Americans spend more time at work than do workers in any other developed country. The average worker puts in about 47 hours per week, which equals six full days. That's a lot of time to be miserable. Yet many companies, IT departments, and network administration shops have devolved into toxic work environments.

Workers aren't spending their 40-50 hours per week feeling productive and appreciated. They often spend what little time they have at home complaining about their job. They aren't working for the greater good of the department or the organization, because they don't believe the organization cares about them. Therefore, they don't care much for the organization, either. These workers are often looking to take their talent, skills, and experience elsewhere as soon as the opportunity presents itself. How do you turn this situation around?

Recognize the Symptoms of Toxicity

Toxins can destroy some of the most beautiful places. But the good news is, you can detox the environment and restore the beauty.

The first step is to recognize the symptoms that can indicate that your network administration department has become toxic. The signs of a toxic workplace are the same in IT as anywhere else in the enterprise:

  • Poor communication. Management doesn't communicate well with workers, workers don't communicate with their managers, and no one communicates effectively with each other.
  • Inconsistent policies. Have you ever contacted a company you do business with and no one there seems to know the answers you need, or worse, everyone you speak with gives you completely different answers? This is what it's like when policies are inconsistent or inconsistently enforced and followed.
  • Poor leadership. Leaders in toxic work environments tend to be immature at best and narcissistic at worst. Managers often play favorites among the employees (which is often the cause for inconsistent policy enforcement).
  • Physical and emotional sickness. If sick days have skyrocketed, it might not be black mold or asbestos in the workplace. It could be the toxic environment.
  • Stress levels are high and morale is low. There are workplaces where stress is high, but workers are equally highly motivated and anxious to roll up their sleeves and get things done. But in the toxic workplace, the stress isn't invigorating, it's deflating.
  • Workers have an unhealthy balance of work and home life. In a healthy workplace, workers go home anxious to share what happened during the work day with their families and equally happy to get to work to share how Suzy said her first word and Alex hit his first home run. In the toxic environment, family life suffers due to the stress and unhappiness workers feel on the job.
  • Workers feel set up to fail. In the toxic environment, workers don't perceive hard tasks or assignments as opportunities to succeed. They believe they've been set up to fail. Often, they're exactly right. Managers haven't provided the training, resources, and support necessary to help them succeed.
  • Workers in toxic environments do not feel loyal to their company, and do not perceive that their company has any loyalty for them.
  • There is almost always a high worker turnover in a toxic work environment.

Yuck! That sounds like you? Okay, here's what you can do ...

Adopt a New Style of Leadership

While there are numerous leadership styles that can be highly effective, when turning around a toxic network administration department, the best style to adopt is the Servant Leader. This is basically the exact opposite of what you've always thought a leader should be. Servant Leaders work to help, back up, and support their staff, who in turn work to help, back up, and support the customers (either internal or external). Let's see how this helps turn around a toxic shop.

Max just took over as network administrator in XYZ Company. These workers have been under toxic leadership and now believe that the company has no regard for their well-being, and in turn, they give exactly zero flips if the company fails. Max knows that lots of things need to be done -- the networking cables need to be mapped, new access points installed, and routers replaced. But before he can get workers to knuckle down and work with him to resolve these pressing issues, he has a lot to prove to those workers.

As it happens, several of his workers have expressed concern over all the overtime they've been putting in. One worker just got married, another has a 1-year-old at home, and a third is about to face the empty nest. She has just three more months with her son at home. While cutting overtime is the exact opposite of what would help Max get his checklist done before the C-suite starts snooping around, it's also the thing that will convince his workers that he's on their side. Max would be well advised to cut the overtime, satisfy the concerns of his staff, and then attempt to get the work done with more dedicated, appreciative, devoted workers. Everybody wins.

Develop Transparency in the Department

A toxic workplace is always corrected from the top down. So, Manager, tag! You're it.

Network administrators (or any other manger, for that matter) cannot expect loyalty and trust from others if they aren't willing to dole it out themselves. Yes, being transparent is risky. But it's also incredibly rewarding. Instead of keeping workers in the dark about future plans, changes that are in progress, and even uncertainties about how things will play out, open up and be honest. Workers will almost always reward honest managers with honesty and loyalty in return.

Align the Expectations of Management & The Workers

In a Servant Leadership style, workers are willing to take on risks, because they believe that their network administrator has their back. If they run into something they can't handle, (s)he will get them the resources, training, or support they need. When mistakes are made -- which they will be -- the manager helps fix the problem, uses it as a learning opportunity, and moves on. This is in stark contrast to the toxic leader, who uses honest mistakes as a reason to demean, humiliate, or reprimand an otherwise good worker.

Put an End to Favoritism & Cliques

Every manager is tempted to dote a little bit on certain workers and ignore or be a little less forgiving of the others. But this is a surefire way to inject deadly toxins into your network administration team. Whether you like a worker or don't, get along with them or not, be totally fair and consistent with all your employees. A good leader will actively work to foster a team with mutual respect and a feeling of camaraderie, he / she will discourage cliques, gossip, and favoritism. You never really know what a worker is capable of doing unless he or she is given some trust and a fair shot at it.

Aside from detoxifying your network administration department, are there other things you need to know? Perhaps you're looking for the latest tech tips, or maybe a jumpstart on how the network administrator can handle issues like DevOps and the Software-Defined Network.