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Paid to Play Dirty


When I sit down with groups, leaders and their employees tell me about the organizational cultures that drives their behavior. Under performing teams often feel like they’re forced to play along with, and participate in, bad behaviors because that’s the only way to survive. This got me thinking: what are all the ways organizations reward bad behavior.

Paying for Bad Leadership

Quid Pro Qua?: banding together with fellow leaders to get things done is great. But when you find yourself “owing” others, or “charging” for support, you’re contributing to a toxic culture that runs on favors, and sometimes actual bribery. Wipe the slate clean and support colleagues because they’re doing great work.

Stealing Credit: leaders are often praised for the work of their teams. However, under-performers in positions of power can take advantage. Asking your team to do something that is your responsibility is bad. Stealing the credit for it is the worst. Make sure leaders aren't incentivized to steal ideas. And take the time to praise the people who are working hard behind the scenes, to their faces and to others.

Belittling and Belottering: it’s completely true that some people respond to praise, while others respond to challenge and critique. Providing people with constructive feedback can push a lot of people to greatness. But tearing people down is a sign of toxic leadership. Is the ultimate goal to build them up, or to make you look strong?

Stinks Like Team Spirit

Hunger Games: competition can be a great technique for motivating groups of people, especially in high pressure environments. Make sure that the systems of competition make everyone more productive. When teams feel like they push themselves for absolutely no recognition, they will eventually stop pushing themselves entirely. Yes, even when the last competitor gets cut.

The Rat Maze: opportunities for growth are a must in healthy organizations. But too often, people feel like they’re jumping through arbitrary hoops and following paths to nowhere. Make sure your teams know that there are opportunities for advancement, and that the challenges and parameters you give them aren’t just busy work. Then follow through with the promotions.

Worked to Death: everyone needs a vacation. Right now, you need a vacation! The number one reason people give me as to why they don’t take time off is that they know there will be even more work for them to do when they get back. Setting up systems to share the load when people are gone not only prevents things from falling through the cracks, but also fosters teamwork and collaboration, even as your teams are taking much needed breaks.

Rewarding bad behavior is part of what creates toxic cultures. Organizations with toxic cultures suffer from lower productivity, loss of expertise through attrition, lower employee engagement, and ultimately failed long-term strategies. Look at how people are rewarded in your organization, and then look at the behaviors that most often get them their reward. If those behaviors are stacking up in the HR department, it may be time for a change. Don’t pay people to play dirty.

What are some of the ways you’ve seen organizations reward bad behavior?

**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.


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