Creating A Non-Toxic Workplace Is Just Table Stakes

Creating A Non-Toxic Workplace Is Just Table Stakes

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It’s been nearly a decade since AdAge Magazine declared that “human” was the “newest marketing buzzword.” Since then, we’ve watched the world become both more human and more automated. In a decade of upheaval and crisis, people have experienced the full range of “human moments.” We’ve seen incredible examples of people rising to the challenge, creating bonds, sharing burdens, lifting each other up, and carrying each other through. And we’ve seen businesses, communities, even nations come apart at the seams.

These events have only served to put on fast forward a shift in values that was already predicted in this Harvard Business Review article about a new kind of economy. In this economy the primary driver isn’t just people, it’s people bringing their humanity to the workplace. I call it a human-driven economy.

In a human-driven economy it only makes sense that the health of the humans powering the business would be a top priority. Sadly, MIT research this year showed that about 1 in 10 employees of the large U.S. corporations they surveyed experience their workplace culture as toxic.

Which is just one reason that the U.S. Surgeon General recently addressed the issue of toxic workplaces and issued official guidance from “America’s Doctor” on what it means and what is necessary to combat it. While I’m glad to see more conversation around “curing” toxic workplaces, I’m far more interested in understanding the benefits and requirements for creating optimal health in our workplaces.

One of the traits of a toxic environment is that humans are expected not to have, or at least not to show, emotion. Yet, as this article from Dixie Gillaspie reminds us, “The ultimate coin in any economy is human emotion. Everything humans do, consciously or unconsciously, is rooted in emotion and belief. The actions we take, the thoughts and ideas we entertain and give energy to, the decisions we make, regardless of how rational or informed we believe them to be, all come down to how we want to feel and what we believe will make us feel that way.”

We’re already seeing the intersection of toxic workplaces and human values. In a recent piece for her magazineThrive Global, Arianna Huffington dubbed this intersection “The Human Energy Revolution,” comparing the current transition away from work as the center of our life’s orbit to the revolution that occurred when Galileo introduced the idea that the sun did not, in fact, revolve around the earth. She concludes the article with this statement: “Only by putting our humanity at the center can we truly thrive.”

As business leaders we want people who are motivated, even driven. But many leaders also say they don’t like dealing with “messy” human emotions. Guess what? When we say we feel motivated we’re really describing an emotional state. So, we really do want human emotion in our workplace, we just don’t want to deal with the “messy” emotions.

For centuries we’ve been held to a standard of keeping our “negative” emotions out of the workplace. But humans don’t thrive in an environment that forces them to stifle and stuff certain emotions. Even those who master the selective display of their feelings pay a price. We all know the stories of people who seemed to be at the top of their game in their career but who became miserable, or were making others miserable, in the process.

This is why, when I write about the The Six Facets of Human Needs™ in my book The Human Team, I’ve placed the need of Consideration before the final “C” of Confidence. For humans on our teams to feel genuine confidence is both a basic human need and a business management goal. And it cannot happen until we have true consideration for the whole person, including all of their emotions.

Emotions are one of the greatest advantages humans have over artificial intelligence. Our natural ability to get fired up and put our hearts into what we do is something that software can never duplicate. In a human-driven economy, this superpower will be one of the most important drivers of value creation. But we can only harness it if we embrace it in its entirety, the magical and the messy.

Which doesn’t mean encouraging people to let their emotions rule their experience or their behavior. Giving consideration also means helping to guide the intelligent mastery of human emotions, not stuffing or stifling, but recognizing and choosing how to best experience and express them.

The bottom line is this: To compete in the coming years businesses will have to aim higher than “non-toxic.” They will have to achieve workplace cultures where people can experience optimal physical, mental, and emotional health. The Surgeon General’s guidelines are a good beginning if your culture is so toxic that you need to get out of that hole and get back in the game. But to play all out and win in a human-driven economy is going to require an even more human-centric approach.

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