How to Survive in a Toxic Workplace

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Part 2 of our 2 part series on Leadership in Toxic Workplaces

by Dr. Sara Baker

I believe in the power of leadership. Leadership is not about being perfect or flawless, it's about being passionate and committed to something bigger than you. It's about having an open heart while being courageous enough to take risks that will push you into new territory, so that when you are there, others can follow your lead.

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Toxic Workplace Checklist

How do you know if your workplace is really toxic or if your leaders or coworkers are just annoying?

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Toxic cultures take over a workplace when the interactions between employees and supervisors become so negative they no longer meet socially acceptable norms for civility.

Workers in toxic workplaces show less engagement with work and are demotivated to perform well.

They may intentionally perform poorly, avoiding completing work tasks in a timely manner or they may simply not apply much effort to anything. Employees will waste time instead of working IF they even bother to show up.

As a result, the negativity in a toxic workplace can destroy the organization. Not just in metaphorical constructs, but also by tanking the bottom line.

If you are a leader, you must choose a side. Either you fight the toxicity, or you choose to go along with it. 

Leader, manager, supervisor, whatever your title is - you are either part of the solution or part of the problem.

Is Your Workplace Toxic? 

A toxic workplace is characterized by fear, poor communication, and high turnover.  Employees feel devalued, unappreciated, bullied, maybe even harassed. Leaders and managers neither respect nor appreciate the employees. Attempting to shame people, insulting team members, and blaming when things do not go as planned are just a few examples of toxic behaviors.

We all have had coworkers or bosses that we may not necessarily have been crazy about, but where is the line between personality conflicts and toxicity?

18 Signs of a Toxic Workplace Checklist

How many of the signs of a toxic work culture from the list below describe your workplace or the leaders in your organization?

1.  You are afraid to voice your opinions to higher-ups.

2.  Your boss micromanages you or others.

3.  Your boss watches you complete work tasks or asks detailed questions about your process just so he can jump on any opportunity to criticize you.

4.  You don't go to HR to report issues because you are concerned you will be retaliated against.

5.  In team meetings with your boss information only flows one-way, from the boss to you and the rest of the team.

6.  Sarcasm and snide remarks occur more frequently than positive or supportive statements.

7.  People get promoted because they are related to or friends with leadership or C-suite executives.

8.  Leadership encourages or tolerates offensive statements directed at employees.

9.  New or different ideas are frowned upon and shut down.

10. You and others are kept in the dark about changes in strategy or direction.

11. When you ask questions you are patronizingly told not to worry about it, it doesn't affect you, even if it really does.

12. Temper tantrums, verbal or physical aggressiveness are accepted, excused or tolerated by leadership.

13. Leaders or managers make derogatory, belittling statements to others.

14. Leaders blame their team members when things go wrong, insistent that failures are someone else's fault.

15. HR's support processes, such as improvement plans and coaching, mostly function as an avenue to fire people instead of trying to develop people.

16. The HR department serves as a shield protecting management from worker complaints instead of trying to find meaningful solutions to help improve the employee experience.

17. Negative feedback on job performance is the only type of feedback that is given. Evaluations are used to instill fear in employees instead of used to develop and grow them.

18. A worthy, outward-facing mission or vision statement is used to mask the greed or selfishness that motivates managers and leaders.

If you saw your workplace described in the list above, then it's toxic where you work

What do you do, then, if you work somewhere that's toxic? Should you just tough it out? Try to change it?

How Do You Heal a Toxic Workplace?

When something is toxic, it is because a toxin or poison has been introduced into the system.

The system, if healthy, will likely overcome the toxicity, stopping the effects of the poison and in time repairing itself.

Imagine you eat something that causes you a mild case of food poisoning. You may have to stay home from work for a day, while your body attempts to:

    • fight to overcome the negative effects of the toxin and
    • flush the toxin out of your body.

Toxic Workplace Leadership Hacks Poison

Once your body fights off the poison, you will likely be okay and ready to go again within a short time.

Workplaces are like that, too.

Someone in the organization will have to fight off the poison. It won't clear up on its own.

If the workplace is healthy and a new leader, or even an employee, is hired who exhibits toxic behaviors, then the organization should be able to:

    • correct the behavior and overcome the poison or
    • flush the toxin out.

The healthy workplace will not tolerate a poison staying in the system. The behavior will seem so out of the norm, that everyone will notice, and leadership will likely not allow it to continue for long.

If the workplace is NOT healthy and does not have a strong, positive culture then it will be overcome by the poison and the toxicity will spread throughout the system, creating a toxic workplace.

As the toxic behaviors spread and it becomes the norm in the workplace, the poison will grow stronger and the organization will likely die as a result.

Toxic workplaces may die a slow, painful death as the toxicity runs rampant unchecked. Or they may quickly fall apart, as good employees leave, and work quality diminishes.

If toxic behavior in the workplace is left unchecked, it will spread and kill the organization.


The only antidote is strong, positive leadership.

Read more about how to defeat Toxic Leadership.

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How Can I Help?

Get your copy of the Toxic Leadership Hacks Infographic with the Top Five Toxicity Signs and How to Heal Them!

Feel free to share the Infographic on social media to help other leaders identify the signs of toxicity and make strides toward creating people-centered workplaces. We are all in this together, let's help each other out!