What makes for a Toxic Environment?

Toxic atmospheres have been in the news recently in the wake of an NHS report on a low-performing cardiac unit in London. All the articles I’ve read on this are short on detail of what actually happened. ‘Dark forces’ are mentioned, reminiscent of a Tolkien nove,l but they don’t actually give much insight into what – beyond rivalry between two teams – was actually going on. Toxic atmospheres are, however, not simply restricted to polluted cities (literally) or the NHS. They turn up in many workplaces, whether academic or not. The only way round them is good and strong leadership which is willing to bite the bullet, either by reassigning roles or banging heads together.  In universities actually sacking anyone is remarkably difficult, short of criminal behaviour or (I assume this still counts) what used to be referred to as ‘gross moral turpitude’.

Toxic atmospheres can arise in many different ways, unfortunately, and human nature being what it is competition often is at the root of it, as it seems to be in this recent NHS case. But such rivalry, probably arising near the top, will affect everyone and quite possibly the most lowly (or, in the NHS case, the patients) suffer the worst. In other words, PhD students or technicians may be the ones who get sucked into other people’s damaging feuds, not to mention the administrators who are often left to pick up the pieces.

What follows are examples I have seen in departments across my own university and others, with all identifying indicators I hope removed! This is not meant to be a name-and-shame post, so much as one for reflection.

One classic example arose in a fairly small department which had, if you like, two philosophies about how their discipline should be handled. Should it be all about the underlying science or the applications thereof? Because it was a small department it was possible for it to be essentially riven in two and, as the head of department of the time shifted from one side of that divide to the other, the balance of power also shifted. It was not healthy because, inevitably in such an unwholesome situation, the folk lower down the food chain were jostling for position. My guess is that students and postdocs were only too aware of what was happening and felt anxious about proving their ‘loyalty’ to their own side.  That is not going to create an atmosphere where the best research will get done, if you are always looking over your shoulder or nervous that the space for your equipment might be removed and given to ‘the other side’.

Laboratory space is, unfortunately, only too often a symbol of who has the power or the ear of the powers that be. Back in 1998, when female faculty at MIT first raised the issue of whether there was parity of treatment with their male colleagues and an investigation was initiated, the report made clear that on average women were indeed allocated less space as well as were paid lower salaries.  This was a key moment in the discussion about gender equality in academic science, when hard evidence demonstrated that there was a systematic bias against women. (It was also when I first realised perhaps some of my own struggles derived not from my incompetence but from my gender.)

But allocating less space to those least likely to shout loudly persists to this day, whether on the basis of gender or any other indicator of apparent lower status. You might argue that less grant income requires less space, so those who are awarded fewer grants deserve less, but there is always the danger that this becomes a vicious circle. Those with less space, if assuming appropriate responsibility, may feel that they should not take on too many students and are hence less able to get new results to feed into the next grant application. It is a classic case of the Matthew effect and most certainly is not always justified. In my own experience, it is unfortunately those who shout loudest who win out – on space or other resources – not those who are most deserving by a range of figures of merit, often including those concerning service to a department.

I once watched a head of department concede a lectureship slot to a powerful professor (who left the relevant department shortly afterwards because he still didn’t feel he was appreciated enough), when the scientific and strategic case for the position to go in that direction was, shall we say, extremely weak. Another area – allegedly a growth area in the department – was overlooked because the head of the group was clearly not seen as obnoxious enough to be a threat. What sort of message does that give to the department as a whole? A weak head of department who can be bullied by he (and it was a he) who shouts loudest is immensely damaging to the overall atmosphere.

Indeed, any sense of there being an ‘in-crowd’ who can put pressure on a leader, or who has some hold over them (if you don’t give me what I want I’ll leave before the next REF would be an obvious example) is likely to lead to all kinds of underlying grievances. A head who does not handle wrong-doing of whatever sort in an effective way will lose respect and facilitate dissension lower down; once again this is liable to promote a toxic work atmosphere for the many. I would suggest that complaints of bullying or harassment (for instance sexual or racial in origin) that are not dealt with swiftly would come into this category, as well as favouritism over who gets space or posts and, unfortunately, also who gets promoted.

It is interesting to note that historically in Cambridge, in a bid to overcome personal prejudice in a head of department – which was known to be occurring – the process around promotion was changed so that applications came from the individual and not from the head. Some time later it was spotted this meant that those who were putting themselves forward were not always the most deserving candidates and many departments internally changed things again so that the head of department talked to all potential candidates to give them what one hopes was a fair assessment of their chances. An individual could still act unilaterally; in some cases I know some did go against the advice of their head – and still found themselves promoted, to their joy. I merely use this anecdote to demonstrate that what looks like a fix may in itself create other problems which require different fixes.

The bottom line is it is my belief that any head of department who sits back and presides over an atmosphere where junior, and indeed not-so-junior staff, feel they have little desire to come into work every day should be feeling very worried. Toxic atmospheres invariably have a root cause and looking the other way is unlikely to be a long term solution. The REF will come and bite you, or the financial system of a university which examines how much grant income is being won or how many PhD students wish to come and work there. There are many figures of merit (whatever I may feel about metrics overall) which should be seen as worrying indicators a department has sunk below an acceptable level of ease in which to work. Heads of department take note.

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