Can Recognition Save Your Startup's Toxic Culture?

Dysfunctional conduct may be curbed with some of these strategies. Consider tools to show staffers appreciation and desired behavior to turn things around.

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By Raphael Crawford-Marks

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In startups, toxicity can set in fast. There are fewer employees. The behaviors of one unmotivated or unhappy employee can affect the team more immediately than is the case at a larger organization.

It's best to put an end to toxic behaviors as soon as possible and the cure can be quite simple.

A World at Work survey in 2013 measured trends in employee recognition among more than 470 respondents. Eighty-one percent of respondents said when managers support recognition programs, it advanced employee engagement, 79 percent cited a gain in satisfaction and 79 percent also cited a boost in motivation.

If recognition programs have such a positive effect on engagement, satisfaction and motivation, they might also help drive out toxic behaviors at a company.

Here are some common toxic behaviors that can destroy a company's culture and how a recognition program could help mitigate them:

Related: 5 Ways to Tell If Your Workplace Is Really Toxic

1. Aggression.

Some 37 million U.S. workers have experienced abusive conduct at work and 65.6 million are affected by it, the Workplace Bullying Institute projected by applying prevalence proportions from data analyzing 1,000 responses. The institute's survey last year showed such conduct prompts turnover, causing 61 percent of bullied respondents to lose their jobs and 29 percent of those bullied to voluntarily leave to avoid mistreatment.

Witnessing workplace bullying can result in employees' feeling a company's culture is unsafe, suppressing their voices and causing them to tiptoe around issues. A culture like this robs employees of their power, making them unsure about when they can speak up and careful of whom they speak to. The stress and worry can wreak havoc on employees' emotional health, resulting in more sick days and absences -- and stifling productivity.

Create a culture of transparency by implementing a recognition program driven by peer feedback. Use a tool or platform to motivate employees to give feedback to one another publicly. Employees are more likely to carefully and considerately construct their written praise and criticism when it's available to their peers for review than if were anonymous.

Keeping the tone of feedback positive encourages a more productive response to suggestions for improvement. Enforce an open communication policy and be clear negative communication and bullying is not tolerated.

2. Self-centeredness.

The Institute of Leadership and Management recently surveyed more than 1,000 managers, revealing the most common unethical workplace behaviors. Fifty-seven percent of managers surveyed said they saw employees take credit for other people's work.

When employees receive help from a co-worker, ask them to immediately recognize it. This can shift employees' focus from being so concerned about their own personal achievements and encourage them to think about the help received from others. Timeliness is key. A platform that's mobile enabled or easily accessed might encourage this practice.

Related: A Proactive Approach to Addressing Unethical Behavior in the Workplace

3. Dishonesty.

Dishonesty can weaken a workplace culture and open the door to myriad problems such as betrayal and stealing that could quickly corrupt a business.

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed how lying can lead to larger workplace transgressions. During one experiment, researchers found subjects given 25 cents for a small ethical indescretion were much more likely to later commit a more unethical act for $2.50 than those offered $2.50 for the same unethical deed up front.

The Institute of Leadership and Management study also found 72 percent of managers witnessed employees' lying to cover their mistakes.

What prompts this behavior? According to CEB, a member-based advisory company, misconduct results from "career moments," such as poor communication during transitions. CEB's survey of more than 2,200 people in 2012 found misconduct occurs 18 percent less in environments where employees are informed of corporate change beforehand. Plus CEB discovered that organizations can reduce misconduct as much as 37 percent by integrating ethical expectations and guidelines into communications during changes and transitions.

I believe creating a transparent culture is the cure to this toxic behavior. A Towers Watson Global Workforce study last year cited the top three behaviors effective managers should exhibit, according to employees:

1. The manager does what he or she says.

2. The manager clearly communicates goals and assignments.

3. The manager treats employees with respect.

Promote a culture of open communication and teach employees to be honest with one another, while maintaining respect. If employees see a manager engaging in healthy practices such as sharing positive feedback with employees, staffers will be encouraged to do the same.

Related: Are Business Ethics at a Low Ebb?

4. Disengagement.

With the widespread circulation of a Gallup report showing only 13 percent of the workforce was engaged, it's no longer news that disengagement is a big issue.

York College's Center for Professional Excellence's 2013 study of more than 400 human resources professionals analyzed their work experiences with recent college graduates. Respondents were asked if the "work ethic of new employees has improved, remained the same, or gotten worse over the past five years." Almost half the respondents cited a decline in the work ethic, with more than 86 percent citing as a cause a casual attitude toward work or passivity; 71 percent referring to a lack of being self-driven; 69 percent citing a dearth of ownership and 65 percent noting employees' "not understanding what hard work is."

Manager recognition and empathy are the cure. A 2012 survey by Orion Partners found 85 percent of 2000 U.K. respondents thought their managers cared more about what they did than how they were feeling.

Be as concerned with how employees feel (if not more) than how they work. I believe that when employees feel cared for, they work harder.

Develop a system so employees can receive frequent and timely recognition. But not all the responsibility for recognizing employees must fall on managements. Use a system that provides for peer recognition as well. Incentivize employees to engage in recognition. They'll be more motivated to become involved.

Related: Effective Managers Elevate Team Morale to a Fever Pitch and Score Results

5. Lack of focus.

It's not so surprising that 74 percent of managers surveyed in the York College study found that employees text message for "nonwork" related purposes instead of focusing on their duties and 65 percent discovered staffers use the Internet at inappropriate times.

With technology readily available, employees have ample opportunities for distraction. Seventy-eight percent of York College survey respondents claimed that technology interrupted employee focus.

Though lack of focus might not sound as dire as some of the other toxic behaviors, it still affects a company's growth by diminishing productivity, goal alignment and vision.

But technology can be helpful to an organization when used to enhance a team's communication and meet its goals. Use of a communication platform for employee recognition and reward -- and for reinforcement of core company values -- can help a team better identify the behaviors that are prized. Then employees will seek to replicate such behaviors, creating a more aligned culture.

Related: Ever Notice the Similarities Between Toxic Business Leaders and Politicians?

Raphael Crawford-Marks

Co-Founder and CEO, Bonusly

Raphael Crawford-Marks is the co-founder and CEO of Bonusly, a New York City company providing a web platform that helps companies reward and motivate employees by using peer-to-peer bonuses.

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