Expert Interview: Carol Marzouk

May 12 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by Carol Marzouk. to discuss toxic workplace culture. Carol Marzouk

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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Carol Marzouk.

Carol is known as the “executive lion-tamer.” She is an internationally recognized business relationship speaker, coach and behavioral strategist. Carol restores peace by extracting poor behavior that destroys trust and obstructs progress. She is a bilingual business relationship speaker, coach and CEO of Leadership ‘N’ Soul, which has also come to be known as “therapy for business.” She has spent most of her career inspiring leaders and teams to impact the bottom line while retaining their soul and integrity. She is known for her unconventional methods to get real results and help clients take immediate action, leaving the theory in the office.

She has the ability to go into an organization and dig out what is festering and allow fresh perspectives and new growth to take place. Her engaging and down-to-earth style accentuates her practical, real-world, customized approach.

Carol, I’m so excited to have you here today.

Carol Marzouk: I’m so excited to be here, Mari. Thank you, it’s such an honor.

Mari Ryan: Thank you. Let’s dig into this topic a little bit. We’re going to talk today about work cultures and specifically, toxic work cultures. They can be exhausting, emotionally exhausting and demoralizing to the employees who are stuck in these situations. This is regardless of whether it’s the drama, the bullying, the politics, whatever it may be. I’ve certainly had my share of places where I’ve worked that have had a toxic culture, and it is undoubtably bad for everyone’s wellbeing. Carol, I’d love to have you talk a little bit so our audience can understand how we recognize a toxic workplace when you are in one. Let’s start by identifying some of the characteristics of what makes a workplace toxic.

Carol Marzouk: Absolutely, and Mari, before we dive into that I’d like to explain how terrible this situation actually is. We are spending upward of $550 billion dollars in active disengagement costs or costs because of the toxicity in the workplace per year. That’s just in the U.S. Eighty-seven percent of the global workforce was disengaged before this whole COVID-19 crisis. We are finding that disengaged employees are still outnumbering the engaged employees two to one. It’s a big deal, and the worst part – and this is where my mission comes in – is that 65 percent of people managers, including senior executives, CEOs, managing partners at law firms, surgeons that have doctors reporting to them … 65 percent of them are disengaged. You can imagine the cascade effect when a manager is disengaged, especially since most of us leave our job because of our direct manager.

I just wanted to talk about that a little bit because it really affects the profitability of our company. We know that highly profitable companies have 50 percent more engaged employees, versus unprofitable companies. We know that teams with high levels of engagement sell over 20 percent more than teams with low engagement. The bottom line is disengaged employees drive down the overall company performance. I just want to throw that out there because we are bleeding money there.

Mari Ryan: I appreciate the context for that because I think helping people see that this is a huge cost, it is impacting profitability for organizations, and it’s impacting people’s lives because their wellbeing is compromised.

Carol Marzouk: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk now about the four different types of engagement so that you can understand how people can progress through them, either upwards or downwards. There are two types of engagement and two types of disengagement.

Let’s talk about disengaged employees. What do you think, Mari, what a disengaged employee looks like?

Mari Ryan: Oh, they’re surfing the web, they’re out on cigarette breaks, they’re standing at the water cooler, causing trouble.

Carol Marzouk: That’s right. It’s sometimes very difficult to spot these guys because they’re not hostile, they’re not disruptive. They show up and they kill time. I always think of it as … I’m sure you’ve encountered, even at the mall, you go in and it feels like the person just took their physical body to work, and they left their soul in bed. They’re just zombies. They have no concern for customers, they have no concern for their productivity, they contribute to a lot of waste in the systems. It’s a lot of that kind of checked-out mentality. So, that is disengaged.

What do you think engaged folks look like?

Mari Ryan: They’re enthusiastic, they’re positive, they have energy and bring energy into the room when they’re in a conversation.

Carol Marzouk: Yes, they build an organization. They are behind everything good that happens there. They not only meet expectations, but sometimes they exceed expectations. You know you can count on them. They’re 100 percent psychologically committed to their work. They create a lot of new customers.

We’ve talked about engaged and disengaged, so now we want to look at both extremes on both sides. Now we’ve got actively disengaged, or toxic employees. What do you think that looks like?

Mari Ryan: Those would be the people that you know are making disparaging comments, they are berating other people, probably their managers. They are just unpleasant to be around, I would think.

Carol Marzouk: Yeah. It’s very interesting, they tend to monopolize most of the managers’ time because they’re the squeaky wheel. They’re always complaining. They actually have more on-the-job accidents, which is a problem for a lot of companies. They account for more quality defects. They call in sick, they contribute to shrinkage or theft. They quit at a higher rate than engaged employees do, and of course I’m called in when they don’t quit and they want them to quit.

Here’s an analogy that works right now with this whole COVID-19 crisis that we’re going through. When someone sneezes, when someone has a virus, or the flu and they sneeze on you and everything just spreads right on you, you feel disgusted, you want to take a shower, you know that it hit you, you have germs all over you, and it feels gross. You felt it. The danger with the toxic employees is that they are sneezing on you with every comment that they make. They’re like a virus; every comment is like a little germ. They make these comments throughout the workday. Little by little they start creating these negative cohorts. Then these negative cohorts have a common enemy and it brings them together.

We’ve all heard about mean girls. These people, because they have a common enemy it’s really difficult to separate them again because then they’ll be ostracized, or they’ll be on the other side of it and they’ll get bullied or whatever it is. But, this is what happens. One creates another one and another one and another one.

We’ve done a lot of studies looking at engaged employees and engaged groups; what happens when you bring in one toxic employee to a group of twenty engaged employees, and we noticed that the engaged employees are now 54 percent more likely to leave. Why do you think that is, Mari?

Mari Ryan: It’s probably like a social contagion factor. If we’re going to carry the germ metaphor, it’s that the toxicity spreads.

Carol Marzouk: Also, the toxicity spreads and they don’t want it anymore. It’s affecting their personal life, it’s affecting their joy at work. When they wake up in the morning, they’re not happy to go to work anymore. But, here’s what people don’t think about; these people who are giving their heart and soul into the company, that are engaged, that are trying to create more, these people see their managers tolerating this. They see their manager do not do anything about it. If they are, it’s not being talked about.

What’s happening is the optics of it can create, well, actually can destroy the morale and the cohesion that existed in the team before.

Mari Ryan: That’s fascinating. Those statistics are really telling and alarming that it’s so high. I’m curious, when we think about these toxic type of situations, how does this impact the wellbeing of the people who are in that situation?

Carol Marzouk: When it comes to the people in that situation, apart from them wanting to leave as soon as possible. What happens is that they start losing faith in their boss, they start losing faith in the company, and Mari, right now, even before this crisis, we had about 75% of US employees looking for another job while they were employed.

So, imagine and now you’ve got somebody that is toxic on your team, who is constantly looking for the negative, who is basically sneezing on you with every negative comment that they make. That undermining of their joy in work actually starts to make them sick. Now we start to see that the healthy people, the engaged people, are now calling in sick. And now, they are less productive. Now they are exhibiting all of the same things that we see in the disengaged, the actively disengaged, or toxic folks. It’s huge, it’s absolutely huge.

Mari Ryan: I’m curious, from your perspective, if someone finds themselves, whether they are a manager or an employee, if they find themselves in this kind of situation, what can they do as an individual that is in that setting?

Carol Marzouk: The first thing I would say is that let’s help them aim to understand rather than judge, or if I am talking to the person themselves, I would help them understand why these things might be happening with this toxic person or these toxic people. It never arises out of confidence, it never arises out of love and trust, it arises out of doubt and fear. These people that are behaving this way, there is something inside of them that feels very insecure. We can’t give what we don’t have. If we don’t have that inside of us, if we don’t have that security and that trust and that love and that engagement and that loyalty, all of those things that we want in employees, if we don’t have that inside of us how do we give it to somebody else?

Mari Ryan: So true.

Carol Marzouk: Then what happens is, okay, I’m going to try to become part of a greater cohort. I’m going to try and belong in some way because it’s a very lonely place.  So, first … and then the negative cohorts and all that can happen. So I would say the very first thing is let’s first understand what’s underneath the iceberg of this person -- because we are all icebergs and they only see the behavior that is on top, but there are so many things going on underneath, our beliefs, our values, where we grew up, what we were told, what we learned, all of these things that now affect our behavior, there’s a lot that we don’t know or see in people. Let’s just start judging for second and aim to understand where this toxicity is coming from.

The second thing I would say is elevate trust through warmth and competence. By being able to do that yourself, to overcome this sneezing, to overcome that virus, and be the voice of trust and reason, by being warm and competent in what you do, I think that helps a lot.

If you are a manager, and this I would say for any manager, is have a daily huddle with your team at the beginning of the day, 10 minutes at the beginning of the day. The other thing I would say is if you are a manager know who the people are in your organization that have other people’s ears. You know those people that if they say something, everyone else rallies around it? Know who those people are and find out from them what the pulse is in the company and find out where your folks are in the engagement process. I can give you for quick questions if we still have time that people could ask where people could figure out about these employee. Would you like that?

Mari Ryan: Sure, let’s cover that. I’d love to hear it.

Carol Marzouk: Okay. One of the things that you can ask the employees are what you getting from this role? That’s the lowest level of engagement. What do they feel about what they are getting from this role; are they becoming more employable, are they learning new skills, are they helping people in need -- what is it that they are getting from it?

The second question is what are you contributing, and are you valued for it? Do you feel that we are valuing you for it?

The third question is, do I belong? Our brain tends to differentiate people that are in the “in” group versus people that are in the “out” group. If you are in the “in” group you get a lot of trust, and you can say the same joke as somebody in the “out” group and it will be fine. So, this sense of belonging. We want them to feel like they belong so that they don’t look for the negative cohorts that exist.

The last one is, what are you doing to make improvements and to innovate? We didn’t talk about the actively engaged folks, but the actively engaged folks are the innovators. They’re the ones that treat your company like it’s theirs, and they are always looking for ways to take the company forward. So, that fourth question is really important. That’s the highest level of engagement. What can I do to make improvements in a debate – or what can you do?

If you have your employees asking themselves these four questions and you are constantly keeping a pulse on those, I think that you are in good shape.

Mari Ryan: Carol, I love your thoughts on this. It ties so closely to the wellbeing models that we use where people, where we are looking for cultures where people can feel connected to a purpose, where they feel valued for the work that they do, they feel cared for, they feel that sense of belonging or connection, and all of those things, as you say, will create that culture where people really want to work.

Carol Marzouk: Yep.

Mari Ryan: That’s great; thank you for sharing all that. I’m curious about from your experience, do you see that, you talked a little bit about how some of this in these toxic settings some of the behaviors basically get ignored and there are no consequences for bad behavior. I’m wondering if managers and leaders become enablers of the toxic work cultures.

Carol Marzouk: Yes, yes they do. They become enablers and with 65 percent of them being disengaged themselves, you can imagine not only are they enablers, they are modeling the behavior that we don’t want. I think one of the biggest issues, too, is that we have a lot of senior executives that report to the CEO, so these are the core team that are not only disengaged because they are poorly prepared for their roles, they don’t want to ask for guidance because they feel like they should know and they become insecure, they want excessive control, a whole bunch of different things. Also, Mari, they become bullies. That’s a really big problem that I am seeing. Not only are they enabling, they are really hurting people with their actions.

Mari Ryan: Wow, that’s not good because certainly that’s going to be stressful for everyone that’s involved in those situations. I’m curious, what can employers do when they see this going on in their culture, or they sense that there’s toxicity in the workplace? What can the employer do to take charge and make sure that the appropriate behavior is exemplified and modeled in the workplace?

Carol Marzouk: Thanks for asking. I think, what I’ve come across in my 29 years – now 30 years – of doing this is that most of the time employers wait until the problem is really bad because they feel like it’s a people issue, I don’t want to touch it, it’s sticky, it’s yuck. I don’t want to deal with it and if I don’t deal with it, it will go away – and of course, it doesn’t. So the first thing I would say is before it becomes a problem, let’s design your culture, and there are a lot of us who can do this, you don’t have to come to me, a lot of us can help with this, but let’s design the culture that you want so that you don’t have a culture by default that will create these problems.

Challenge the status quo. You’re a senior executive, manager, or somebody important in this company, challenge the status quo and be the leader, show up as the leader and say, we are changing things. As hard as they are, we are going to change some things.

Remember, it’s not about being in charge. It’s about leading the ones that are in charge and making sure you have the right people on the bus because if you don’t and you keep hiring for skills and experience based on resume, but then you want to fire for attitude, why don’t we just hire for attitude so that we don’t have to … you know what I mean? It’s like, yeah, sure, skills and experience are important, sure, but if you hire someone with an attitude, that “can-do” attitude, that positive mentality, they’re going to learn a lot, they are going to bring other people into that mentality, it’s just huge.

So I would say, don’t shy away from the people issues. Have people that know what they’re doing, help you deal with them head-on, and do it as soon as possible.

Mari Ryan: Those are great suggestions and certainly appropriate ones since that’s the role of a leader is to take charge and take responsibility to ensure everything is working the way it is supposed to and absolutely essential when it comes to taking care of people.

Carol Marzouk: Thank you.

Mari Ryan: I can absolutely see why your clients just adore working with you and the impact that you can have within organizations. If our audience wants to learn more about you, Carol, and the work you are doing, where can they find you?

Carol Marzouk: I can be reached at

Mari Ryan: Thanks for being here. I really appreciate your insights and the important work that you are doing, helping create better work places where everyone can thrive.

Carol Marzouk: It’s been an honor.

Mari Ryan: Thanks.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, employee well-being, toxic workplace, organizational culture

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.