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Toxic workplace – what leaders can do about it

By In leadership imperatives, Uncategorized On May 24, 2021


The term “toxic workplace” has been widely used lately and means different things to different people. What does a toxic work environment look like and more importantly, how does it feel?

Overall, it’s an environment that doesn’t feel psychologically safe.

When looking for toxicity, expect to see some patterns. For example, these tend to be very top-down organizations that aren’t very tolerant. They don’t have much warmth. People don’t feel trusted. Workers feel that others don’t care. Differences are not tolerated. People are put down. The job is just a transaction. People are working for the paycheck.

In general, people feel at risk because of things Management is doing or things Management is tolerating. Either way, people in leadership positions are tolerating behavior that makes some people feel threatened. When you have a toxic workplace, it is hard on everyone and especially marginalized populations. Toxicity destroys diverse contributors and contributions, diverse ideas and talent that generates innovation.

In toxic workplaces, decision-making at the lowest levels is often questioned and challenged. This leads to finger-pointing and people begin to turn on each other. As a result, decision-making becomes centralized and top down.

We recently heard a story where one person was describing her own toxic culture. She told us of a co-worker in her mid 40s who never cursed, but after a year in the toxic workplace, she regularly dropped F-bombs — that kind of behavioral change can be a sign of creeping toxicity.

Performance at all costs?

In high performing organizations, we often observe that performance has become so important that behavior may be overlooked. Everything is in the service of maximizing revenue and no one is dealing with team building or healthy conflict.

Performance at all costs means leaders are not looking at the collective performance. Instead, they’re focusing too much on individual performance. They will tolerate “bad” behavior from individuals and ignore the short- and long-term impact that toxic behavior can have on others’ performance.

When there is a lot of conflict, people stop acting as a team.

What’s the danger?

The effects of toxicity to the company are in three areas:

  • The organization in general – reducing the sharing of ideas and information, which decreases innovation.
  • Legal – when complaints become lawsuits.
  • Human resources – a toxic work environment drives away the kind of workforce and colleagues you really want: those who say, “We’re in this together.”

These three things go straight to the bottom line. The cost of poor performance and employee turnover is clear.

Businesses must be customer-centric, focusing on providing the best goods and services. They need to be places where people can grow. Toxicity scares away people who have a focus on producing the best goods or services. They simply leave for better opportunities.

People with good emotional intelligence have a way of exiting these cultures without burning bridges, but they do exit. And with their leaving you lose the most interpersonally adept talent. In other words, you lose the people who might be in the best position to repair a toxic environment.

Look for it proactively. Don’t put your head in the sand. It’s easy to ignore a problem or close your eyes and ears to the impending storm. A leader should be ready to say, “I’ve got a problem and I need to understand the root of this problem.”

Good leaders ought to be continually monitoring their work environment. Observe which processes are working — and which aren’t. Consider gathering survey data. For instance, the well-known Q12 to determine employee engagement from the book First Break all the Rules could be a quick and easy way to get information.

Understand that while you need performance, you also need the behavior that is in service to the performance. Too often people look only at the measurable performance side.

You can also begin to see signs of a toxic workplace in exit interviews. But keep in mind, this is not foolproof — people know they must rely on references and may be reluctant to tell the whole truth about why they are leaving. Be sensitive to faint signals and be prepared to ask the next question.

Ultimately, leaders need to be in the “people growth business.” They need to create safe cultures where people feel they are validated and their ideas are appreciated.

Leaders must live up to the culture they want to create and hold other people accountable as well.

Five ways to “detoxify” your organization

  • Create an environment where everyone is respected and appreciated and there is a simply stated set of values around how to work together and treat one another.
  • Constantly monitor how things are really going and be willing to (constructively) call people out when their behavior is getting in the way.
  • Create a feedback-rich culture where people hear about their performance and their behavior.
  • Establish mechanisms for employees to confidentially get information to leaders in a safe way without adverse impacts.
  • Systematically look at policies and practices that support the culture you want to continue/grow/achieve. Enforce fair policies and procedures equitably regardless of seniority, performance, or other characteristics. People need to see accountability for toxic behavior, and support and reinforcement for positive behavior.

Third-party help for a toxic workplace

Workplace hostility and abuse are complicated issues, and many corporate HR and legal counsels are not ready to deal with it.

Some organizations bring in a third party because the level of toxicity is such that there must be a safe way to begin to identify the sources of toxicity. This could be a consulting firm, a law firm or an organizational psychologist.

Most importantly, the third party needs to be someone who can be perceived as an honest broker — someone who can facilitate conversation and impartially mediate a solution. People who feel they are being mistreated may be reluctant to talk and many organizations are not prepared to deal with this kind of information.

What about toxic individuals?

A toxic workplace can cause good people to act in toxic ways. Rather than dismissing people out of hand, a leader should work to understand what’s going on and what can be done to help. What’s happening – personally or professionally – that might be contributing to the poor behavior?

You can’t help everyone and sometimes you simply have a poor fit – is the person in the wrong seat on the bus or is it the wrong bus? Sometimes, the best thing you can do is help the person find a better fit.

A toxic workplace is a leadership problem

It’s up to leaders to model emotionally intelligent organizations. And it’s up to leaders to know what’s really going on and to address the problems that lead to toxicity. Monitor the environment. Check in with people. Communicate what the organization stands for. Take action when changes are needed.