Stop Working in Toxic Sludge: Here’s How in Two Simple Steps

Candor and responsibility can clean up workplace messes

Is this what’s lurking under your workplace politesse?

Many of the teams and partnerships I coach are burdened by toxic sludge — the years of resentments, slights, enmities and stories that have built up between colleagues and color their perceptions of each other.

These teams are almost always successful and function well. If you saw them you’d say they work well together — they are considerate, professional and join together in action. But they also are operating at a fraction of their real capacity. Their members feel their energy drain when they get together, and the idea of being a team is not as exciting as it once was.

Some may say this is an inevitable part of any long-term relationship – whether a business partnership or a marriage, our cultural story is that passion cools, familiarity breeds contempt and the bloom inevitably falls from the rose.

In my experience, toxic sludge has two simple (and fixable) root causes: a lack of candor and a lack of responsibility.

The Power of Truth-Telling

By candor, I mean telling the whole truth. Most professionals don’t outright lie. But we often limit the amount of truth we tell.

For years I lived by the maxim that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It was a way to get things done quickly in a hidebound bureaucracy. The consequence was that I often was in trouble with the boss and my colleagues, spent a lot of energy cleaning up after myself, and didn’t create much lasting change in the organization — once the rule-breaker left, the rules remained unscathed.

Candor means telling the full truth impeccably, regardless of the consequences. Master truth-tellers not only reveal all the facts; they also reveal their feelings, thoughts and hunches. And it’s pretty binary: in any moment you are either being transparent, honest, and complete or you are backing off candor in some way by shading, withholding, or staying silent.

What keeps us quiet most of the time is fear. Healthy teams and workplaces create a climate where people at every level are rewarded for telling the truth about anything, no matter how unpopular the message may be.

The great thing about candor is that it’s simple to practice: start with the small things and work your way up. Before long, it’s as easy to tell the truth about what you really think of lunch as it is to tell your colleagues about your fears for your new project.

Taking Radical Responsibility

If candor prevents toxic sludge build-up, then responsibility is the antidote to whatever sludge there is.

You can only be responsible for what is under your control. One thing that is absolutely not under your control is the way others will feel about what you say or do. And yet much of the time, we limit what we say and do because we are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or angering them with our idea or scaring them about the future.

Trying to manage someone else’s reactions to our ideas and actions is a futile endeavor and the primary ingredient in toxic sludge.

Instead, take responsibility for what you want to say and do by being clear, direct and consistent. This means taking the initiative to directly inform the people whose reactions you most fear. It also means explaining your ideas and actions in ways that people can understand and relate to: being abrupt or confusing will only increase the chances that others react badly. So it’s up to you to sell it.

And responsibility is retroactive: you can use it to clear up any past lapses in candor by owning up, even years after the fact.

Watch the Energy Rise

The really great thing about candor and responsibility is that they not only eliminate the source of most misunderstandings and resentments but they also increase energy in individuals and organizations.

When I take responsibility for telling a particularly troublesome truth — one that I have been worrying about revealing for fear of a bad reaction — I feel an immediate burst of energy and creativity. Multiply this across a team and you can transform the way your entire workplace operates.

Want to Clean Up Your Workplace? Join Us in NYC or Boulder

Meg Dennison and I are teaching the tools of high-functioning workplaces in two workshops this fall in the New York City area and Boulder. Learn how to be a true 21st Century leader who inspires, creates connection and builds lasting value for themselves and their organizations. Check ’em out here.