We mentioned in a previous article that toxic individuals are infectious. Such employees focus on means rather than ends, promote drama over performance, and create significant drag on an organization. Moreover, they recruit others and shift the cultural norm. When this happens, restructuring is essential — but it will be resisted.
Predictable Resistance to Organizational Restructuring
Our research and experience have identified the following predictable behaviors:
High and Increasing Anxiety
Many people within a toxic organization will feel increasing anxiety about proposed changes and this will manifest in increased toxic behaviors. Like-minded team members will coalesce around issues, spread speculation, and be quick to publicise the negatives using informal channels. Their fears are very likely to be out of proportion to the potential outcomes.
Members will consciously and subconsciously sabotage the restructuring process by showing either:
- Passive-aggressive behavior, where resistance is disguised as excessive attention to collaboration, fairness, or equality; or
- Fake moral outrage, in which members communicate that the change is immoral or unethical. This outrage is often recognized by the outside observer as virtue signaling or pretence.
Rather than addressing concerns directly with leaders and team members, staff will communicate behind the scenes, becoming entangled in indirect communications that are unclear, unsubstantiated, and long on innuendo and short on facts. This behavior results from their inability or unwillingness to manage their anxiety, yet it does provide a short-term catharsis.
While some use triangling to manage their anxiety, others will simply stop communicating. They shift from being active participants in their organization to being highly disengaged. Sometimes, this is done in the name of “self-care” but more often, no explanation is offered for the lack of communication. Disengagement can manifest as being physically absent; more often it appears as emotional detachment, e.g. being at the meeting, but not participating; studiously avoiding expressing their perspective on contentious issues; not responding to direct questioning, or responding with non-committal or deflecting statements such as “is that so?” or “interesting..” or “I wonder what Sales thinks?” or “what do you think?”
The Transition Curve
The organizational transition curve suggests that overall functioning of an organization will decrease for a period of time before the benefits of the restructuring kick in. This happens because it takes some time for people to get used to the new way. Change itself often triggers many strong feelings and restructuring is one of the biggest changes in an organizational lifespan. Before it is fully accepted, members of the organization need to see the positives and buy into it.
However, the buy-in needed to move the organization along the curve is much harder to obtain when toxicity is present. Members of a toxic organization tend to:
- Extend the time to acceptance so that people languish in negative emotions.
- Deepen the depth of emotional trauma, making it even harder for people to return to an objective perspective.
- Sabotage progress at the stage where things start to improve because they are more comfortable in the chaos.
Many times, the extension and deepening of the initial impact of change and the insidious attempts to sabotage can cause leaders to abandon the restructuring initiative altogether.
Considerations When Restructuring a Toxic Organization
- Be aware of what toxicity looks like in an organization by reading our article on toxic organizations.
- Expect resistance and look for signs of sabotage. Don’t be surprised or discouraged – these are signs that you are shedding light on the organization’s darker side.
- Directly address the toxic behavior when you see it rather than let it slide. This is especially important but most difficult when confronting passive aggressive and moral outrage behavior.
- Avoid engaging in triangled behavior and coach leadership to do the same.
- Consider removing the most toxic staff members prior to restructuring.
- Expect every communication to be interpreted through a selfish lens.
- Do not take anything that happens in the organization personally. Stay objective.
The resistance of the toxic aspects of your organization are signs that the change process is working. Seeing things through this counterintuitive lens will make the process easier to bear. Remember that restructuring has clear benefits, including boosting innovation, improving efficiencies, communication, and financial performance. In some cases it may mean the life or death of the organization.
Change is good…but expect resistance.