Hierarchy in the Workplace and the Influence of Toxic Work Relationships.

In the wake of some salacious revelations from Buckingham Palace, there has emerged a school of thought that would suggest the HR profession, should watch the CBS Interview by Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

I do not wish to wade on who is right or wrong, though I do have my very strong opinion. But of very important to the HR profession, are the place of hierarchy in the workplace and the influence of toxic work relationships on job performance.

Hierarchy refers to the power structure of an organization. It is the pipeline on which decisions are made within the organization. The flow of power and authority in the organization is vested upon the hierarchy. It is equally important to remember that “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Organizational structures can be tall or flat. The tall always being viewed as more bureaucratic and the flat structures being more responsive to collaborative working and are perceived to be the most employee-friendly.

Organizational culture plays a big role in the structure that the organization will take. With more conservative or traditional organizations preferring tall structures with the bureaucracy that comes with it and more modern or youthful organizations preferring the collaborative structures that come with flat structures.

The purpose and motivation for setting up the organization will also determine the structures that will be used to convey power and authority.

Security organizations are more command-style structures. Just as financial institutions where accountability is paramount are also more likely to have command-style structures that leave little room for independent thinking.

The opposite has been observed for tech innovation companies that value the exchange of ideas rather than just the exchange of data.

According to Michigan Ross Professor Lindred Greer, the power structure of an organization has a significant influence on our interactions. It changes the way we talk to people, whether we speak up, and whether we’re willing to engage in conflict.

But hierarchy can also create a competitive, tense, and unfair environment. When people above you can tell you what to do, there’s a risk for resentment, jealousy, rivalry, and conflict (Greer, 2020). It is this competitive, tense, and unfair environment that breeds toxicity in the work environment.

(Harder, 2014) defines a toxic work environment as an environment that negatively impacts the viability of an organization. They specify: “It is reasonable to conclude that an organization can be considered toxic if it is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees”.

A toxic workplace is a workplace that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity. Several signs highlight a toxic workplace such as:

  • Increased absence owing to illness: Toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout, fatigue, and illness due to high levels of stress that wreak havoc on our bodies. If people are calling in sick or worse, are working sick, that’s a good sign of a toxic work environment.
  • Narcissistic Leadership: Your higher-ups demand that you always agree with them, tell them they’re right, and feel they’re above the rules. They expect everyone else to be perfect while they can meet lower standards.
  • Little to No Enthusiasm in the workplace: Look around the office. Is anyone happy to be working there? Is anyone smiling? Are conversations positive and upbeat? Is anyone talking at all?
  • Lack of Communication or Negative Communication: You and others don’t get the necessary information to do your job. You work hard with no positive feedback and no recognition, and you might even be told to be glad you have a job at all.
  • High Turnover: When the work environment has nothing good to offer except dysfunction, poor morale, and sickness, people will start heading for the door to find a better situation. If you notice a high turnover rate in your company or department, take that as a sign of a toxic workplace.
  • Cliques, Gossip, and Rumors: Everyone seems to be out for themselves, and there are no genuine friendships among employees. There’s lots of infighting and paranoia as well as gossip and rumours. (Tynan)

To address the challenges occasioned by toxic work environments on account of hierarchy in organizations:

  1. Organizations should consider improving the channels of communication between the top-tier leadership and the rest of the organization. Good communication removes ambiguity as to the intentions of the organization and its people, and this is good for providing a sense of security in the workplace.
  2. Organizations should lead in the establishment of wellness centres of “happy places in the workplace” where employees can go and get counselling, coaching, and mentoring services that will tackle work-related stress and address challenges to work-life balance.
  3. Organizations should encourage and implement fair work programs that will create workplaces that are fair and equitable. This equity in the workplace should touch on recruitment, selection, placement, compensations, rewards, and sanctions.
  4. Organizations should also consider carrying out frequent employee satisfaction surveys or wellness surveys to get “feelers” on matters or issues that are giving employees cause great discomfort. When acted upon early, the feedback from these surveys and the responses to the feedback can prove to be a “silver bullet” to the problems occasioned by toxic work environments.

Earlier, I had opined,” with great power comes great responsibility”; the onus is on the top hierarchy to set the organization culture and lay the infrastructure that will detoxify toxic workplaces and create workplaces of the 21st century.

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