Is my team willing to propose game-changing ideas and offer diverse opinions?

Will they take personal risks for the sake of your company and its reputation?

Most leaders can’t answer yes to these questions, especially during critical times of change. Why not? Because their team members instinctively understand their workplace culture, and they recognize the dangers of pushing beyond that culture’s comfort zone.

Through stories and examples, Melanie Pump’s new book Detox demonstrates the real, tangible impact of toxic work environments that stifle innovation, collaboration, succession planning, and productivity—and shows readers how they change it. I caught up with Melanie to learn what inspired her to write the book and her favorite idea she shares with readers.

Published with permission from the author.

What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

Over my 20-year career, I have been in healthy work environments and toxic ones. I have observed the difference in the level of productivity, collaboration, and learning between those two environments. However, other than the general perspective that people perform better in positive workplaces, I hadn’t put my finger on the root cause of the dysfunction in toxic environments.

Then, I experienced my last toxic workplace. In that company, there was significant uncertainty around the safety of employees’ jobs, a lack of transparency about the future of the business, unrealistic performance expectations, and bullying leaders. I realized that all of these factors can be perceived by employees as threats to their livelihoods and mental health. When we are threatened, we can become insecure. I saw exactly this result occurring in that workplace. The company’s employees (including me) became insecure and reacted by using defensive behaviors to protect themselves from the threats.

In addition to that observation, I recognized that while we feel protected by defensive behaviours, such as avoidance or passive aggressiveness, they are also dysfunctional and work against our success and our employer’s success. Upon seeing this, I looked back over my past experiences in toxic workplaces and saw that the same outcomes had occurred in those companies as well. Neither those businesses nor their employees were able to reach their full potential due to the insecurity created by the toxicity of the work environments.

This realization that feelings of insecurity were the root of much of the dysfunction in toxic corporate environments prompted me to write my book, Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace.

What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?

My favorite recommendation from the book is one that any of us, employees and leaders, can act upon. The idea is to think twice before we judge someone for objectionable behavior or attribute their conduct to a negative characteristic or trait. Often conduct that we consider evidence of poor character is actually defensive, self-protective behavior.

Unfortunately, it’s common to jump to a negative conclusion when we don’t like someone’s conduct, rather than ask what is causing them to behave that way. However, when we jump to conclusions, we can miss seeing the true person behind the behavior, and this assessment can negatively impact relationships, or even someone’s career if the judgment limits their opportunities.

Before we form opinions about others, we should consider whether an aspect of the environment may be making the person feel insecure and activating their defensive mechanisms. The defenses can include unproductive and frustrating behavior, such as avoidance and denial. These mechanisms can often be triggered subconsciously, so the resulting conduct isn’t necessarily a true reflection of the individual’s character.

Someone’s self-protective behaviors can trigger our own defenses, so it’s not always easy to step back and assess the situation. However, making a conscious effort is worthwhile. If you control your own emotions and react with support rather than your own defensive instincts, you may de-escalate a potential conflict or turn an unproductive relationship into a promising one.

Published with permission from the author.

What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?

I’ve applied this lesson when leading teams and it has improved employee performance. In one case, an employee was reacting defensively whenever I assigned her a new task, adjusted her workload, or gave her feedback. The negative reactions made her difficult to work with and would limit her career potential if they continued.

Given my knowledge of the impact of insecurity, I knew that I should not conclude that she just had a disagreeable temperament, as this likely wasn’t the root of the problem. So, I lived by my words and asked her about her reactions rather than judging her.

I told her that I’d observed that she became defensive every time I proposed a change in her work or discussed any of her tasks. I shared that this behavior was making it difficult for me to communicate with her.

She hadn’t realized that she was being defensive. However, once I pointed it out, she looked back and realized that it was true. She shared with me that her last boss would always surprise her with undeserved hurtful negative feedback and make unexpected, undesirable changes to her workload. She’d come to expect that behavior from leaders and therefore was triggered when I discussed her work with her. I told her that I would never surprise her with detrimental changes, and if I was ever unhappy with her performance, we would talk about it and constructively determine how to make improvements.

This conversation significantly changed our relationship. The employee now trusted that when I was talking about any of her tasks or workload, that it was with a positive intention. This transparent conversation built trust between us and diminished the insecurity that the employee felt. She had already been performing well but began to exceed expectations once I created a secure environment for her.