Chaplain's Column: Organizational Toxicity

The sergeant addressed the patrol officers at the beginning of roll call, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, the problem with our department is that too many of you are ignorant and apathetic. What do you think about that, 142?" The officer thought for a moment and said, "Well, Sergeant, I don't know. I guess I really don't care!"

The situation just described is fictitious, but it does point to an underlying issue that seems to plague many departments: a low level of morale that compromises the efficiency and effectiveness of the department. While I am aware that some branches of the military designate their chaplains as morale officers, I'm grateful that the department that I serve continues to designate and respect us as chaplains. Nevertheless, I do become concerned when I see and hear of issues that erode morale within a department. And while chaplains are not necessarily responsible for departmental morale, many of us care enough about the women and men whom we serve to the extent that we desire to see them thrive in their work environment.

One of the issues to which some faith-based organizations have been giving attention of late is labeled organizational "toxicity." As there are toxins in the natural environment, so also are there toxins in organizations that pollute the work environment and thereby destroy morale and compromise organizational vitality.

What are some signs of toxicity in an organization? Perhaps I can best answer that question by asking a series of questions for you to reflect upon as they relate to your department:

  1. Are officers and administration encouraged to express their opinions, when appropriate, or is there a culture of suspicion and suppression?
  2. Do officers and administration sabotage each other by triangulating and talking behind each other's backs?
  3. Is the organizational culture one that promotes collegiality or does it foster a sense that each individual is a "lone ranger?"
  4. Is planning used as a form of control?
  5. Do administration and rank and file disrespect each other?
  6. Are there often conflicts that lead to polarization among members of the department?
  7. Is there any evidence of ethical deterioration?

While this is not an exhaustive list of indicators of toxicity, it at least gives an opportunity for reflection.

As chaplains, we do not see it as our responsibility, nor is it appropriate for us to "fix" the department. However, one of the best opportunities that we can offer is a listening ear. Sometimes the first step in addressing departmental or organizational toxicity is to articulate it. If your department has a chaplain, you may wish to approach her or him and honestly share your concerns. A chaplain is obligated to maintain confidentiality so he or she will not share your concerns with your supervisor or administration unless you explicitly give the chaplain permission to do so.

Because we care about the whole person as chaplains, we are equally as concerned about your work environment as we are about bringing the spiritual resources we have to offer. We desire to help as best as we're able. And, too many of us have learned by experience that often the journey to organizational, departmental and personal health begins with the first step.