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  • Writer's pictureJulie Ann Fooshee

Training Toxicity Out of Your Institution

For everyone who could make it, thank you for joining us for our last SciEngage discussion on Friday, July 29th. It was an exciting discussion with two geologists, LC and CC. Over the years they have taught me more rock facts than you can shake a stick at. I really appreciate them taking the time to chat with us about some of the ways that they have worked to make changes in their environment and I wanted to put some of those thoughts in writing for those of us who joined and those who couldn't make it.

After the conversation, L, C and I reflected on the fact that - sometimes when you're in an office and going through this every day you don’t see the changes that you’re making. There are still a lot of dysfunctional and toxic things that you have to deal with around you that can be overwhelming but coming up with ways to get through that with your close colleagues and allies is important; and building those systems is a big win in itself.

First off: let's address the elephant in the room. Our office has a very unique environment and very unique challenge to it. For decades there was a hiring freeze that meant our department had a lot of older, more senior staff that had held down the fort with no outside intervention for many years; and then in the past 5-10 years that hiring freeze lifted. We understand that this is completely unique to our department and other departments within our campus don't have this problem which sometimes makes it even more frustrating to see others not have the same struggle within this larger ecosystem. It doesn't negate our challenge; and it doesn't make it easier to go through this struggle every day. It can be hard to hear to that the divide in our work place was generational and along age lines. This does not mean that all people over the age of 55 are holding back progress; this means that all the people in our building hired before a certain date were holding back progress within our department. I want to be clear that we know this age/generation issue is only a struggle in our office, it’s a completely unique challenge to our office and it creates many different cultural barriers between us. Generationally you have much older baby boomers who were taught with a completely different work ethic and trained to be ‘rugged individualists’ that kept to themselves. The office was a competitive zone to them and to share was seen as a weakness. It's possible that the isolation of this department without new hire-ins for so many years also let this problem really fester. In some ways it was like the department was trapped in the 60s/70s. For the newer generation of workers it’s the exact opposite; this is a group who has been taught to be open, communicative, to build together on shared strengths and to make easy work together. When new employees enter the workforce at this department they are trained that you do not speak to other labs within the department, to not make friends outside of your lab, to see others as competition (needlessly). In L and C forming a friendship, they went against the rules and in doing so started a chain effect. Their open communication between one another started open communication with other new hires in other labs. One of the things they had noticed was that often times when something was done wrong or someone did not do something correctly, instead of addressing the problem, the older more established employees would let them fail, and then talk about the failure behind the employees back but never address the issue to them. There were also issues where that failure would never be addressed until it was time for a performance review and suddenly it was being used against the employee to deny them a raise.

This goes back to that idea of 'generationally trained differently' - they were trained not to bring up issues, not to take things up with people but to let them figure it out themselves. There's a lack of communication between them and these new employees because they were trained not to do those things.

Which brings me to the next part: whoever trains you is who instills your cultural identity. Now, instead of the older employees doing the training, many of the younger and newer employees are stepping up to do that training and make sure that when people are onboarded they aren’t trained to ‘stay in their silo’ but rather to branch out, talk, make friends, look in other labs for the friendship and collegial relationships they need to succeed. New people are being trained by this group to see something, say something. If you see someone doing it wrong - tell them, talk them through it, fix it. Don’t talk behind people’s backs. If you hear someone doing that? Hear something being said about someone - let them know.

The big, systemic change that L and C want to see isn’t going to happen overnight and sometimes, they say, it feels like not enough change has happened. But when they reflect on it now they do see how much different the department is; and how much more open it is now than it was. There’s a whole new environment even if it’s nascent and starting as an underground sort of movement - that to speak openly to one another, to be friends, to not compete against each other, that’s how we’re doing business in this department from now on. It’s not perfect and every day brings with it challenges but L and C point out that if you give up on it halfway through, you aren’t going to cross the finish line. They are working around the established toxicity and making positive change for themselves even without the others who refuse to move and get on board. They used to carry the mindset that they had to wait for the people who were in the way to leave but instead they're moving forward with or without them. C says he uses positive cheerleading tactics: by telling others when they’re doing a good job, letting people know he sees their good work, telling them he’s proud. L says she’s created a community within her lab where all the employees are now refusing to talk behind each others’ backs and if they hear something said they share it out and don’t let it move through the grapevine. They validate each other and others - and this grassroots piece is what is slowly bringing up the department. It won’t change overnight, it won’t change in a year, but it’s changed their work conditions for the better. And for every new employee that comes in - they feel one step closer to getting to that goal.

They’re training in the new culture of communication, validation, collaboration and training OUT the toxicity.

There are some older employees who have been there a long time who are allies to the cause but they are not always in a position to lend their support without putting their own jobs at risk. Even their ‘silent’ support though can be helpful - and it does add to the overall feeling that the changes that the newer employees are making are the right ones. I think it’s something we can all work towards in our own ways, in our own institutions. What’s causing the toxic back up where you work? What can you do, yourself to start pushing and making that small change to train it out? Who are your allies? Who are your conspirators? Positive change comes over time because it’s a community change mindset: it’s not just cutting out the bad parts and replacing them, it’s systemic. That’s why it takes a long time and isn’t just a one-day workshop, or a quick training to make it go away and get better. I’m really proud of everything that L and C have done at our old job - they made going to work every day worth it for me even on my worst days, and knowing how much better they’ve made it for everyone who came after me is a surprisingly uplifting footnote to my time there. Thanks for joining us, and thank you to L and C for your time and heartfelt reflections on this topic with me. I hope to see you all at our next conversation on outreach and chemistry and museum education.

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