Positive workplace culture: The importance of healthy professional relationships

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Anti-social and unethical behaviour in the work place has considerable negative effects on employee wellbeing. Toxic relationships are at the heart of such behaviour.This column presents evidence from a field experiment carried out in Turkey. In this setting, an innovative training programme aiming to improve the relational atmosphere in the work place reduced anti-social interactions and lowered employee separation in large corporations. In particular, improved leader-subordinate relationships played a key role in explaining the programme’s positive impacts on the workplace climate.


Research shows that high employee turnover hinders a company’s long-term success (Heinz et al., 2017, 2020; Hoffman and Tadelis, 2021). Fostering a positive workplace climate is essential to motivate, engage and retain employees (Gorton and Zentefis, 2020; Guiso et al., 2015; Martinez et al., 2015). While this relationship is intuitive and has been well documented, dysfunctional workplaces with toxic relational climates are ubiquitous. In large and competitive corporations, relational toxicity and anti-professional leader-subordinate interactions have become the predominant causes of employee burnout and quitting. 

According to a 2019 Society for Human Resource Management report, 20% of US employees quit their jobs in the last five years due to the toxicity of workplace relationships, and 58% of employees who quit because of a poor workplace climate blame their managers (SHRM, 2019). Similar trends emerged in a qualitative survey conducted in Turkey in 2019 involving white-collar professionals: ‘toxic relations’ and ‘difficult leaders’ emerge as the top challenges in corporate life.

Toxicity in the workplace is associated with anti-social behaviour. Such behaviours include mobbing, gossiping and the frequent use of disrespectful and condescending language (Akella and Lewis, 2019). When leaders adopt such behaviour, it can quickly become the norm within the workplace, filtering down to more junior staff. 

 

Measuring workplace climate

In a recent paper (Alan et al., 2023), we conduct a randomised evaluation of an innovative training programme that aims to eliminate toxic relational dynamics within firms. The training programme was offered to 3,000 white-collar professionals in 20 large corporations in Turkey. These corporations operate in six major industries: energy, chemistry, defence, finance, construction and textiles. A randomly chosen half of these 20 corporations received the training first, allowing us to evaluate the causal impact of the programme on the firms’ relational atmosphere.

Four measurement tools were used to characterise the relational atmosphere in a firm:

  • Administrative data on employee separations, distinguishing between layoffs and quits.
  • Lab-in-the-field experiments to measure the prevalence of pro- and anti-social behaviours, including the tendency to engage in toxic competition, trust and reciprocity amongst department colleagues, and a sense of fairness and generosity towards department colleagues.
  • Perceived workplace climate. A survey module was designed to characterise perceived workplace quality and relational atmosphere. We constructed indices of workplace climate covering five dimensions: workplace satisfaction, perception of meritocracy within the firm, collegiality, behavioural norms and prescriptive norms.
  • Social and professional support networks. We also elicited the social and professional support networks of the companies by asking all employees to nominate at most three colleagues from whom they receive professional (work-related) support and support in personal matters. These detailed templates allow us to measure the degree of social isolation and connection to the leader and construct department network density and various segregation indices.

 

A workplace climate improvement programme

In the study, firms were assigned randomly to the treatment and control groups, stratified by sector. Firms in the control group only had access to the training programme after the endline data collection (i.e., we used a phase-in design). 

To implement the training programme, we partnered with a consulting firm established by ex-corporate professionals who aspire to eliminate toxic relational atmosphere and employee burnout among white-collar professionals. The content of the training programme focuses on the benefits of pro-sociality in the workplace and the importance of professional communication using respectful language, especially in leader-subordinate interactions. So, while the training programme was open to all employees, leaders were particularly encouraged to participate.

The programme had two phases: online workshops and a project development phase. The first phase involved a series of online workshops emphasising: respectful and peaceful communication with colleagues, subordinates and leaders. This was done by exerting deliberate effort to eliminate toxic and condescending language; understanding the others’ points of view and tolerating differences in opinions; and learning to rely on colleagues by accepting vulnerability (Alan et al., 2023). The training sessions incorporated innovative tools such as creative drama and role-playing.

In the second phase of the programme, participants were asked to develop projects aiming to improve communications and relational culture within their firms or to embed these themes in their ongoing projects. After eight weeks of teamwork monitored by the implementing partner, participating teams presented their projects to the upper management and put them into practice if seen fit.

 

Improving the workplace climate

Comparing the participants in the treated and control firms shows significant positive impacts of the training programme on most of the outcomes under consideration. We find that the employee separation rate is lower, especially at the leadership level, in the treated firms. The likelihood of employee separation is 2 percentage points lower in the treated companies for the overall sample, where control companies have a mean 5% separation rate. Separation of leaders is 4.8 percentage points lower in the treated companies, where control group leaders have a 5.7% separation rate.

Professionals in the treatment group exhibit lower anti-social tendencies in the workplace. They are less inclined to engage in toxic competition and reciprocate their colleagues’ trust more generously than those in the control firms. Figure 2 compares the degree of toxic competition and reciprocity in treatment and control firms.

 

Figure 2: Pro- and anti-social behaviour in the treatment and control firms

Figure 2: Pro- and anti-social behaviour in the treatment and control firms

Source: Alan et al. (2023)

Notes: This figure reports the unconditional means of our measures of toxic competition and reciprocity for the treatment and control firms. P-values associated with the estimated treatment effects are provided. Toxic competition is measured as the fraction of sabotage endowment used in an incentivised sabotage game; reciprocity is defined as the average fraction of the amount reciprocated in an incentivised trust game.

Positive effects on pro-social behaviour are matched by improvements in workplace satisfaction, perceived meritocracy in the firm and perceived collegiality of the department. But the positive effects on workplace climate perceptions are limited to the subordinates. A summary of the estimated treatment effects for the subordinate sample is shown in Figure 3.

 

Figure 3: Treatment effects on perceived workplace climate and leadership quality

Figure 3: Treatment effects on perceived workplace climate and leadership quality

Source: Alan et al. (2023)

Notes: This figure documents the estimated treatment effects on subordinates’ perceptions of workplace climate and of leadership quality. Values are standard deviation effects, where control group is normalised to zero. P-values associated with the estimated treatment effects are provided.

These findings are complemented by denser and less segregated social support networks in treated firms. A high proportion of employees (13%) in the control firms report that they lack professional support from their colleagues, and 24% report a lack of personal support. The training programme lowers the proportion of employees lacking professional support to 8% and personal support to 17% among treated firms.

 

The need for professional and empathetic leaders

Managers play a pivotal role in setting the tone of communication and shaping the relational culture in the workplace (Bloom et al., 2011). Leaders can cultivate a collegial atmosphere or, conversely, propagate a toxic culture of mistreatment and condescending language, reflecting employee behaviour and perceptions (Hoffman and Tadelis, 2021; Bloom et al., 2013; Heinz et al., 2017).

In the case study, the training programme’s positive impact is driven largely by its success in improving leaders’ attitudes toward subordinates. Junior colleagues from the treated group report higher-quality leadership in their firms. Specifically, they perceive their leaders to be more professional and more empathetic, as documented in Figure 3. Consistent with this finding, subordinates in the treated group are more likely to consider their leaders as primary providers of professional support.

 

Conclusion

When toxic behaviour becomes the norm, transformative actions may be required to improve the workplace climate and retain employees. Our recent study demonstrates that an innovative training programme aimed at improving the relational environment can effectively reduce toxic competition, increase pro-social acts, strengthen social support networks and lower employee separation rates in large and competitive corporations.

The study also underscores the critical role of pro-sociality in achieving a healthy workplace climate in large corporations. The toxicity of the relational environment, however, is not unique to the corporate world. It also plagues the public sector and academia. These findings therefore have practical implications for different workplace environments and provide insights into innovative ways to improve such organisations. Keeping employees happy is vital for maintaining a functioning business. Eradicating toxic behaviour is therefore essential.

Author: Sule Alan 
Editor’s note:
this blog is adapted from a VoxEU column by Sule Alan, Gozde Corekcioglu and Matthias Sutter, published on 30 March 2023.