Pie Wars – Why Workplace Toxicity is Thriving

The key to why toxicity thrives in today’s workplace is contained within the widely accepted definition of economics proffered by Robbins (1932) i.e. economics being the science of human behaviour as a relationship between ends, and scarce means that have alternative uses.  Some vital words within this definition of economics purvey the perfect ingredients for the cocktail known as ‘Toxicity’ to thrive within interpersonal work contexts – human behaviour, scarce resources, ends, and alternative uses.  Does this sound familiar?  It should do because these words reflect a reality germane to most workplaces resulting in the habitual engagement in what is termed as distributive bargaining.    

Distributive bargaining also known as zero sum gain describes interpersonal approaches to working with each other where the outcome must represent a gain for one party, and a loss for the other in areas such as compensation and benefits, and the allocation of scarce resources (Fischer 2013).  It is important to appreciate that the entities in which we achieve gainful employment are continuously under attack from largely uncontrollable external forces.  For instance, in the private sector we face a multitude of competitors whose raison d’etre is to be the most competitive in their marketplace.  So, if we make something or deliver a service, someone else is trying to make and sell the same or better at less cost to the market.  In the public sector, we continuously face reduction / removal of funding and we endure competition from other institutions seeking to avail of the same limited funding on offer.  In both public and private sectors, such external pressures create a veritable greenhouse for toxicity to blossom internally.

According to Durrè (2010), distributive bargaining leads to the creation of conditions in which toxicity is rife.  Toxicity refers to individual or organisational behaviours that are propelled by power struggles, personal gain tactics, financial disputes, status claims, unethical conduct, vindictiveness, and sometimes illegal means, manipulation and annoyance.  Toxic situations often involve actions that are ultimately defeating to organisational objectives, to other employees, and to ethical and professional standards. 

We are all aware of large environmental disasters such as Chernobyl 1986 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spillage of 2010.  These events occurred due to the failure of protective mechanisms designed to ensure that toxic agents are contained within a controlled environment.  At a much more subtle, but equally malignant level however, basic workplace protective boundaries are eroding more-and-more, exposing us to noxious behaviours, antecedents of poor work related mental and somatic health.  It would appear that accredited workstream improvement methods such as lean quality systems in fact perpetuate the very catalysts for toxicity to thrive by expecting more from less-and-less.  Regrettably, theoretical predictions about trends in work-pressure tend to be unanimously pessimistic. For instance, scholars anticipate an intensification of work pressure in more highly skilled jobs that carry greater responsibility, involve more complex tasks, and that require the constant updating of skills (Steiber and Pichler 2014).  In conclusion, within our work contexts, our pie is continuously shrinking, the kitchen is getting hotter, and it will get harder and harder to stand the toxic heat for us all.