Toxic cultures occur when a workplace becomes so negative that interactions between employees and supervisors do not 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. They 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.

How do you know (1) if your workplace is toxic and (2) if you are part of the problem?

First, let’s figure out if your workplace is toxic.

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?

Take a look at the list below for ideas on how toxic workplaces operate.

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 your 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 the 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.

Leaders: Creators and Defeaters of Toxic Workplaces

A toxic culture does not appear randomly. It is produced when negativity and incivility run rampant in a company and permeate the entire organization.

In short, toxic workplaces with toxic cultures are created by toxic leaders.

Even if the workplace bully is a fellow employee, leadership is responsible for:

  • requiring the employee to correct his/her behavior (overcoming the toxin) or
  • they are responsible for removing them from the workplace (flushing the toxin out).

Leaders who tolerate toxic behaviors despite their power to stop or remove the harassing, are just as responsible as the toxic person for creating the culture of toxicity.

Leaders who do not actively engage in toxic behaviors but allow employees to do so are part of the problem. 

Uncivil language and actions from workers or leaders should not be tolerated. #KindnessMatters and #StopBullying (among many others) aren’t just hashtags, they are quickly becoming the expectation.

Leadership can either intensify the toxicity or leadership can stop it. Toxic leaders may permeate the organization at all levels of management, from front-line managers to middle level all the way up to the CEO. Or the toxic leaders may be clustered at the top in the C-suite. Regardless, the effects of toxicity are felt all throughout the organization.

How Do You Know If You Are a Toxic Leader?

When you work in a toxic workplace, it can be easy to get sucked into the negative behaviors that the organization expects of its leaders.

Standing out from the crowd and acting in ways that are directly contradictory to the established toxic work culture can be incredibly difficult.

Answer the questions below for insight into potential toxic beliefs or behaviors you may be unintentionally exhibiting.

1. Do you use meeting times primarily to provide updates to your team?

2.  Do you believe that your team is inadequate and really doesn’t have what it takes to be successful?

3.  Do you shut down ideas from your team?

4.  Do you believe that you have the best ideas (that’s why you’re the leader, after all)?

5.  Do you raise your voice in anger or frustration or do you allow others to communicate with raised voices?

6.  Do you think that your team is comprised of slackers?

7.  Do you use or allow others to use offensive language?

8.  Do you tell or allow others to tell offensive jokes?

9.  Do you like to “give people a hard time”?

10. Do you blame your team when something goes wrong?

11. Do you let your team know you are too busy to talk to them?

12. Do you prefer that your team fear you?

13. Do you take the glory for yourself when things go well and blame your team when things don’t go well?

14. Do you keep your concerns about the company’s culture to yourself instead of speaking to higher ups or HR?

If you answered yes to the questions above, then you'll want to keep reading for ideas on how to start shedding your toxic beliefs or actions that will negatively affect your team.

14 Toxic Workplace Hacks for Leaders

1.  Use meetings to communicate essential information that cannot be sent out via email AND to answer burning questions from team members and solve problems as needed.

2.  Determine what knowledge and skills your team members have that are beneficial for the organization and then communicate your belief in the value your employees bring to the team.

3.  Encourage your team members to share ideas with you and others. Create a positive, open environment where ideas are respected for their value and not for the position of the person who shares them.

4.  Solicit input from team members to inform your decision-making.

5.  Require that everyone adheres to professional communication norms. If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to hear it, then it shouldn’t be said in the workplace.

6.  Find ways to recognize your team's hard work and dedication. Praise them for their hard work and help them find ways to continue to grow and improve.

7.  Require people to use language that is considered appropriate by society.

8.  Do not tell and do not permit others to tell offensive jokes. To Anyone. Ever.

9.  Do not “tease” or “give people a hard time” in any manner that could possibly be interpreted as hurtful. If you like to use humor, then make self-deprecating jokes to lighten the mood.  Everyone likes a boss who doesn’t take him/herself too seriously.

10. Acknowledge ownership of things that go wrong to higher ups and then problem solve with your team for a solution. Don’t blame your team. If they mess up, it’s still on you, you’re the leader.

11. Create an open-door policy so that your team members feel comfortable coming to you with issues that arise. Note: Open-door policy doesn’t mean that anyone can interrupt you at any time. It means that you want your team to come to you with issues if you are the only one who can help. You will want to help your team grow their independence by thoughtfully searching for solutions elsewhere before they come to you with the issue.

12. A feared boss means that the creativity and problem-solving parts of the brain shut down when you are around. If you want to be successful, then you need to respect you, not fear you. Respect occurs when your team trusts you, they believe that you are ethical, and they believe you will try to make the best decisions.

13. When things go well, share the glory with your team and when things do not go well, take the blame for yourself. This doesn’t mean that you grovel or beat yourself up when things do not go well. It means that you take the heat from higher ups for not the problem and you assure them that you and your team will find a solution. Then you go back to your team and without blaming or venting, say, “Okay, we’ve got an issue and we need a solution. How can we solve this? Let’s backtrack and figure out how we went astray and then let’s figure out where we go from here.”

14. Share concerns and insights about possible issues with the company’s culture with your higher ups or with HR. Sometimes, upper leadership is unaware of problems in the middle and on the frontlines. Try to work with the company to find positive solutions to problems so that the employee experience improves, and the organization is more successful.

Leadership is tough. It can be a lot of stress and a lot of responsibility.

But it’s also incredibly rewarding when you create a high-performing team that is engaged, loves coming to work and makes your job MORE enjoyable rather than less.

You can have a team just like that. One that enjoys work and enjoys doing a good job.

You make the difference.

Seventy percent (70%) of the variance in the engagement of an employee is directly attributable to the direct supervisor according to Gallup.

That means that your ACTIONS make almost all the difference in whether an employee performs well or not.

Ditch the toxic mindset, ditch the toxic behaviors and reform your leadership. Focus on daily actions that push your team to excellence.

We can defeat toxicity in the workplace, together.

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4 Comments

  1. David A. Hadzima, Jr. on December 17, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    Thank you for the insightful information. Your webpage added value to my life. Happy Holidays!

    All the best,
    Dave 🙂

    • Sara J. Baker, Ed.D. on December 18, 2019 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks, Dave! I appreciate that. You have a great holiday, also!

  2. Melissia Marroguin on January 26, 2020 at 7:13 pm

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumble upon on a daily basis. It will always be interesting to read articles from other writers and use a little something from their web sites.

    • Sara J. Baker, Ed.D. on January 27, 2020 at 2:11 pm

      Thanks, Melissia! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and my site.

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