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My silly slammer stress-buster toy, Dilbert, sits on the desk vying for my attention as soon as I walk into my office. I enjoy his three programmed rants: "Get out of my cubicle!" "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" and "You want it when?"

Dilbert came into my life long after leaving my last full-time job. His admonitions continue to reflect the feelings I longed to level at Phyllis, my new boss, whom I had named "Attila the Hun." As soon as I started working for her, I knew I had made a mistake. Her steely-eyed glare and tight-lipped smirk, framed in hot pink lipstick, signalled a foreboding and intimidating presence.

Two weeks into the job, Phyllis scheduled a two-hour session to familiarize me with the company's software. Patience was not one of her virtues. I struggled to understand the program, and she became increasingly frustrated. While asking her a question, she screamed: "When are you going to get this? How long am I going to have to sit here holding your hand?" Well into her tirade, I found the courage to stand up and walk away. She followed me out of the office, down the hall and into the ladies room where I had shut myself in a stall, sobbing uncontrollably.

Frozen with fear, I couldn't budge. The promises of an exciting career discussed during my interview evaporated in an instant. Instead of dealing with the work I'd been hired for, I was consumed with fending off the antics of a madwoman and reviewing my options for departure.

The breakdown in our relationship was now so complete that leaving was my only option.

The aforementioned drama, whether produced by one's boss or a co-worker oblivious to the daily psychological and organizational damage they cause, inevitably leads to workplace dysfunction, especially poor morale and low productivity. However, clarity of instructions, belief in the ability of team members, and on-going evaluation are the attributes of true leadership that minimize these risks.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that an unhealthy workplace culture is historically among the most influential factors of employees leaving. Furthermore, managers would do well to remember that these departures have huge financial costs. Employee retention is improved by committing meaningful resources to leadership training and development. These are bottom line issues.

So what can we do to establish and maintain a healthy work environment?

Attributes of effective leadership

A leader understands the purpose of the enterprise and is completely familiar with the organization of the work force. She needs to communicate with clarity each member's responsibilities. A leader demonstrates confidence and trust in each individual. Without these essentials, it's no wonder that innumerable "people fires" break out.

Managing an enterprise is managing people

Phyllis listened poorly. She never understood that she had a competent employee who was ready to perform well. Had she paid attention to my questions and concerns, she could have boosted my morale and laid the groundwork for a long and productive relationship. Beyond the personal rapport amongst colleagues, structural features that promote the respect and value of employees are imperative. There are companies with customer loyalty and retention departments, therefore if it's important for the customer, how much more so for the employee?

Top to bottom evaluations

A leader may be inclined to evaluate those on the team, but the leader, too, must be to be evaluated. Does anyone think that a CEO of a major corporation is going to be awarded a multi-million dollar contract without an evaluation? Everyone in an enterprise benefits from both self-evaluations and evaluations done by others, including other employees.

Had Phyllis only known…

These important ideas warrant deep consideration. It isn't enough merely to pay lip service to the notion of creating an outstanding, collaborative culture. If drama and dysfunction exist, even the newest employee will at once understand what is going on – this kind of decay has a stench of its own. No matter what type of remuneration you promise, the atmosphere will immediately serve as the biggest motivator you can offer.

Based in Vancouver, Michelle Ray is the CEO and founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute.

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

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