Book Review by Paul Tolchinsky: The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and intervening in the Workplace, Joanna WildeBlog


The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and intervening in the Workplace, Joanna Wilde, Routledge, 2016


I first of the notion of “toxicity” when Joanna presented her idea’s at a European Organization Design Forum meeting in Vienna, October 2013. I have to admit, the notion of focusing on toxicity —the negative side of organizations, did not appeal to me much. I am an appreciative, positive psychological practitioner/advocate, and focusing on the negative seemed contrary to my way of approaching organizations.
I listened then, and read now with great appreciation the contribution Joanna Wilde’s thinking and book make. Few have explored the notion of what creates toxic organizational environments and how do we engage with them to shift them to health, in the way the author does. I have learned a lot about the “other side of the coin” and as a colleague would say, have come to appreciate the notion that we have to lean into that which is uncomfortable for us.

The book is broken into 3 parts. Part I focuses’ on the social psychology of organizations. The 5 chapters that comprise Part I explore the nature of consulting and intervening in organizations. The author explores, in depth the question of and ethics regarding intervening In and changing organizations. The exploration focuses on enabling systems to discover for themselves their own truth (the author even goes so far as to warn us against using our own “truth” and assuming this is knowledge that is “fact.”

Part I address’ the engagement process, the role of ethics in diagnosing and intervening and various approaches one could take in engaging with a system. I found the whole of Part I, an interesting exploration, and confusing. I could not see the connection between Part I and toxicity. The whole of the introduction left me wondering “so what?” Part I was, for me a disconnect. While I appreciated the writing and thinking, I was left to wonder how it related to toxicity. I was ready to go deeper into the main “diagnosing and intervening in the workplace!

Part II delivers in great detail! Part II really gets to what I was hoping for! Part II is an exploration of the epidemiology of stress and the dynamics of toxicity, culminating in an integrated model that is wonderful framework. The author introduces four macro level sources of toxicity: Structural; cognitive; behavioral and symbolic. In addition, Wilde introduces four micro processes, that really resonated for me: accountability; compassion; appreciation and growth. The discussion in Chapter 6 focuses on the causes of toxicity. This is the most in-depth and thorough discussion of the reasons behind toxicity and its importance. I really enjoyed this chapter, it delivered exactly what I had hoped for from the author. Figure 6.7 sums up the integrated model nicely.
Chapter 7 introduces the macro sources of toxicity, mentioned above. Each source has with it and identified solution set. The author warns, rightly I believe, that each solution to a source of toxicity, “can, in turn, be a source of toxicity, either by through bringing disproportionate attention to a single factor or through the lack of intelligent work with the psychosocial micro processes” Wilde introduces in Chapter 8

Chapter 8 focuses on the 4 micro processes mentioned above. In the view of the author, these 4 are critical to workplace functioning and more importantly mitigate toxicity. Each is explored in detail with great examples. I especially appreciated the treatment of accountability and authority and the use of Jacques requisite authority notions (1991). The four are interrelated and together form an interesting systemic view of addressing toxicity.

Part III addresses the how to question. How do we intervene in order to create healthy out of toxicity, not an easy task. Wilde, like others, takes on Performance Management systems, in particular, in Chapter 10. She describes the problems and pitfalls of current PM systems. Table 10.2 clearly articulates why, in the view of the author, PMS does not work. A nice summary, for those who are aligned to this thinking. Certainly a biased expose,’ well articulated. Wilde summaries by suggesting that one of the most important ways to remove toxicity is to replace the overly engineered, process heavy, inherently biased system from organization life!
I enjoyed the book, and learned a lot about toxicity and maybe how to leverage compassion, accountability, growth and appreciation in reducing toxic behavior in organizations. My only real challenge was getting past the first Part! Then the book “sailed” for. Thank you Joanna for taking on this subject in an interesting and insightful way.

Paul Tolchinsky
August 2016