A good workplace climate is essential for employees' well-being, engagement and performance, and ultimately for the employer's success as a company. Conversely, toxic work environments – which tend to reproduce antisocial and sometimes unethical behaviour such as bullying, mobbing, gossip and or use of condescending language – may lead to high employee turnover and negatively impact on productivity, innovation and profits.
The prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics has published an innovative study of these dynamics, conducted by EUI Economics Professor Sule Alan, Economics alumna Dr Gozde Corekcioglu and former EUI Professor Matthias Sutter. The authors assessed the impact of an unconventional workplace improvement programme offered to some 3,000 white-collar professionals in large corporations in Turkey. They found that a focus on managers' behaviour, on manager–subordinate relations and on social skills and communication can indeed positively affect a firm's culture.
Participating in the study were 20 large corporations across many sectors of Turkey's economy, such as energy, chemistry, defence, finance, construction and textiles. Ten of the participating firms were chosen at random to have the workplace climate improvement programme implemented (the 'treated' group). The researchers then collected their data following the training. The remaining ten firms served as the control; their employees also received the training, but after conclusion of the research.
Alan and colleagues surveyed and interviewed corporate professionals in 2019 as part of designing the experimental training programme. They were told repeatedly that toxic relationships and antisocial behaviour were among the top challenges at work and a main factor in early retirement, burnout and other personal or mental issues. Both the research design and the training programme content are non-traditional, in that they emphasise soft skills and relations among staff, rather than the more typical organisational or procedural fixes. The training included online workshops and an eight-week project development exercise, both of which were implemented by a consulting firm with expertise on corporate culture. Activities such as creative drama, role-playing and imagery techniques emphasised building effective communication, cooperation, understanding others' points of view and tolerating differences in opinions and learning to rely on colleagues.
What was measured and how
The authors devised an extensive toolkit to measure the effects of the training programme, on individuals and on groups (within departments) and collected previously unavailable data from a large number of corporate professionals across different firms and sectors.
"We implemented incentivised games to elicit prosocial and antisocial behaviours. Specifically, we measured the degree of toxic competition among colleagues using a performance sabotage game, trust and reciprocity using a trust game, and a sense of fairness using the ultimatum game."
They tapped into social networks to capture the prevalence of support at the department level, by asking all employees to nominate colleagues from whom they receive professional (work-related) support and support in personal matters. Using survey items, the authors constructed indices to capture workplace satisfaction, perceptions of meritocracy in the firm, collegiality among employees and descriptive and prescriptive behavioural norms. Finally, they were able to access administrative records for data on employee separation (i.e., people quitting or being let go).
The estimations run on their data revealed those professionals who underwent the training were significantly less inclined to sabotage their colleagues' performance for their own gain in a competitive game. 'Treated' professionals reciprocated their colleagues' trust more generously (by about 10%) than those in the control firms. A large and statistically significant improvement in the perceived collegiality in treated departments went along with improvements in perceived meritocratic values and workplace satisfaction, denser support networks and lower likelihood of employee separation.
The statistical analysis makes it possible to show that the training programme's positive effect rested largely on its success in improving leaders' behaviour toward their subordinates. This is in part because perceptions of workplace quality are highly correlated with how subordinates perceive their leaders. But the authors also ruled out some spurious explanations such as the simple increase in social interactions between employees through the training.
Relevance beyond one study
Previous research has shown that competitive workplaces with a toxic relational atmosphere are ubiquitous not only in the corporate world but in the public sector and in academia. In this sense, the results of the study in Turkey imply that innovative interventions can help eliminate antisocial interactions and improve the relational environment in a broad spectrum of work contexts.
Aside from findings that are practically relevant for improving workplace culture and employee wellbeing, the study also contributes to understanding the importance of social skills in today's labour market more generally.