Destructive behaviors existed in organizations long before they were given special names. The term “cancel culture” is not typically associated with business environments, but its pernicious effects are prevalent. Unlike a boycott, cancel culture destroys an organization from within, through covert and fraudulent actions.
Cancel culture effects all levels of an organization, but “managerial schizophrenia” is a common precursor and potent ingredient. Adverse behaviors signal abandonment of cultural and professional norms, the subsequent failures of collaboration, and the resultant degradation in group performance. Combatting these intertwined organizational cancers requires commitment from all levels of management and revised methods of oversight.
Workplace Cancel Culture
Cancel culture, as a concept, is most commonly associated with public figures, such as politicians, “journalists” and pundits, comedians, and podcasters. However, it has also existed in many workplaces, unnamed, far longer than it has been the subject of public debate. The attempted “cancellation” of a public figure gets a lot of attention, as purveyors of all forms of media use it to their advantage. Workplace cancellations are far more damaging – to individuals and organizations – and more common, yet receive little, if any, attention from anyone not directly affected.
Dictionary.com defines cancel culture as “the phenomenon or practice of publicly rejecting, boycotting, or ending support for particular people or groups because of their socially or morally unacceptable views or actions.” This definition is rather generous, as overwrought public outrage is often due to a mere difference of opinion and is not genuine, but purposeful. The public drama is leveraged to suppress or discredit differing, though often legitimate, viewpoints.
The generosity of dictionary.com and the lack of reference to professional pursuits renders the generic definition of “cancel culture” unsatisfying for our discussion of workplace issues. To remedy its shortcomings, the following definition is proposed:
Workplace Cancel Culture – the phenomenon or practice of resisting or misrepresenting the efforts, results, or viewpoint of a colleague in order to achieve or maintain a favorable position in the organization.
“Office politics,” another longstanding malady of the workplace, involves currying favor with executives and other attempts by individuals to complete a zero-sum “game” on the positive side of the ledger. Such zero-sum games include the apportionment of bonuses, promotions, plush assignments, larger offices, and the like.
Workplace cancel culture goes beyond office politics; rather than simply trying to advance themselves, individuals begin to attack others, attempting to damage the reputations and future prospects of perceived rivals. The logic seems to be this: if person A is perceived as less competent or effective than previously thought, person B will be perceived as relatively more competent or effective, irrespective of person B’s actual performance. If discrediting person A is easier for person B to achieve than is improving his/her own performance, this is the route person B chooses. This logic is, of course, terribly flawed; these individuals are playing a zero-sum game when none exists!
This flawed logic is applied in various situations at and between all levels of organizations. Peers may be competing for a promotion, transfer, or simply a higher status within a stable group. A promotion-seeker may also attempt to create a vacancy by discrediting the incumbent of the position s/he desires. Conversely, a manager may protect his/her own career trajectory by interfering with that of a promising subordinate.
To do this, an ethically-challenged manager has several mechanisms available to him/her. Misrepresenting a subordinate’s performance or “cultural fit” to other managers and influential people establishes justification for his/her eventual dismissal, eliminating the threat to the manager’s progression within the organization or other aspirations. Terminating an employee is the ultimate form of “deplatforming,” to use the current vernacular, in the workplace context.
Subjecting an individual to unreasonable expectations or standards of performance lends credibility to the manager’s reports of “unsatisfactory performance.” An "accurate" report of “failed to meet expectations” obfuscates the reality of the situation; willfully unaware decision-makers will support the corrupt manager’s chosen course of action.
If a modicum of subtlety is desired, a manager that feels threatened by a high-performing subordinate may fabricate justifications for the denial of raises, bonuses, high-visibility assignments, or other perks. Such actions are often less salient to upper management while encouraging high-performers to leave the organization. Credit for an individual’s results may also be shifted to another, less threatening, individual, further limiting the high-performer’s prospects and increasing the incentive to seek opportunities in a higher-integrity environment.
Once workplace cancel culture is allowed to develop in an organization, it creates a vicious cycle in which only those who specialize in cancel culture and office politics can thrive. High-performing, inquisitive individuals that reject the status quo and “we’ve always done it this way” mentality are driven out. How this happens and what must be done to counter it will be discussed further in a later section.
According to dictionary.com, schizophrenia is “a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.” Managerial schizophrenia refers to the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements in the context of a hierarchical organizational structure; it is akin to cognitive dissonance. Schizophrenic managers espouse inclusion, respect, creativity, meritocracy, and earnest communication while acting in contradiction to these ideals.
Managers’ schizophrenia can vary by degree; in its mildest form, a manager condones the deviant behaviors of others without actively participating oneself. The passive form is unlikely to persist; untreated cancers become more malignant.
Schizophrenic managers often exhibit behaviors that signify his/her social dominance orientation (SDO) – the belief that his/her position is evidence of his/her superiority or entitlement – such as ostracism, isolation, or other mistreatment of colleagues. Unconsidered rejection of novel ideas and obfuscation, withholding, or distortion of information are tools of self-protection in common use that discourage creativity, diminish respect, and erode trust.
When schizophrenic managers flourish, it is a harbinger of a developing cancel culture within the organization. This is so because managerial schizophrenia is a potent ingredient of workplace cancel culture and a self-feeding monster with no other development path available to it.
How Workplace Cancel Culture Develops
The simplest explanation of the growth of workplace cancel culture is “monkey see, monkey do.” As subordinates recognize the actions that have propelled their managers’ careers, they identify these destructive behaviors as keys to their own success and longevity. The focus then shifts from collaboration, learning, and performance to ingratiation to superiors (the “coattails” method of advancement) and sabotage of “competitors,” a.k.a. peers.
As broken windows theory tells us, ignoring bad behavior encourages its escalation. A corrupt manager’s position and lack of intervention by upper management reinforces his/her belief that his/her decisions are sound and actions and behaviors are appropriate. This is the basis for motivated reasoning, wherein information is reframed or selectively accepted to maintain consistency between one’s decisions and beliefs. In other words, decisions that support the decision-maker’s beliefs or desired outcomes are rationalized, or justified, by shaping information into a narrative that reinforces the decision.
Over time, the aberrant behavior becomes easier to mask, justify, and perpetrate on the unsuspecting. As free-thinkers and high-performers are driven out, the organization becomes more aligned, more schizophrenic. Thus, the vicious cycle repeats and the monster continues to feed.
The preceding discussions of managerial schizophrenia and workplace cancel culture have overlapped. As mentioned at the outset, they are intertwined; however, some clarification may be in order. Managerial schizophrenia is an individual phenomenon; it affects individual managers independent of the behavior of others. When it spreads to the degree of a septic infection, managerial schizophrenia becomes a powerful building block of workplace cancel culture.
Workplace cancel culture is a more generalized term. It implies the existence of managerial schizophrenia as well as other aberrant behaviors. These may include accepting an amount of credit or blame that is uncommensurate with one’s efforts or results. That is, taking more credit than deserved for a favorable outcome, or blaming others for underperformance.
Accusations of inappropriate behavior are common tools of cancellers. Even unsubstantiated claims of impropriety can irreparably harm a person’s reputation; it is one of the most treacherous tactics that can be employed. A lack of repercussions for false claims is a clear sign that a dangerous, toxic culture has metastasized in an organization.
In summary, any tactic or scheme that a devious mind could fabricate to suppress or silence opposing viewpoints, curry favor with superiors, damage the credibility of potential challengers, or in any way elevate oneself at the expense of others or the organization that is tolerated by the organization’s leadership falls under the umbrella of workplace cancel culture.
What to Do About Workplace Cancel Culture
Any discussion about how to counter managerial schizophrenia and workplace cancel culture should center on three key points:
Point (3) is well-known, but frequently ignored by leaders to the great detriment of their organizations and the individuals within. A desired culture should be actively developed; otherwise, neglect will allow one, usually far less desirable, to develop on its own. An organization’s strongest personalities will define the culture; when coupled with weak characters, the negative elements are bound to prevail.
Preventing workplace cancel culture from taking root requires the active participation of all levels of management. The CEO must set standards and expectations that filter down through the organization; intensive follow-up is required to ensure that standards of conduct are upheld with consistency.
Credit must be accurately apportioned and performance appropriately rewarded. Whether on a project-by-project basis, in an annual review, or other assessment scheme, validation mechanisms should be in place to ensure that an employee’s reported performance reflects a fair assessment. For example, input should be sought from those with whom the person interacts regularly to get a complete picture of the person’s contribution; a person’s “direct supervisor” is often least aware of the person’s true performance or value to the organization. A well-executed evaluation process minimizes “coattailing” and self-serving cancellations, while helping to retain high-potential employees such as creative thinkers and innovators.
Leaders should require evidence of wrongdoing or inappropriate behavior, such as harassment, before taking action against an accused employee. The motivations of the accuser should also be explored to eliminate personal gains through false claims. Likewise, cases of “stolen merit” – taking undeserved credit to advantage oneself over a colleague – must be dealt with firmly to maintain trust in the organization and its leadership. To limit these cases, leaders should vehemently, repeatedly, debunk the zero-sum fallacy – the belief that the success of another diminishes one’s own position or value.
Finally, the choice of supervisors, managers, and leaders determines an organization’s ability to sustain a healthy culture. Every member of an organization has a responsibility to perform his/her duties ethically, to act with integrity. The burden increases, however, as one rises in the organization, gaining authority and responsibility; most importantly, responsibility for the fair treatment of subordinates or “direct reports.”
As discussed in Sustainability Begins with Succession Planning, a number of questions should be answered to determine a person’s suitability to a position of authority, such as “Does this person set a desirable example of attitude, teamwork, etc.?” A candidate’s technical ability is usually much easier to assess than his/her character. For example, does the candidate exhibit a social dominance orientation or does s/he embrace servant leadership? If the answer to a single question can predict an individual’s performance in a leadership role and, by extension, the success of the entire organization, it is probably this one.
Managerial schizophrenia and workplace cancel culture are manifestations of a principal-agent problem. The interests of the individual (agent) are in conflict with those of the organization (principal); the agent is expected to act in the best interest of the principal, but is incentivized to act in his/her own best interest instead. Some will dismiss it as “human nature” or “survival instinct,” but justifications make the behaviors no less destructive of organizations or individuals.
An organization that allows a toxic culture to persist is like a tree that rots from the center. Despite the decay in its core, the tree’s bark looks surprisingly healthy, even as it falls through the roof of your house.
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[Link] “On Protoplasmic Inertia.” Gary S. Vasilash. Automotive Design and Production, July 2002.
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[Link] “Being Ethical is Profitable.” Alankar Karpe. ProjectManagement.com, August 3, 2015.
[Link] “How Workplace Fairness Affects Employee Commitment.” Matthias Seifert, Joel Brockner, Emily C. Bianchi, and Henry Moon. MIT Sloan Management Review, November 5, 2015.
[Link] “The Unwitting Accomplice: How Organizations Enable Motivated Reasoning and Self-Serving Behavior.” Laura J. Noval and Morela Hernandez. Journal of Business Ethics, September 21, 2017.
[Link] “Putting an End to Leaders’ Self-Serving Behavior.” Morela Hernandez. MIT Sloan Management Review, October 18, 2017.
[Link] “Why People Believe in Their Leaders – or Not.” Daniel Han Ming Chng, Tae-Yeol Kim, Brad Gilbreath, and Lynne Andersson. MIT Sloan Management Review, August 17, 2018.
[Link] “New Ways to Gauge Talent and Potential.” Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. MIT Sloan Management Review, November 16, 2018.
[Link] “Does your company suffer from broken culture syndrome?” Douglas Ready. MIT Sloan Management Review, January 10, 2022.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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