Episode 264 – Toxic with Clive Lewis

Clive Lewis‘The hardest part is getting started, getting that first paragraph on the page. And once I’ve been able to do that, generally for me, my writing then flows from that.’

Clive Lewis has written 17 books, so he’s learned a bit about organizing and communicating his ideas. He writes about the things that mean most to him – this time it’s the toxicity of the workplace (which is itself of course a microcosm of society) and how to create more positive, healthy environments. [Spoiler alert: it often just comes down to speaking and listening.]

In this week’s Extraordinary Business Book Club conversation we talk about the ‘new normal’ and the old issues at work, about empathy, diversity and inclusion, setting goals, getting started (and the difficulty of finishing), and the intoxicating power of words.


Clive’s site: https://www.globis.co.uk/

Clive on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CliveLewisOBEDL

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Clive Lewis, who is a business psychologist, specializing in individual, team and organization behaviour. He is one of the UK’s most sought-after mediators, and he’s the founder and CEO of Globis Mediation Group. He’s worked with executive teams and governments for over 20 years, and he’s the author of 17 books.

He was awarded an OBE in 2011 for public service and his contribution to the field of workplace mediation, and he’s deputy chair of the University of the West of England. So welcome to the show Clive.

Clive Lewis: Hello, Alison, thank you for inviting me.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s really good to have you here. I’m going to start with, so you’ve been doing the work you do for over 20 years. And I was very tickled when I was looking at the book, you pick up on the Rip Van Winkle story, which I love, you know, he falls asleep and then wakes up 20 years later, and the whole world has completely changed.

The American Revolution has taken place and he’s baffled. And you make the point that that’s kind of how it is for us, that’s the kind of, you know, level of change that we are living with at the moment. So what kind of changes have you seen in corporate culture over that period of time?

Clive Lewis: Yes. Thank you, Alison you’re absolutely right. Do you know, interestingly, I wrote the introduction to the book as I was finishing the manuscript because what I reflected on when I got towards the end of the manuscript was that actually so many things were happening, in particular Brexit and Coronavirus, that I needed to reflect that some way at the start of the book.

And as you say, I thought the Rip Van Winkle story captures that in a really good way. Just the pace of which we’re experiencing change at the moment and there have been a number of things I think that come to my mind about some of the changes that we have seen. If I think back a few years, we had the introduction of Sarbanes-Oxley which certainly for finance professionals listening in will recognize that.

And that came in as a result of a scandal such as Enron, where there was a need to look in closer detail at that scrutiny around finances and processes that organizations were following. We’ve also seen changes in the way people work. And we refer to that as agile working, you know, the pace at which we work up until recently of course, with the pandemic, but it’s been increasing rapidly.

So organizations have had to be quite flexible in how they allow people to work and where they might allow people to work from, so that all colleagues can feel as if they are productive, wherever they may be working from. But we’ve also seen an increase in global competition for jobs. So if I think of the example of James Dyson and outsourcing some of the manufacturing operations to Singapore, for example, where you might be able to get the same kind of products made and manufactured, but at a lower cost. And that’s meant that our own workforce here in the UK have had to really think hard about how we can compete with services that might be able to be sourced from other parts of the world.

And probably the last example that comes to my mind is this increase we’ve seen in what we now refer to as the gig economy, where sometimes by choice people are doing away with the traditional nine to five contract job and deciding that maybe they can balance a number of jobs all at the same time. And so that’s really changed the way that we think about work and how that plays in with people who may also be still employed with the traditional nine to five contracts and how they’re competing with each other.

I think there are lots of changes and I very much doubt that anything’s going to go back to how we knew it before.

Alison Jones: No, I quite agree. I think, you know that everybody’s talking about going back to normal with a slight, they’re putting it in inverted commas now. Well, we know it’s never going to go back to ‘normal’. This is the new reality and we have to adjust to that. And there’s lots of, I mean, those strands that you’ve set out there of change, you can see in many of them, the seeds of conflict, of competition, of some of the roots of the toxicity that you talk about in the book. You talk about hostile workplace. Presumably that’s part of the, I know that’s part of the stuff that you talk about in the book, but do you think it’s inevitable?

Clive Lewis: It isn’t inevitable. I think there will be some readers, Alison, of the book who will read in a sense of shock and horror, that I recount some of the stories that I do. I think they will be unrecognizable.

Alison Jones: They are pretty grim aren’t they, there’s some really vile… and I do wonder, I mean, I was reading it. I have to admit, I was reading, I was thinking, the problem is, people who really need to read this book, they’re not going to read it, and if they do, they won’t recognize themselves.

Clive Lewis: So no, I don’t think that it is inevitable, actually, but there are some situations where over the years problems haven’t been addressed and then they grow, they build, they develop. And before you know it, you’ve got a mountain of issues that have a very long tail, a very long history. And leaders have a real challenge to try and undo and unpick some of the problems that many of them have inherited, actually. They arrive at an organization and realize that they weren’t told the absolute truth when they were going through the interview process. And they’ve joined with not knowing about many of the stories that have been playing out.

Alison Jones: And just set out for us some of the horror stories, you know, what are the most pressing and perhaps most pervasive issues in the 21st century workplace that are the most problematic for leaders who suddenly arrive and find themselves faced with them.

Clive Lewis: Well, there’s a whole range, it would be difficult, I think, to list them in any kind of rank. But I…

Alison Jones: Yes, we were just, maybe let’s just have a couple…

Clive Lewis: I think some examples, I refer in the book to one story where there’s a discussion about a performance appraisal, and I would imagine your listeners will be very familiar in their own work environments about the performance appraisal and how it’s supposed to work.

They’re designed to be a mechanism to ensure that the individual is really clear about receiving feedback from their line manager, about how well they are doing. And one story I refer to in the book, which is based in the financial services sector, plays a story out where a gentleman had been employed with an organization for some time.

He’d had a line manager for the best part of 10 years and had been used to receiving a four on his performance ratings. So this is on what we refer to as a five point Likert scale. So five would be absolutely exceptional. But he had been receiving four for many years. His line manager left, a new line manager came in and after a year when it was time for him to have his first performance review with his new direct report, he gave him a rating of a two without any real explanation and it was a total shock and surprise to the direct report.

What then ensued was allegedly a conversation where when the direct report challenged it, he says that his new line manager said your life will not be worth living if you pursue this and challenge it to my superiors, to which his direct report asked his line manager to repeat it, repeat what he said, because he wasn’t quite sure whether he heard him correctly and his line manager repeated it effortlessly. And then a standoff happened, which is often the way, Alison, about why problems exist because the standoff meant that they stopped talking to each other. The longer this problem went on for, the more protracted this became.

And so it was after a year and a half or so that I was invited to come in and try and have a conversation between the two of them, which I did, but it became clear that the relationship could not get back on track because the direct report refused to work with his line manager because he’d lost trust in him, because the line manager did not admit to saying what he said.

And in the end they had to part ways and the organization agreed a payment for him to leave. So that’s just one example of some of the types of problems that can develop in organizations and make their way to my desk.

Alison Jones: And I’m dead sure every single person listening to this is having a, “let me tell YOU about a toxic manager..”. Yes, it is awful, isn’t it? One of the really systematic things that you pick up in the book, which I thought was interesting because it’s so topical and it’s so intractable is the issue of diversity and inclusion and just how pernicious the resistance to that can be within the organization.

Is that something that you’ve frequently dealt with as well?

Clive Lewis: Yes. Yeah. Often. And in fact just earlier today, before we had this call, I was dealing with an issue where a very large organization in the public sector has a challenge now with 20, over 20 people in a department, and there are issues of race discrimination that’s playing out and a lot of discomfort amongst certain members of the team about how all of this has been handled.

And if I just turn the clock back a little, the employment legislation, in fact the biggest piece of employment legislation that this country has faced for many years was introduced in 2010 with the equality act. And that brought in what we refer to as the nine characteristics or horizontal equality.

So this is things such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, for example. And what that did was it gave everyone something to look to in terms of a platform so that we can all recognize where we are on that spectrum of nine characteristics. And the challenge I think for all of us is I think summed up very neatly by a sociologist, in fact, a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu who unfortunately died about 20 years ago, but he summed it up incredibly well. He talks about the challenge of doxa, and doxa is the firm beliefs and views we have, which are part of our upbringing, they’re part of a society. So for example, we think that for new babies, boys must wear blue, girls must wear pink, brides wear white, primary school teachers are predominantly female, construction workers are male. We have these firm and fixed views about things.

And when we all are then meshed into the workplace with these beliefs, it’s a real challenge to ensure that we aren’t infringing what we believe our own areas should be that shouldn’t be infringed, whether that’s race discrimination or sex discrimination. And there’s a real challenge now for organizations to run training and awareness about aspects such as respect in the workplace, incivility in the workplace.

And you know, I don’t see any time soon where the challenges that we see for diversity and inclusion are going to go away.

Alison Jones: One thing that I thought as I was reading your book though, is that actually the workplace is sort of a microcosm of the larger society, isn’t it? But the hope, I thought, at the end of your book, when you’re giving those kinds of really clear, you know, these are the ways that you can proceed, these are the things to do: we have a chance of intervening. We have a chance of change. I mean, I know culture change is hard, but it is possible. And I do feel that business can really be a force for good here in that as cultures change in organizations, that has got to filter out through into society as a whole, hasn’t it?

Clive Lewis: Mm, I agree. It does, Alison. In the book I do my best to try and break this down and the way that I describe Toxicity is that there are three things that are at play that we need to be mindful of. I describe the model of the toxic triad in the book and this encompasses the employee and the employee’s role to be responsible for his or her behaviour and how that might play out.

Secondly, is the role of the line manager and the importance of them being able to be competent at their role and not do things such as take credit for the success of those who are working for and reporting to that person.

And the third area, Alison, is organization systems. So there are many cases I can think of where colleagues have wanted to get their relationship back on track but then systems prevent that from happening. So this might be the grievance processes as a system. It might be an investigation. It might be just these processes that stop adult discussions and relationships building and being formed. So when you put all of these three aspects together it gives a platform on which to build to hopefully reduce levels of toxicity.

Alison Jones: And which can, as I say, go out of the workplace as well, because people are taking responsibility for it. it’s fascinating.

I want to talk to you though about writing as well, Clive, because you know, I did boggle slightly, you’ve written 17 books. That’s not trivial. So I’m guessing in the course of those 17 books, you’ve got some processes and systems that are working pretty well for you as a writer and I’d just love to explore that. What have you learned about writing over that period?

Clive Lewis: I’ve learnt a lot over the years. If I think about the book I’ve just finished compared to my first book, I think they’re totally different. They’re miles apart. I’ve developed a process, I guess, in a sense of rhythm about how I write. I mean that the first thing is that in normal times, let’s say, I was always able to write on the move, with the job that I do I’m constantly on the move from organization to organization. So I would spend a significant amount of time on a train or a plane, or maybe in a hotel room. And I would use that time that would otherwise be productive let’s say, I would apply myself to writing. And that’s the first thing.

The second thing is I say to people who ask me about my writing, is that the hardest part is getting started, getting that first paragraph on the page. And once I’ve been able to do that, generally for me, my writing then flows from that, albeit sometimes I can hit difficulties.

The chapter that I wrote on technology and toxicity, I had to have four goes at it because I was just hitting blocks. I don’t know what had happened there.

And then the other thing that comes to my mind is what happens after the writing has been done and the manuscript has been handed in. Other writers might recognize that there’s always a period of almost regret, I think because, you know, as a writer, there are always ideas coming to me.

And then almost as soon as I handed in the manuscript, I thought, Oh, I could have included this example, or this model or this new piece of research, and it can get quite frustrating, but I have to make a note of those and think about ways that I can weave it in maybe to the next piece that I’m going to write.

Alison Jones: I am just imagining you sending through things to the copy editor. Could we just this chapter… I just found this fabulous new case study…

Yes. Authors, please don’t do that. Your editors will hate you. And do you, when you say getting started is the hard thing, do you do that super hard thing of sitting down with a blank piece of paper, or do you have a kind of structure in mind? How do you get that toehold when you start?

Clive Lewis: I will develop a theme. So that’s what I did with Toxic. I knew that that theme toxic kept on playing on my mind, and I wanted to think of ways in which I could capture what was coming to my mind and articulate it. And right now I already have some very clear thoughts about I’d like my next book to be about.

But I always have a notebook with me and as themes come to my mind about what I’d like to say, I’ll just jot them down and then work on expanding them into the text the next time I sit down to write.

Alison Jones: And you really do just fold those ideas in and write through. Yes, it’s really impressive. I wish I could do that.

What do you enjoy most about the process Clive?

 Clive Lewis: Well, I’m an introvert. Alison. So I find it relatively easy to have my own space and time and to not have anyone around and there’s a few other people that I’ve engaged with as writers who are introverts and Susan Cain is one, some of your listeners might be familiar…

Alison Jones: Famously.

Clive Lewis: …with her work and there might be something about my personality type or the personality type of an introvert making it slightly easier to have that quiet time of writing, I think, but I thoroughly enjoy it, I love learning new words, sort of seeing how I can weave those new words into what I might be thinking. And after every book that I’ve written, I would say it’s been a whole new journey of learning.

And I’ve tried to take examples from other writers where possible, to see whether I can draw on some of the powerful work that they’ve done, for my own work.

Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s part of a conversation that just keeps going and building doesn’t it.

Clive Lewis: Yes.

Alison Jones: If I was to ask you to give one tip to somebody who is at their number one book, rather than their number 17, what would you say to somebody who’s just starting out, what would be your best tip?

Clive Lewis: Well, I would say if I can write a book, anyone can write a book.

Alison Jones: If I can write 17 books.

Clive Lewis: Well, I don’t think I really had a plan to become a writer, but I joined an organization a number of years ago, back in 1997. And I had a line manager who very soon after I joined, he invited me to sit down and he said, just dream Clive. What would you like to do? Where would you like to be in 10 years from now? There are no limits. Just write whatever you would like to.

And after I’d gotten over the shock of what he asked me to do, I started to do that and, you know, I took a week or so to work it through. And from time to time, I look back at what I wrote in 1997. And to my surprise, I wrote that at some stage I would like to write a book.

Now this is not something, not a plan that I look back at every day or every week or every month, even. But it’s amazing for me, that that written plan has come into fruition. So maybe there’s something for your listeners about seeing how this might fit into your overall life plans.

I’ve written the types of books that I’ve written because I’ve written about subjects that mean a lot to me. So where there’s an area of passion I think they’re the easiest things to write about.

Alison Jones: I love that demonstration of the power of the question as well. I mean, how rarely do we ask those sorts of open, exploratory, personal questions at work?

Clive Lewis: Not often enough, I think, certainly one of the things I’ve found in my work is that people like to be listened to, and coming back to an earlier part of our conversation where there are organization flaws in systems, many organizations resort to what I describe as rights processes, so the investigation and the grievance process, and unfortunately what they do is whilst there’s an opportunity for questions to be asked, often people will feel as if they haven’t been listened to. And that’s because what’s required to be able to resolve a dispute is this aspect of interests, which is giving people a chance to express what it is that they want and why they want it.

And I remember very early on in my mediation career being invited to help two senior health professionals who had fallen out, one had come back into work from being off on sick leave for the discussion. And I think eight months have passed since the initial trigger of the dispute. And when we started the mediation session, I did what I always do, which was invite them to say something to each other about the background as they see it.

 And it became clear to me that in that information exchange, one of them said something that the other person hadn’t recognized and hadn’t appreciated before. When she said that, she gave an apology, which brought the whole dispute to an end. So what would usually play out over a day, Alison, normally, was over within 30 minutes because of the exchange of, you know, human conversation, which just broke down the barrier.

Alison Jones: Empathy. I mean, they call it a soft skill, but it has really hard results, doesn’t it? Really visible results.

Clive Lewis: Yes, absolutely.

Alison Jones: Yes. Wonderful. I love that. So I love that that sense that it’s something that was, you were allowed to express in the workplace, firstly, but also that it’s something that you actually wrote down and the power of writing it down, committing to it, making it part of how you see yourself.

 That’s a great, it’s a great tip actually. Isn’t it?

Yes. Brilliant. And I’m going to ask you to recommend a business book, not Toxic, obviously everybody should read Toxic, but what other book would you recommend to listeners, particularly from a business perspective,

Clive Lewis: Well, Alison, my favorite nonfiction author on the planet is Malcolm Gladwell.

Alison Jones: What about off the planet Clive? Sorry, that was, that was mischievous. Sorry, go on, Malcolm Gladwell.

Clive Lewis: You’re allowed to be. I think I have read all of his books Talking to Strangers, his most recent book, I haven’t quite finished yet. But one of the books that he wrote that really had an impact on me is Outliers. I mean, it’s a few years old now, but what I like in Outliers is how he tracks that none of us arrive or none of us achieve or experience success on our own, you can normally track back the people that have been influential in our life.

Perhaps the luck that we’ve had, people we’ve been introduced to that have helped us on our journey. And I like the way that Malcolm Gladwell is able to mix science with stories. And in my writing, I try my best to follow what I think is an excellent example of that. And the book Outliers, I think really lays that out very well with the facts, the statistics, why certain things happen in the way that they do. So I think that that’s the book that I would recommend above all the others that I’ve read.

Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. And do you know, I’m also a Gladwell fan, but I haven’t read Outliers. It’s a gap in my Gladwell reading. So I’m going to have to go fix that. Thank you. Brilliant recommendation and Clive, if people want to find out more about you or about your work, more about Toxic, where should they go?

Clive Lewis: Yes, well, Toxic is published by Bloomsbury and published on the 18th of February. If listeners would want to find out more about me, please visit our website. It’s all the W’s dot Globis, G L O B I S .co.uk. And you can see much more about me there.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you. I shall put all those links up on the show notes, at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. Thank you so much for your time today. It was fascinating.

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