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  • Debbie Dougherty

Who is the TIF Making Your Organizational Culture TAH?

A White woman figure looks fearful.
Some Organizations are Toxic. Why is that? Picture by Freya Clark

Did you hear the news about the Miss USA debacle last week? Apparently, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA gave up on their dreams, leaving the organization that had been the focus of their life goals. Why? Apparently because fear has become the primary value in the organization, creating a toxic culture for members of the organization. Both women are silenced via nondisclosure agreements, which, by the way, is one way fear centered organizations evade accountability.

If the Miss USA organization is anything like other toxic workplaces, the toxic employee has been reported numerous times. They have clearly engaged in problematic behavior. That behavior has become a pattern that defines their relationship with both leaders and colleagues. And yet, they are allowed to stay, making their organizational culture TAH (Toxic As Hell). How is this possible? Because they are treated as TIF (Too Important to Fail).

Toxic Employees Create Toxic Workplaces

I have seen the most random, toxic, people treated as TIF. Most of those people are not actually very good at their jobs, but they are treated like they are not replaceable. Here are some examples:

God Like Sexual Predator

Larry Nasser was frequently called "world class" and "God like" when female athletes reported his predatory sexual behavior. Yet, Nasser was not hired because he was a good doctor. He was hired because he was willing to put injured gymnasts back on the mat, where many of them experienced life changing injuries.

Mission Busting Employee

An Elder Care Organization keeps hiring physical therapists to care for their clients. The physical therapists keep leaving after a few weeks. Why? Because a senior level therapist terrorizes these professionals. Has been doing so for years. This person is apparently TIF, creating an ongoing threat to the organizational mission, not to mention the challenges faced by therapists who now have the burden of unemployment and finding a new job.

Constructing Toxicity

A Large Construction firm has a mid level manager who screams obscenities at colleagues, often threatening them with physical harm. Despite numerous complaints, and clearly unacceptable behavior, this mid level manager is still employed. The culture has cycled into extreme toxicity with employees creating whisper networks and constructing weird narratives and fantastical stories to try to explain this individuals continued employment.

Crushing Productivity in Academia Land

In case you are curious, academia land is not exempt from the TIF phenomenon. Take for example the low performing faculty member who cultivated power by gossiping about high performing colleagues, bullying high performing colleagues, and constantly disrupting meetings by laughing at high performing colleagues. Although all of his colleagues were terrified of this faculty member, he was promoted into the role of the department chair, where he literally terrorized the faculty. This employee's few accomplishments were treated as groundbreaking advancements, and he was viewed as TIF, leaving his department TAH.

Mundane TIFs

Of course, these are dramatic examples. Most examples are much more mundane. They are the everyday workers who, for whatever reason, people think are TIF. Consider this: During the great recession, some banks were propped up by the U.S. government because they were Too Big to Fail [TBF]. Now, imagine if every ATM were treated like a giant bank that was TBF. A customer might come into the bank:

Customer: Your ATM just ate my bank card.

Organizational Leader: I am sure it didn't mean to.

Customer: Okay, but I need my bank card back.

Organizational Leader: Did you try talking nicely to the ATM?

Customer: What? You can't talk to an ATM.

Organizational Leader: Are you sure it actually took your bank card? You seem to have a vivid imagination.

Customer: I need a new bank.

Organizational Leader: I don't understand why you are leaving and I am sorry to see you go.

Now, change the customer to an employee, change the ATM to an organizational bully, and you will begin to understand how these small level employees are allowed to become festering wounds.

How Do I Fix This?

How do you prevent toxic employees from creating a toxic workplace? First, you need to be open to the possibility that you have a TIF, and that you may have enabled this TIF. Do not assume that TIFs are OPP (Other People's Problem).

Second, consider a cultural check-in (I can do this with you if you are interested) where you assess your culture to identify hidden problems and plan for the future.

Third, find your courage. Eliminating TIFs can be emotionally challenging. But someone has to do it. While the TIF's may not have caused the problem, and they may not be the only person enacting the problem, they are a lynch pin to addressing the problem. As long as they remain in the organization, the culture cannot be rewoven and organizational members cannot heal from the trauma of the culture.

Note From the Farm

It is lambing season. Usually what happens is we walk out into the pastures and discover freshly born lambs jumping around. Sometimes, however, there are birthing problems. My Husband's job is to catch and hold the ewe (female sheep) while my job is to figure out how to deliver the little creatures. Not to brag or anything, but after 17 years, I have gotten really good at my job. Tom called me a genius last week, which makes me wonder if being a genius is something you are born with, or it is something that you develop with thoughtful experience over time.

Debbie Dougherty is a Professor, Author, Consultant, and Farmer

Freya Clark is a gifted child artist who raises rabbits and plays sports.


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