Moving from Toxic Bosses to Thriving Communities

Moving from Toxic Bosses to Thriving Communities

The Struggle with Toxic Workplaces 

Christine Porath grew up watching her dad struggle with toxic bosses. She saw the toll these taxing relationships took on his health and how it colored his life when he came home as well. Now a professor of management at Georgetown, Porath has devoted her career to discovering ways we can make work better, which only makes sense “given how much time and energy people spend in the workplace.” She recently spoke about her work and latest book, Mastering Community, in a conversation with Gretchen Spreitzer in the Positive Links series at the Center for Positive Organizations. 


The average person spends 90,000 hours of their life working. But somehow, these hours are often devoid of a strong sense of community. In a study she conducted with Tony Schwartz, the CEO of The Energy Project, Porath found that over 65% of people felt no sense of community at work — and this is pre-pandemic, with the lack of community only getting worse. Even with people being back in the office and physically working next to each other, that doesn’t necessarily translate to feeling connected to each other. Instead, workers are faced with dealing with issues like isolation and loneliness alone. 


What is Community? 

Being part of a community takes more than just sitting side by side or working for the same company. So what do you need in order to form a community? Porath proposes that a community is “a group of individuals who share a concern for each other’s welfare,” which can happen with families, local communities, faith groups, and organizations. Being in a community requires caring for the other people and trusting that they care for you as well.  


Work being a place of community isn’t just a nice-to-have, though. We languish when we face isolation and loneliness, and our confidence drops. But when we’re part of a community, that pushes us more towards the thriving end of the spectrum, where we are constantly moving forwards, growing, and learning. And opposite to what Porath witnessed with her dad, thriving in and out of work creates an ampliative cycle because thriving in the workplace is positively correlated with thriving outside of the workplace. Instead of toxic workplaces draining you, a thriving workplace can buoy your energy and sense of purpose, building your internal resources to be able to pursue what fills you up outside of work as well. And if you’re thriving outside of work too, then you bring to the office “a stronger, more resilient self that tends to perform better, that’s healthier, more focused, more likely to stay.” 


5 Positive Practices to Build Community 

So how can we go about building community in our workplaces? Virtual or in-person, the biggest goal is to create shared experiences. Porath and Spreitzer offered some ideas on how we can do that: 


  1. Hobby Workshops — People often find purpose and meaning through teaching. Teams can tap into that by creating a space for people to take turns teaching each other about the things they’re passionate about, whether that be knitting or butchering or gardening. 
  2. Group Fitness Challenges — Fitness challenges foster both community and accountability. Plus, working on your physical wellbeing together can have lots of positive spillover into other areas of wellbeing.
  3. Book Clubs — A hallmark of community activities, book clubs offer the opportunity to learn together. You could also expand your idea of a book club and branch out into movies or podcasts!
  4. Walking Meetings — Everyone has meetings, so why not make some of them walking meetings? Spreitzer loves this practice because of simple it is to make a small change to something she already does every day. She finds walking meetings especially powerful when she has to have difficult conversations because it cultivates a feeling of moving forward together.
  5. Love and Loathe — A quick weekly pulse, Love and Loathe helps managers get feedback often so they can support their people in a meaningful way. Porath gave the example of when an executive reported having a heavy week, and the CEO scheduled a one-on-one first thing Monday morning in order to support her. That executive then shared her experience and modeled the same level of care with those that she supported.  


Spirit of Experimentation 

When it comes to how leaders approach building community, Spreitzer suggested thinking of it as an opportunity to infuse workplaces with lightness and fun, different from the demands of the job. She shared that sometimes, as a leader, she feels she has to figure it all out by herself, but when it comes to fostering connections, sometimes leaders aren’t the best at figuring out what would be fun for their people or what would be a shared experience to elevate the group. Instead, leaders should shift from wondering how to get their people to connect to asking themselves what they can do to help their people pursue their values together and unleash community building.  


One of the best ways to engage people is to embrace a spirit of experimentation and play — try things out and create small wins. You don’t have to have a lot of power or status to do this transformative work. Starting a book club, for example, wouldn’t require any formal authority in an organization. Importantly, though, these experiments in community should be voluntary to avoid the activities feeling like simply another task to add to your workload. But if you can get some people on board, trying these positive practices at small or large scales, you’ll see a great return on investment in terms of how people are thriving in and out of work. When people are thriving, they bring more positive energy to the organization, which reinforces the positive practices and builds a bigger and stronger sense of community. 


In our work here at Riverbank, we strive to support organizations in creating more positive cultures. We bring our research-backed knowledge of positive practices to guide leaders as they experiment to see what works best for their teams. By resourcing the organizations we work with, we’re helping work become more enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.

Perspectives on Positive Organizations: An Interview with Joyce Washington

Perspectives on Positive Organizations: An Interview with Joyce Washington

I’m a devotee of Positive Organizational Scholarship and all the data-driven positive practices that arise from it. Beyond my work in this field, many of my classes for my Decision and Cognition major deal with making sense of behavior and decision-making, especially when it comes to strategies for behavior change. So with all this background under my belt, why have I felt so anxious lately at the prospect of introducing some positive practices to my team in my marketing class? 


I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Riverbank Consultant Joyce Washington. With her extensive experience in managing major organizational responses to provide aid for insurance customers and dedication to furthering racial and social justice, Joyce gave a lot of encouragement and wise insights on how to approach introducing positive change.  


I confided in Joyce about how nervous I was to ask my team to try out Keeps and Adjusts to reflect after our first couple meetings and assignments. When we first formed our team, I told them about my work with the Center for Positive Organizations and how I had lots of potential positive practices we could infuse into our work, and everyone seemed very open and receptive. But when it came time to try one out, I worried about someone shooting down the idea or it seeming like I was assigning an extra task or it backfiring if we didn’t handle critiques well.  


Joyce listened empathetically and shared her mindset on approaching change: 


“I think it’s clear that in any group, there’s going to be people who are open and receptive to change and new ideas, and there’s a certain percentage of people who are open and not quite sure, and there’s a certain percentage of people who can’t hear at all, for whatever their reasons. My approach has always been to remain authentic and inclusive.” 


Joyce emphasized that at the end of the day, everyone in a team or in an organization is working toward the same goal together. There’s common ground in what you’re all striving towards. By incorporating positive practices, we can try to make the journey more enjoyable. Oftentimes that will get us to the destination more efficiently at the same time, which is a worthwhile goal for any leader: 


“I think it’s important to understand that and to be okay that everybody won’t be able to see the world from your positive interaction. But as a leader, you have to continue to be inclusive of them and respect whatever their opinions might be. As the leader, you are responsible for getting the team to the goal.” 


Joyce granted that over the course of your career, sometimes you’ll run into people who don’t share your desire for positivity and may be negative for negativity’s sake, “but you can’t let that one or two people take you off track.” But of course, we have to be clear what we mean when we say negative: 


“Now, having differences of opinion isn’t necessarily a negative. You don’t want a bunch of yes-people because a bunch of yes-people will get you nothing. There’s no growth in that. There’s not a good return on your investment with a bunch of yes-people in the long term.” 


My team agreed to do Keeps and Adjusts, and we spoke openly and kindly about what we thought we were doing well and about our concerns for the project. As any new practice, it felt a bit strange, but that’s how it feels when you’re growing together and fostering open communication.  


I mentioned to Joyce how I was thinking of introducing another positive practice, this time in my team’s meetings with our client, but the nerves were springing up again. She suggested how I might present the idea of check-ins to our client, being clear and concise about what check-ins look like and the benefits from doing them. But what I found most helpful was Joyce’s encouragement and how she told me that, so long as they don’t become overwhelming, nerves are a good thing in this area: 


“Know that feeling anxious or nervous is a good thing because it helps you avoid being overconfident and arrogant. That’s a good thing. It’s a way of staying humble, and that’s a good thing in a leader. It’s okay to feel anxious and nervous.” 


My team’s next client meeting started with a round of check-ins, and later on, our client mentioned how she felt that we really understood her and how much she trusted us with her brand. Trying something new, even when it’s data-driven and pretty much a win-win like so many positive practices, can be intimidating. But that’s okay. Being nervous means that you care and that you’re engaged. And when your goal is to make life a little bit better for yourself and those around you, taking that leap is sure to be worthwhile.  


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.

Dynamic Organizational Culture

Dynamic Organizational Culture

I worry that I’m not a quick judge of how well I’ll mesh with someone. This week, my marketing class chose our project teams for the entire semester. After everyone gave a 45 second pitch of what they have to offer, we had 5 minutes of frenzy to form our alliances. I had some challenging interpersonal dynamics in my project team last semester, so I spent the days leading up to class imagining what a positive team culture could look like and how I could present myself in order to convey my values.  


I’m very hopeful about my team, and I’m trying to set the tone for our interactions, suggesting some positive practices like starting meetings off with 30 second celebrations and inviting them over for a game night to get to know them a bit better. As is probably clear through my commitment to Positive Organizational Scholarship, I deeply value organizational and team culture. With a team of strangers forming all at once, it’s a challenge to guess what the dynamics might be like later on (but, on the flip side, you have more flexibility to craft the culture). 


I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the cultures I want to be a part of lately. The recruiting process continues, and, after a lot of reflection, I’ve realized that my biggest priority, outside of lifestyle goals (yay puppy!), is to work for an organization known for its positive culture because I want that firsthand experience before trying to implement change. When you’re looking to join an established organization, as opposed to starting from scratch, it’s a bit easier to assess the culture already at play.  


But how do we go about figuring out what the culture of an organization or a team is like? Karen Eber, in a recent webinar with Degreed and TED@Work, emphasizes that first we have to “understand that culture is not an initiative, it’s not something done by the CEO and that’s it — that it is a living aspect of your organization that has to be shaped each day.” In order to catch a glimpse of the lived experience in an organization, Eber warns against asking interviewers the direct question, “What is the culture like here?” This question is too general and prompts answers that just parrot the phrasing on the website.  


Instead, Eber encourages asking specific questions to elicit stories that are representative of the broader lived experience. You might want to know how they typically begin their meetings or solicit feedback. Eber says that with these questions, “it’s not that there’s a right or wrong answer,” you’re “getting to specific moments that help uncover that leader’s style and what they value” to see if it aligns with your own.  


In today’s job market, culture is important for organizations because it’s important to the people they’re looking to hire: “You can have the best business strategy in the world, but if you aren’t attracting the talent that can deliver that or creating a day-to-day environment that is going to enable them, you’re not going to meet it.” My own decision to base my first job on organizational culture makes this clear, but we want to be careful not to think that culture is static — that you can ever adequately and accurately assess the culture of an organization before joining it and trust it to stay that way in perpetuity. Just as culture is about lived experience, culture is a living, dynamic thing in and of itself.  


Over the last few years, we’ve seen how radically and suddenly things can change at massive scales. These changes have had obvious and profound effects on how we conceive of organizations and their cultures, but change also happens on an individual scale, all the time. With all of these changes happening, there’s some malleability to our organizational cultures — and there should be. As Eber says, “If companies aren’t staying in tune with those things, then they’re suddenly trying to cram you into something that doesn’t fit. And when you’re in an environment where you feel that you don’t fit, you leave, and you opt out.” 


But people don’t always leave. Chris White, our principal here at Riverbank, warns that when individuals don’t identify with the organizational culture, they can contribute to an attitude of change-resistance. White puts forth three actions such individuals might take: check out, act out, walk out. In the first two cases, an employee might choose to stay with an organization, but they are simply disengaged or actively working against the organization’s goals. And these aren’t trivial issues. Gallup reports that “Employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity,” going on to say that “In 2021, 21% of the world’s employees were engaged at work.” 


Fostering a positive culture becomes an even clearer need with these statistics in mind. After recounting the evolution of workplaces from the assembly line to office workers to knowledge workers to the dot com era and beyond, Eber reminds us that the relationship between an organization and an employee should be mutually beneficial, especially in the job market today: 


“It is no longer the case that you are lucky as an employee to have a job. It’s a two-way street. The company benefits from your knowledge and skills. You are an addition. You are helping them, and it is a blessing to them, and it is a blessing to you. There is this unspoken agreement that is renewed in meetings and conversations because all it takes is for one moment, where someone feels really frustrated and that they don’t fit in to say, ‘I’m done. Because I know how the other options available look to me.’“ 


We can and should continue to think purposefully about organizational culture, thinking about the ways we can help it to shift gracefully to support the employees in an organization as they change and grow. Culture is in the hands of everyone in an organization, as Eber maintains:  


“We all shape culture. I can’t emphasize this enough. Whenever someone says, ‘Oh, can you come fix our culture?’ No, I can’t I can help you see how to evolve your culture. I can help you see how to shape your culture — because, by the way, you’re never done, no culture is ever finished — it is shaped every day by every person.” 


Whether you’re forming a team with people you don’t know yet or looking to join a new organization or thinking about how your organization could grow with your people, we can be thoughtful and purposeful in the ways we contribute to and shape the culture we are a part of, with the goal of promoting engagement and enjoyment at work.  


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

5 Positive Practices that Bring the Spirit of the Holidays to Work 

5 Positive Practices that Bring the Spirit of the Holidays to Work 

I always thought fall was my favorite season, but I think I’m falling in love more with winter the last few years. Starting with November and Thanksgiving (technically fall, I know, but Michigan weather makes you forget that) to January and New Year’s, we get to enjoy so many celebrations (especially in my family where all of our birthdays fall in that time too!). Many of us enjoy the holidays — the way we connect with others, take the time to celebrate, engage in reflection — and the time off work doesn’t hurt either. But wouldn’t it be great if we could take the spirit of the holidays with us into our everyday lives as work starts up again in the new year? Positive Organizational Scholarship is the key. 


1. Reflect to Appreciate Yourself and Others 

The holidays offer an opportunity to share the reasons that you’re grateful for the people around you. What strengths do you notice in them? How do they show up for themselves and others? While Thanksgiving might be a prime time to offer these moments of gratitude, we can also look to the Reflected Best Self Exercise, a tool developed by the Center for Positive Organizations. With this, you can reflect on stories of the times that you recognize yourself at your best and gather the perspectives of those that know you best so you can better understand how to be your best self more often.  


2. Take Time to Play 

In addition to Chopped, my family has another tradition of Hallmark Movie Bingo, where we fill our boards with all of the tropes the cheesiest movies have to offer (my favorite is the awkwardly thorough 20 second backstory). When we’re done with movies, we’ll gather around to try out the NYT crossword (with all three of us together, we can tackle a Thursday puzzle). Playing together, we feel more energized, more creative, and more connected. We can foster these feelings too in organizations by creating a culture of play. We can infuse play into work in all sorts of ways, like turning to imaginative games for brainstorming, welcoming jokes in the office, or even trying out some silly email sign-offs. 


3. Create a Culture of Giving 

I started my Christmas shopping back in July, so you know I am very into gift-giving. But as we all know, engaging in the spirit of giving doesn’t just mean physical gifts. We can give the gift of our time, emotional support, skills, knowledge, you name it. Organizations are full of untapped resources, and in his research on generosity, Wayne Baker has found that people are more than willing to help — they just don’t always know how or what others need. Baker’s biggest recommendation is to learn how to ask for what you need — so maybe we should think back to the times we made Christmas lists for Santa. 


4. Honor Transitions 

With the new year, it’s time to reflect on the last year and start thinking about the next one. Life is a series of transitions, and each can bring up all sorts of emotions. As I think about the new year, I’m thinking about starting my last semester of college, and graduating will be one of the biggest transitions of my life. But taking the time to take stock of the past year, all the ways I’ve grown and the lessons I’ve learned, helps to shore up my internal resources to take on the next phase. We should take the time to reflect and appreciate whatever emotions come up in the transitions we go through, whether it be year to year, job to job, or project to project. 


5. Set Habits 

What resolutions are you setting for the new year? What habits do you want to set for yourself? For your team, for your organization? Habits are integral to forming sustainable change, and we can be purposeful about what habits we want to form our day to day experiences, which in turn can shape organizational culture. What positive practices could you turn into a habit? You might consider keeping a gratitude journal, starting meetings with check-ins, or ending meetings with Keeps and Adjusts. 


I’m back at school and missing the holiday season, but I know we can keep the holiday spirit alive throughout the year if we embrace some of the positive practices set forth in positive organizational scholarship.  


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. She is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

Exploring the Self at Work

Exploring the Self at Work

Bringing Your Whole Self to Work 

As I’ve been looking at companies I might want to work for after college, there are a few phrases that I like to see in terms of company culture. One of the main ones for me is the claim that you can “bring your whole self” to work. In my experience of positive organizations, I like when people can show up as they are in each moment, sharing the good and the bad in their lives, if they so choose.  


I wonder if it’s so simple, though. Who is my whole self? This likely isn’t a huge revelation, but I don’t present myself exactly the same when I’m interacting with my friends, my family, my supervisors — I doubt anyone does. I don’t think I’d want to interact with all of these people in the same way. BetterUp suggests that we might then think of bringing our whole selves to work in this way: 


“What it does mean is that the ‘you at work’ should also be recognizable to and coherent with the ‘you at home.’ There shouldn’t be a personality change — if you’re enthusiastic and outgoing at home, that’s how your coworkers should know you, too. It enables us to show ourselves, our coworkers, and managers who we are, not just what we do.” 


The Authenticity Paradox 

When we continue to explore these ideas, we arrive at another organizational culture buzzword: authenticity. While sometimes we hear it as an organizational pillar, oftentimes we think of authenticity in terms of leadership — what does it mean to be an authentic leader? 


Organizational behaviorist Herminia Ibarra tackles the complexities of this question in her work on what she terms the Authenticity Paradox. Ibarra particularly studies leaders facing “the moments when you realize that whatever made you successful in the past or got you there will not make you successful going forward and might even get in your way.” This sort of predicament is especially common when people transition into leadership positions because of their demonstrated technical skill.  


Society lauds the authentic leader, but Ibarra finds that sometimes the desires for authenticity can limit growth in these new leadership roles: 


“What’s tricky about these transition points is not that the new skills are hard to learn, it’s that the old ones have become core to our sense of who we are, our identity. As a result, not sticking with them feels like we’re somehow being inauthentic and so we do — and we get stuck.” 


Instead, Ibarra advocates for leaders to focus on their growth by experimenting with their leadership experiences, working on different projects with different people in different ways. Leaders can then reflect on what strategies they might like to adopt and how. Ibarra suggests that leaders can thus benefit from a flexible understanding of themselves as learning and growing:  


“An important part of growing as a leader is viewing authenticity not as an intrinsic state but as the ability to take elements you have learned from others’ styles and behaviors and make them your own.” 


How We Portray Ourselves 

If authenticity isn’t grounded in habits or actions, how might we understand it? As I explore this question for myself, I find myself guided by my values. I started puzzling about this idea of authenticity after attending Laura Huang’s talk on her research in self-presentation. I wondered if this strategic way of approaching interactions with others invoked a layer of artifice, but I come back to the realization that we, as complex human beings, don’t have — and shouldn’t have — one sense of self that we present in the same way in every situation. But we can anchor our self-presentation in our values. As BetterUp suggests, 


“Success requires interacting with other people. We can’t control the other side of those interactions. But we can think about how the other person might see us and make choices about what we want to convey.” 


We can think about resumes as a classic example of figuring out how we want to portray ourselves professionally. I used to hate the idea of a resume. I felt that with such a defined form, it was impossible to convey any sense of who I really am on that single page. Yes, there are certain rules you have to follow with a resume, in almost all cases — first off, you have to have one, and it should be one page, and it should be formatted in a certain way, at least if you’re applying to companies that put your resume through a screening software.  


But in the last few years, I’ve come to make some choices about how I present myself on my resume that are aligned with my values. I list my VIA character strengths because I believe in strengths-based leadership and positive organizational tools. I include some of my hobbies in order to give a fuller sense of who I am because I think organizations should hire whole people and not just a set of skills. I don’t include my address because it’s no longer necessary and might open applicants up for discrimination about where they live. I’ve made all of these little tweaks to make my resume feel authentic to my values, while still presenting myself following professional guidelines.  


I don’t know if it’s possible to bring my whole self to work because I’m not sure who my whole self is or if such a thing even exists. But as long as I allow myself to learn and grow while being true to my values, I’m being my authentic self. No matter what stage of work we’re at, whether we’re submitting resumes, going on interviews, doing our daily tasks, or moving up in our organizations, there are strategies we can use to show up authentically in terms of our values. Someone who values giving back to the community might list their volunteering and community organizing efforts on their resume, ask about an organization’s philanthropic activities in an interview, participate in a shadowing program showing a student the ropes of their role, and institute a company-wide food drive. Someone else who particularly values educational opportunities might provide a list on their resume of the ad hoc courses they’ve pursued, seek companies that provide tuition assistance, create stretch goals for themselves, and introduce a new organizational habit of starting meetings off with a share-out of one new thing each person has learned. Whatever our values might be, we can infuse them into every aspect of our work, enriching our own experiences and that of those around us. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.