Can the New Normal have zero office toxicity?

·3-min read

SEPTEMBER 20 — The first time I experienced what most today would consider “toxic” office behaviour was during my first year of work (back during the time Zinedine Zidane was still taking free kicks).

I was asked to take some cables to a manager who was waiting for me outside the building. Because I was new and/or unfamiliar with the building, I took a wrong turn and was delayed by about two to three minutes (not 20-30, mind you).

When I met the manager he shouted at me, “Why are you late?!” He the grabbed the cables, growled at me one more time and stormed away.

Since then I’ve seen more than enough examples to fill a 1,000-page memoir.

I’ve seen superiors threatening juniors with industry-wide cancellation (it’s actually not impossible if the sector is small), CEOs calling directors monkeys, senior managers telling a junior to finish his work before going to see his mum who had just been admitted to the ICU and, of course, I’ve heard enough profanity in the corporate world to make even Quentin Tarantino blush.

How can the new normal improve all this? Can substantial changes occur? Is there any chance a pandemic can sweep away not only unhygienic practices in an office but also psychologically toxic ones?

I’m not exactly bubbling with optimism.

My friends and former colleagues tell me that horror stories persist in spite of the lockdown.

Office WhatsApp groups are cesspools of threats, egotistical show-boating, personal attacks, insinuations and forms of communication generally deprived of basic courtesy and respect.

It doesn’t matter how many people have suffered and died from Covid-19, some people are still going to remain jerks as long as power and money are involved.

The irony is that some of the very same folks are on platforms like Linked-In talking about “dynamic professionalism”, “best practices” and how “our people are our greatest assets.”

This is proof that the biggest BS in the world isn’t what is overtly nonsensical; it’s what makes good sense but which is wielded merely as window-dressing.

Having said that, as always, there’s hope.

I already mentioned or implied that I’ve been in the corporate world for more than 20 years. Although I’ve seen lots of shitty stuff, I’ve also seen lots of praise-worthy behaviour; if the former sucked the joy of life away, the latter can often come across as healing.

I’ve seen a HR manager hide her phone so well she spoke to me for about an hour without even once being distracted.

I’ve seen directors defend juniors against a tide of criticism, some even sticking their necks out for these younger folks. But, hey, integrity is integrity.

Is there any chance a pandemic can sweep away not only unhygienic practices in an office but also psychologically toxic ones? — TODAY pic
Is there any chance a pandemic can sweep away not only unhygienic practices in an office but also psychologically toxic ones? — TODAY pic

The truth must be called out too, even if it means the other big boys in the boardroom may raise their eyebrows at you.

I’ve seen senior managers willingly take on the tasks assigned to someone else if said someone else had a personal or medical emergency. The best of the best have even told the staff to take care of their loved ones first, don’t worry about work, and come back when all is okay.

That’s not just good professionalism; that’s great humanity.

Can it be an integral part of our new normal? Can the fact that the country has been ravaged by a pandemic recalibrate our understanding of what it means to be a good leader and team-player in the office, to make us try harder to speak nicer to people, not least those who report to us?

In the aftermath of a national disaster, surely not being an asshole can’t be too hard?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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