic behavior takes on a life of its own. Officers who speak out against mistreatment or injustice are often alienated or marginalized.
Supervisors and co-workers in toxic environments may label well-intentioned individuals as troublemakers, snitches or traitors. When a toxic supervisor is crossed, officers run the risk of being transferred to less desirable assignments or denied access to training and professional development. In the worst instances, actions are taken to sabotage the officer’s work or destroy his/her career.
Successful law enforcement agencies are dependent upon their ability to effectively gather, process, and exchange information. When employees feel they must constantly walk on the proverbial eggshells, they are less likely to provide candid information exchanges, reviews and assessments. Instead, officers are forced to spend enormous effort to ensure they carefully choose their words or compose their reports in such a manner that ‘hypersensitive’ or ‘caustic’ individuals cannot use their statements against them.
Due to the nature of the work, every police officer and their leaders will inevitably be placed in negative situations. When individuals are concerned toxic leaders will ‘shoot the messenger’ and make them a recipient of their wrath, the agency’s response to critical events may be slowed.
Administratively, when lower-ranking supervisors withhold or intentionally distort information, leaders are forced to spend valuable time and resources to ensure repetitive processes are in place to accurately exchange their message.
Some researchers estimate that more than 50 percent of officers feel they have been mistreated by their department or governing authority. As a result of this strained relationship, many employees become alienated followers. Valuable time and energy is wasted venting frustration and anger about their problems instead of working together. Undirected time is spent on personal activities instead of focusing on collaborative activities.
In addition, individuals divide into tight-knit groups and cliques to focus their energies on protecting their personal interests against perceived rivals within the department. As a result, the organizational effectiveness is minimized as individuals focus their attention and energies on seeking redress for their grievances.
When specific tasks are assigned to a limited number of individuals, they possess a huge amount of influence over the rest of the organization. If these persons feel threatened or a need to enhance their standing, they can easily place the entire organization in a chokehold by throttling back their performance. This type of behavior is often seen in support functions such as payroll or IT.
This same type of behavior also occurs when leaders create ‘silos’ or vigorously defend their ‘turf’ to protect their own self-interest or perpetuate their narcissistic personality. When persons choose to act in this manner, they place their own selfish needs over the needs of their co-workers, the organization and the community they serve. As a result, they are always pushing their own needs over those of the department.
An agency can only be as good as the staff it employs. Agencies spend enormous resources to recruit and select talented individuals. At the same time, most agencies still manage these officers in the same manner they did 30 years ago. As a result, one of the primary reasons employees leave an organization is their immediate supervisor. It is critical for leaders to recognize that every employee is constantly weighing their current situation with available alternatives.
When an individual determines they will be better off somewhere else, they leave. Most of these employees never complain about their perceived mistreatment. Rather, they conceal their reasons for leaving with general statements regarding pay, training or better opportunities. This attrition comes at a huge operational and financial cost to the organization. When the officer leaves, he/she carries with him/her all of the operational knowledge regarding the community and the department’s service delivery strategy.
The only way to develop this knowledge is by doing the job. Financially, the average cost for an officer with three years of experience ranges from $100,000 – $250,000. The money and resources required to replace these individuals cannot be used in other areas such as advanced training and development.
To emphasize this point, let’s assume a toxic supervisor is attributed with pushing three persons out of the department in one year. The department invested $300,000 – $750,000 in their selection and development. This would be equivalent to one individual destroying 6 to 15 patrol units in one year. Why do organizations not hold supervisors accountable for this loss?
The problem is compounded when departed employees share their negative experiences with other potential candidates. In the end, the agency’s brand image is tarnished, making it more difficult to attract high-quality candidates.
When allowed to go unchecked, toxic personalities poison an organizational environment. This results in a reduction of organizational trust, communications and effectiveness. Eventually, the agency will experience difficulty attracting and retaining talented individuals. In the last installment of this series, we will review the actions agencies and leaders must take to address the influence of toxic personalities on the organization.
Major Dwayne Orrick commands the Support Services Division/Training Unit with the Gwinnett County, Ga. Sheriff’s Office. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.