3 ways to change toxic tendencies at work

November 20, 2013: 11:19 AM ET

Most offices are filled with workplace chatter that reinforces the idea that people can't be trusted with autonomy. How to eliminate such negative talk.

By Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson

Man's feet walking tightrope above shark gossip speech bubbles

(TheMIX) -- You've dished it out before, and you've taken it.

  • "Well, good morning. Nice of you to finally join us!"
  • "He's always taking long lunches."
  • "Wish I could leave at 4:30 every day...must be nice!"
  • "Is he ever at his desk?"
  • "Sure must be great to work from home every Friday."
  • "Seems like she uses all her sick days to go shopping."
  • "Oh, she's home with a sick kid...again. I need to get myself a kid."

Do any of these phrases sound familiar? We call this "sludge."

Sludge is the workplace chatter that reinforces the idea that people can't be trusted with autonomy. We identified sludge as one of the most powerful and persistent barriers to a productive, creative, and fulfilling workplace when we were developing the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Sludge can be mean-spirited gossip or even friendly banter. We sludge (it's a noun and a verb) for many reasons, but it's ultimately meant to either directly or indirectly shame a coworker for not approaching work the way it's "supposed" to be approached.

Sludge is a powerful force in maintaining the status quo and implies that work only happens at the office between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. It follows the formula:

Results = Time + Physical Presence.

That formula is a relic of an industrial economy that treated individuals as interchangeable factory parts. In the creative economy, the new formula is: Results = Results. Period.

It's hard to believe that this is still a revolutionary concept. Leaders might say they want the full imagination, energy, and passion of every person in the organization, but they do little to clear out the toxic sludge that reinforces the idea that anyone who operates outside of the prescribed norms is either goofing off or taking advantage of the system. In a results-only work environment, every employee has equal parts autonomy and accountability. Own your work and get it done like an adult. It's that simple.

The dusty workplace of old may be slowly crumbling, but even those of us with the best intentions still have some toxic tendencies that keep the factory mentality alive. Here are three things you can do to clean it out of your lives.

1. Listen for sludge

At first, you'll hear the obvious. You'll hear what seems to be an innocent comment from a coworker ("How nice of you to join us today.") and you'll recognize it as sludge. Then you'll recognize in yourself what we call a "back sludge" conversation (as in, sludging behind someone's back). This is the sludge that's spewed about a co-worker who isn't within earshot:

One coworker: "How is Steve getting a promotion? He's never even here."

Another coworker: "I know and when he is here, he takes long lunches and comes in late."

You: "And what about the jogs he takes after his long lunches on Tuesdays? That's getting ridiculous."

The more you listen for sludge, the more you'll start to hear all of the subtle versions of it not just around you, but from you.

2. Point it out

When you hear these toxic phrases pop up in conversation, politely point it out to the person saying it. Don't let yourself or someone else feel guilty or judged by an outdated standard. We live in an amazing time where many of us (one day, maybe all of us) can own our work and live by the results we achieve, not the desk-time we put in at the office. Stand up and rebel against the system, don't be a party to it. The accountant who has worked all night on a deadline shouldn't get shamed by their coworker for "coming in late" and the mom who leaves the office at 3 p.m. to attend her daughter's ballet recital shouldn't be questioned by nosy cubicle neighbors about why she's leaving "early."

An easy way to redirect the conversation when you hear such negative talk is to say, "Is there something you need?" For example, someone sees you leaving at 2 p.m. and says "2:00? Where are you headed so early?" Your response: "Is there something you need?"  Sludge is stopped dead in its tracks and the conversation is back to results. Or, if a coworker says to you, "Did you see Allison come in at 10 a.m. again today?" Your response: "Did you need something from her?" Back sludge averted. On to more important matters.

3. Don't sludge to make yourself look good

Sludge gives traditional office dwellers the chance to make themselves look like hard-working, valuable employees, regardless of how well they're actually performing. Don't be that guy who throws a coworker under the bus for being 15 minutes "late" or for not approaching work exactly like you do. Focus on results and if you need to make yourself look good, then own your work, think harder about your customers, your company, and making progress for them.

Working on a team without sludge is liberating. Guilt evaporates. Productivity increases.

All employees would rather work in a sludge-free environment -- and every workplace would benefit from eradicating such talk. It would also free people from antiquated policies and standards, and give everyone the headroom to make their best contribution, in their own way.

Do you have a story or a big idea about getting rid of sludge and expanding individual freedom at work? Share it in the Digital Freedom Challenge over at the MIX.

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson are the creators of ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) and authors of Why Work Sucks and Why Managing Sucks. They are judges of the Digital Freedom Challenge, hosted by the MIX.

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