Many businesses are having a hard time dealing with the impact of the Great Resignation, with a large number of their key players quitting their jobs. To mitigate this issue and improve employee retention, business owners and executives must give their all in restoring a healthy organizational culture. Dr. Kevin Sansberry sits down with Dr. Mitch Kusy to talk about his book addressing toxic workplaces, Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore. Dr. Mitch discusses the financial costs of tolerating toxic team leaders, the damage caused by shaming other people, and the negative impact of not implementing proper coaching strategies. He also explains why the baby steps approach is always effective in starting a cultural shift and presents four steps in giving the most respectful apology.
Listen to the podcast here:
How To Restore Your Organizational Culture, With Dr. Mitch Kusy
This episode is with Dr. Mitch Kusy. I ran across Dr. Kusy’s work for the first time when I read the book Toxic Workplace! several years ago. This book was inspirational to my research and what I do as a consultant. I love how Mitch is able to apply research with hands-on approaches for organizations across the country. My discussion with Mitch was great. If you’re interested in two experts geeking out about toxic leadership, but also about hands-on approaches and practical tips that members in organizations like to take related to creating better workplaces, this is the episode for you. Let’s get to it.
We have Dr. Mitch Kusy here to talk to us about his work in toxic leadership and research. How are you doing?
I’m doing well and I’m looking forward to this, Kevin.
One of the things that I’m excited about is reading your book on toxic workplaces. When I first got in the game, it was insightful for me because as I met with employees and human resources, I always wanted to figure out, “What is this thing we’re talking about? Why does work suck sometimes?” I read your book and I found it an inspiration to a lot of people in the field. Thank you for that.
You’re most welcome. It’s interesting that you say that because I titled my latest book, Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore. We could all identify with that when we’ve worked with a toxic individual. Now with The Great Resignation, more and more people are leaving. What’s a telltale here is the subtitle and that is, A Leader’s Guide to Offset the Financial and Emotional Costs of Toxic Employees. I was delighted to write this book that was based on a three-year research study that I’ve had done with my colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway.
When you look at the cost of toxic leadership, I see people take that literally and look at financial, which is great for a business, but it’s that hidden piece or that emotional cost that you’ve lifted up. A lot of people seemingly have PTSD-like symptoms after they leave these places. They are dealing with that stress when they get to the next place. It’s like a generational cost.
There’s something in between this emotional cost that affects all of us and the financial costs. Those are the costs of the team. We know from the research over and over again that the cost that impacts the team is horrendous. For example, in the healthcare literature, we know that 30.7% of nurses knew a colleague who quit because of these toxic behaviors. We know that in our research study, 51% are likely to quit. Other researchers have found that 12% quit the team and it’s interesting, they could quit the team, meaning that they’re not that committed to the organization or the team any longer, but they still stay on the job. They quit while they’re on the job and then some actually quit.
Before we jump in, tell me about you. How did you get into the work?
I got into the work as many people get into their work in a circuitous fashion. I’m an Organizational Psychologist. I worked at American Express. I’m the Head of Leadership and Executive Development. I worked at HealthPartners in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul as the Head of Labor and Employee Relations. I was a Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis for about seventeen years. Now, I’m with Antioch University’s PhD Program in Leadership and Change.
That’s a little bit about my background but what’s most interesting to individuals is how I got into this business of dealing with bad behavior. I want to tell a little story to everyone that’s reading this and the story is this. I walked into an elevator one time. This is many years ago. I smelled a special perfume and that perfume made me sick to my stomach. As I was trying to recreate this as, “Why am I getting so sick?” In an insight, it dawned on me. This smell was the perfume was worn by an individual who I’ve worked with who was highly toxic.
I remember quitting on the job. What I mean by that was if she came in at 9:00 AM, I came in at work at 5:30 AM, so I had the most of three hours working with her. What is so amazing is the power that individuals had in creating my lack of personal wellbeing at work. That was the stimulus that said, “I wonder if there’s something about this.” Many years ago, people weren’t writing very well and weren’t researching toxic behaviors in an organization.
You had no avenue to figure out what it was.
I had to create the avenue. There were books out there that talked about dealing with toxic behaviors, but it was intuitive in many ways. I was looking for evidence-based research. That was the three-year research study that I conducted with my colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Holloway.
That’s impactful because it came as a surprise almost. The smell of perfume triggered you.
At first, I couldn’t discern what was going on. As time went on, I figured it out. I thought, “There must be something to this.”
The number one strategy to use when dealing with toxic individuals is to give them feedback. Tell them what they are doing wrong constructively.
The lesson learned for everybody is to dig into the emotion you have. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” If you left it alone and said, “I’m just hungry or tired,” we wouldn’t be talking.
That’s an insightful comment, Kevin, “To dig in.” One of the things that I talk about in digging in is talking with a trusted colleague about these emotional impacts that are occurring. When you talk with a colleague, talk about it in an authentic and honest way, not in a gossip kind of way. One of the things I discovered in my research is gossip isn’t healthy. We all know that, but what’s fascinating about gossip is it has what’s called secondary gain.
Many of us like gossiping. It’s like, “Can you believe what she said to the CEO?” One of the strategies I help people understand in my book is to figure out ways to extract yourself from this gossip. One way is to not shake your finger and say, “Don’t gossip,” but rather say, “I have to talk about myself right now and it’s not good for me. I don’t feel good about talking about another individual. I’ve been part of these conversations in the past. I’m now going to extract myself from these conversations.”
When you think about these behaviors in particular toxic leadership in itself, what has the research shown related to the impact of these toxic leaders and this behavior in the workplace?
You can go in a number of different directions from what the research shows. In my book, I have a way to figure out the financial costs. In general, what I discern in Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore is that the financial costs at a bare minimum are 4% to 6% of the entire compensation cost in the organization. I have a special worksheet to help leaders address this. If your organization is mid-sized and you’re paying $100 million a year in compensation, plan on that cost being $4 million to $6 million. If I can go into your organization and say, “If your compensation costs are $100 million, I could save you $4 million to $6 million,” I got your ear. The financial cost is one of the first things.
The team costs are critical. For example, healthcare has done more than any other industry in dealing with not just financial costs, but the cost to patients. One example is a toxic behaviour that I would call shaming. Let me share an example with you. I was doing a keynote address. It was a non-healthcare audience and I share these healthcare statistics because we’re all impacted by healthcare. What we know is that 60% to 80% of professionals have seen a direct impact on shaming colleagues to patient safety.
There were 500 people in the room, a gentleman raises his hand and says, “This is an amazing, Mitch. My wife is a nurse. Last night, she reported to me that she disagreed with a medication order.” I said, “What did your wife do?” He said, “She went to 3 to 4 other individuals to interpret the order.” I knew the answer to this but I asked him anyway, “Why?” “Because she did not want to be shamed by this provider.” There was utter silence in the room.
Another individual raises her hand and I know I’m in trouble when someone calls me doctor. She said, “Dr. Kusy, I’m a surgeon. I have to demand perfectionism. At times, I have to shame people so we are perfect in the operating suite.” She then issued this mandate to me, “Would you want to go to a surgeon who isn’t perfect?” I’m dying up there on the podium stand. My response was, “Doctor, I want to go to a surgeon who if they are about to make a mistake, someone feels comfortable enough to call them on that error.” There was utter silence in the room. Those are some of the statistics that we know. I have hundreds of these statistics that are critical for us to look at. We need to do something about this.
That’s powerful because that’s showing you the impact of mental models, and how that surgeon views shaming as an avenue to decrease mistakes, when the research on shaming shows, it increases the stakes because we hide things. You might think you’re perfect but we’re hiding the imperfections instead of being honest about them at that point.
Also, the psychological literature on perfectionism is clear. We need to be cognizant of this. We are human beings. We are not perfect. I don’t want a surgeon to make an error. That’s not what I’m saying. However, because we’re humans, we do make errors. The errors increase with shaming behaviors. That’s clear in hundreds of studies.
I had a call and I was telling them my joy of doing research. I love discovery. I feel like I’m an explorer but in a different way. Tell me about the most unique discovery from your research. Share with us some of the things you came across.
One of the most unique discoveries is that the number one unsuccessful strategy that leaders use when they are dealing with a toxic individual is coaching. Give them feedback. Tell them what they’re doing wrong. First of all, I’m not saying you shouldn’t coach, but here’s the second part of that unique discovery. Without the systems approach and without understanding the system that is allowing people to get away with bad behaviors, coaching has a high probability of failure.
Think of it this way. If you’re coaching and you say, “I want you to change your behavior and there’s no incentive to change it.” No positive and negative incentives. It’s like, “If this happens, this is going to be the next step.” There’s a high probability that behavior will continue. You need to understand the system that’s allowing people to get away with bad behavior.
Part of that system could be we have progressive discipline with consequences. Another system could be our leaders modeling these positive behaviors. All these things need to be occurring to make coaching more effective. One of the things I do as a culture change consultant, I do coach but before I do the coaching, I make sure that the systems are in place to allow coaching to be effective.
Without understanding the systems implemented in the workplace, people will continue to get away with bad behaviors. Moreover, coaching will have a high probability of failure.
I didn’t invite Dr. Kusy out here because he was going to say that, but a lot of people hear me say that, “In order to change behavior, you got to change the system.” We get so caught up in systemic change because we treat it as impossible to shift. It does take longer but in order for any behavior change to sustain, the system has to reward and punish behavior that is unacceptable in this culture and system.
One of the things that I want to help your readers understand too is that some system changes can be long term. There are some very simple kinds of system change that we can engage in. For example, one of the things I discovered is there’s this thing called the chameleon effect. Some highly toxic individuals, meaning it’s targeted, harmful, repeated, shaming, bullying, etc. The chameleon effect is they kiss up to people with power and they knock down the people without power.
One of the easy systems that leaders could do is if you are already in a leadership position, ask individuals two levels down from you, “Are you getting the kind of leadership you need?” It could be positive like, “Yes. This leader I report to is doing fabulous work and here’s how.” Go two levels down. It’s called a skip-level discussion and ask, “Are you getting the kind of leadership you need? If not, let me explore this more with you,” because those individuals at the top are only hearing often part of the story. You’ve got to have your ear to the ground and be open.
Often leaders at the top will say, “I am open but I understand this individual is a little bit tough on other people.” Explore how tough. Are they frightened of coming to work? With the post-pandemic and The Great Resignation, this is the one time in history when we’ve had more people quitting than any other time in history. We have to be cautious and have an ear to the ground to make sure we’re keeping our good people within the organization.
I like those skip-level interviews because some of the works you’d see are related to certain personality traits like narcissistic leadership, Machiavellianism and some of those traits. These individuals are highly socially adept at the power structure. Some of these toxic leaders may kiss up strategically to avoid being found out. That skip level can mitigate some of that behavior too.
Any of these individuals, you don’t want to engage in a conversation about why this is occurring. What you want to do is say, “These behaviors must stop. Here are the consequences.” For any of these toxic individuals who were high performers, “How are you going to fire your high performers?” Firing is the last step. One of the things that I’ve found that helps leaders once a system is in place and you’re coaching these individuals with consequences is understanding the financial impact that these individuals have. While they may be bringing in more than anybody, if it’s a sales position, look at what’s happening in the wake of their behavior. How many people are leaving?
One of the other strategies is, first of all, the stay interview. Find out what would keep you here and do more of that. Secondly, with exit interviews, one of the strategies that I found highly successful is to conduct the exit interview 3 to 6 months after the individual has left. You’re not going to get them back. The reason for that is people will be more honest.
Sometimes leaders and HR individuals will say, “How do you do that?” If someone is quitting, “I would like to have an opportunity to chat with you about your experiences here. I’d like to contact you 3 to 6 months from now, may I do that?” You start putting patterns together. If it’s related to 1 or 2 individuals as a result of that person quitting, you have more data to act on to understand the system.
Talk to me about some of the impacts that you’ve had in helping your clients address toxic leadership other than what you had shared. Any other impact you can share with us?
One of the major pieces of the impact that I have is what I call engaging in a culture change initiative. This is over a 6 to a 9-month period where I begin breaking down barriers and helping people to understand what toxic behaviors are, and what respectful behaviors are through education and professional development. That’s one piece.
Second, once they understand, “I get it now.” For example, Pearson and Porath did an amazing study of 20,000 employees and they found that the number one leadership behavior that they look for is respect. I engage people in conversations, “How can you model more respectful behaviors?” The first piece is education. Second, once they say, “I get it,” in a number of different ways, usually after 2 to 3 months of work with me, then I have them develop a compact of professional behaviors.
I have a strategy for this using a series of post-it exercises over a two-week period where they say, “These are the behaviors I always want to see. These are the behaviors I never want to see.” I collapse those into themes. I draw up a compact and then I share the results of the compact with everyone who has participated in it. That’s the second strategy.
Remember, we are beginning to have a systems approach and now start doing some coaching. I said coaching is largely ineffective without a systems approach. Coaching is the next piece. The final piece is looking at what can individual teams do to contribute to a more respectful culture. One of the very simple strategies is team meetings. Five minutes before a team meeting, the leader has one individual share one behavior that you witnessed or engaged in over the past week that helps us support our compact of professional behavior.
I want to have one other individual share an obstacle that they experienced or witnessed that’s preventing us from achieving our compact of professional behavior. What you are doing in that five minutes at every team meeting is you are integrating the fabric of what everyone should be doing from the compact into the daily behaviors.
With so many people quitting today than any other time in history, business leaders must put their ear to the ground. They must work hard to keep good people within the organization.
Has that been successful for you in the work that you’ve done?
I’m going to paraphrase what one of the professors at Harvard said and her name is Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She said, “The most successful change is often not about a bold stroke, but a long slow steady march.” One of the things that I do is to help leaders understand, “What can you do to begin engaging in this long slow steady march?” Most change does not happen through osmosis. What you need to do is to begin helping people understand.
Knowing your approach and the readers are appreciative of the fact that it’s methodical in a way. People get scared when it’s that long, big transformation that happens overnight. It’s like, “How do we do that?” To be honest, those who are most negatively impacted in the system don’t believe that change either because it seems superficial. I do like the ability for you to take it over time. People make mistakes and so allow for that regression that happens naturally.
I teach this to my PhD students as well as my clients. It’s all about baby steps. You learned a number of strategies right now, “What is one that you want to take?” I tell them to make that goal public. The research on goal setting says, “When we make a goal public, there’s a higher probability we’ll achieve it.” Will you share what you’re going to be working on with a team? Do you have a supportive colleague you’ll share that with or with your leader? It’s important to make these goals public.
One of the things that I’ve heard you talk about is building that culture of everyday civility and taking those baby steps, acting and living it out every day. Any other unique strategies as it relates to how can we further live into these baby steps on a daily basis? You brought up staff meetings. Any other ones?
I’ve said this for many years, to be a leader is to teach. If you’re not teaching, you’re not leading. One of the ways that we teach is through modeling. One of the ways that we teach is by sharing information that we’ve heard from others. One strategy would be, “I attended this podcast. I want to share one of the interesting things. I want to share this with you, my team.” One is to share the learning. The second is to model it.
For example, one of the things I talk about in my book is how to apologize. We all can be uncivil at times. When we are, it’s incumbent on us to say, “I goofed.” In my book, I share the bad way and the good way to apologize. The bad way is the yes-but, “I apologize, but.” Communication experts have found that what comes after the but is often regarded as the excuse.
The four-step apology is one in which we look at these four pieces. State what you’ve done in the past. Second, share the impact of this behavior on someone else. Third, now you apologize, “I’m sorry. I apologize.” The fourth is the key part, state what you’re going to do to rectify this situation. You don’t have to say it will not happen again in the future, but the probability is less. The four-step apology would be a way for leaders to model respectful behavior in an organization.
When you hear this apology piece, don’t start adopting it like, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
Here’s what’s interesting about this. If you don’t believe you’re sorry, you’re better off not apologizing because then what you are is you are inauthentic. If you have any questions, “Should I or should I not apologize?” Talk with a trusted colleague. “This is what happened. I want to apologize. I want to try to change this behavior. Help me understand this a bit more.”
“I might have some areas that I’m not clear on about my behavior.” That’s okay. We’re human. I want to thank you for the systemic approach to what organizations can do related to toxic leadership. I wanted to give you an opportunity for a wow moment and leave us with any words of wisdom that you have.
I’m going to leave with two words of wisdom. I’ve said this for many years, even before I started studying toxic behavior. Cooperative learning was once called cheating. We don’t have all the answers. With cooperative learning, ask other people that you trust, “I’m dealing with this issue. How do you perceive I could handle this without being gossipy?” That’s the first word of wisdom.
The second didn’t come from me, but it came from someone in our research study. We had 400 people in this study on toxic behaviors. We also had what’s called open fields where people could write in their responses. This was one of the responses that someone had written, “The day this person left our company is considered an annual holiday.” I leave with that.
In this time of The Great Resignation and beyond, try to keep a respectful environment by keeping those individuals who are your good staff or employees. Have your ear to the ground. You don’t want to lose them. Create a respectful environment. Remember the research from Pearson and Porath. Respect was the number one behavior of 20,000 employees worldwide.
Most change does not happen through osmosis. Always start by helping people understand the problem they are facing first.
Dr. Kusy, thank you very much.
I appreciate being able to have this connection with you because that’s how the universe works sometimes to bring great people together. How can people reach you?
You can reach me at my email address, MitchellKusy@Gmail.com and you could give them my email address. You could also go to my website, www.MitchellKusy.com. I’d be delighted to hear from you and anyone reading. This has been a great conversation.
I appreciate being able to talk to you.
You’re amazing. Thank you.
We’re going to need to link up and work together. We got to conquer this very important issue as you described it. Thank you all.
- Toxic Workplace!
- Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore
- Dr. Elizabeth Holloway
About Mitch Kusy
Dr. Kusy has had 25 years of experience in organization development with a focus on culture change with demonstrated results to team performance and the bottom line. A Registered Organization Development Consultant, he is a full professor in the Ph.D. Program, Leadership & Change, Antioch University, and a distinguished visiting professor, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
In addition to his US-based consultations, he has consulted in:
• Argentina • Australia • Bahrain • Croatia
• France • Germany • Ireland • Israel
• Japan • New Zealand • South Africa • Spain
• Sweden • Taiwan • The Netherlands • Ukraine
• United Kingdom • United States • Uruguay
Volunteering in non-profit organizations, Mitch has served on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Training & Development, Southern Minnesota Chapter. He recently received the international honor of being selected as a Fulbright Scholar in international organization development. In 1998, he received the prestigious award Minnesota Organization Development Practitioner of the Year.
Mitch was a full professor in the doctoral program in organization development, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis for 17 years. Mitch also directed the leadership development area at American Express Financial Advisors where he facilitated the Situational Leadership Model organization-wide. Previously, he managed organization development & employee relations for Health Partners.
He has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Providence College and two Master’s degrees—one in Psychiatric Social Work, University of Wisconsin, and the other in Industrial Relations, University of Minnesota. He holds a Doctorate in Organization Development, from the University of Minnesota and received an international award from the International Society for Performance Improvement as Outstanding Researcher of the Year—1987. Mitch Kusy’s specific areas of consulting include:
• Strategic planning • Leadership development • Team development
• Organization development • Everyday civility / toxic personalities • Culture change
His latest research study is on the specific strategies leaders should employ to mitigate the effects of toxic behaviors and build organizations of respectful engagement.