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What is a toxic work environment?

Toxic work environments are a common problem. So much so that there are articles collecting inspirational quotes to equip humans worldwide with the necessary patience to survive them. 

But how to define them? We could say that a toxic environment is “one wherein dysfunction and drama reign”. It can be the result of a variety of causes, such as toxic employees, absence of order, or weaponized cultural values.

What can toxicity lead to?

This kind of toxicity can impact one’s morale, performance, physical health, and mental health.

“When a workplace becomes toxic, its poison spreads beyond its walls and into the lives of its workers and their families.”, wrote Gary Chapman in Rising Above a Toxic Workplace.

In the same book, Paul White shared that “health problems stemming from workplace stress include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health, and can lead to fatal conditions, recent research from Stanford and Harvard Universities found.”

Toxicity also has a dire impact on your business: 38% of employees say they decrease the quality of their work in a toxic work environment, 25% say they have taken their frustration out on customers, and 12% have simply left their jobs as a result of a toxic workplace.
It is, therefore, vital for you to fight it, but you can’t fight what you can’t see.
If toxicity in the workplace is a disease, what are its symptoms? What are its causes? And what are the most efficient cures for it?

Gary Chapman's words on toxic work environments

What are the symptoms of a toxic work environment?

To mention some tell-tale signs, the toxicity of a work environment can manifest itself through:

  • A culture of overwork
  • Vertical and/or horizontal bullying
  • Poor communication
  • Generalized poor behavior, seen in both bosses and employees
  • Abundant office drama
  • Gossip
  • General dysfunction
  • Managerial tyranny
  • Lack of career growth for the workforce
  • Lack of opportunities for all or part of minorities
  • High levels of stress
  • Management’s lax responses to issues

The article “10 Signs You’re in a Toxic Work Environment - and How to Escape” provides you a deeper dive into some of these symptoms. 
The reasons for toxicity are mainly three. If we’re looking at a company as a whole, we can accuse a corrupt culture. If we take a closer look, at the team level, we can notice the consequences of poor leadership. And finally, harmful employees can be part of the equation. Let’s analyze them one by one, in correlation with the symptoms they trigger. 

The first cause of a toxic work environment: a corrupt culture

“If you go to strong-cultured environments, chances are that they’re going to have cultural values that are very meaningful to them. Often. [...] A toxic work environment is when you see that those cultural values are being weaponized, that they’re being used selfishly as opposed to nobly.” That’s what Professor Frances Frei told us when we interviewed her.

Sadly, as it turns out, even the most beautiful value can be weaponized. As the Harvard Business School Professor mentioned, this is even touching the value of meritocracy - one that can make anyone’s heart sing - as it’s currently being weaponized in many fast-growing work environments. It’s being used to justify the status quo in businesses where only a thin slice of the pie of demographics is rewarded with the possibility of having a successful career.

That being said, you can also tell that your company’s culture is corrupt if you go into a meeting and see that those who are speaking and those who aren’t are part of distinct demographic patterns. In a few words, integration is lacking. “If a black working mom has as good a chance of thriving in your organization as anyone else, then you’re getting a whole bunch of things right.”, writes Professor Frei.

What can you do if you acknowledge the weaponization of cultural values inside your organization? The treatment is simple: you let them go and re-do them. After trying to bring weaponized values back and insisting on re-explaining them, Professor Frei realized that it’s an impossible feat. Once it’s corrupt, even the most inspiring of values is gone. When it’s time to rewrite them, Professor Frei advised us to “Let them come up from the entire organization.”. Anyone who wants to co-author cultural values should be able to contribute.

Now that we’ve explored the corruption of cultural values, we ask ourselves: what happens when integration is missing? How can you cure this toxic issue within your organization?

Correcting it demands immediate action. No aspect of diversity should necessarily be prioritized, but you should try and tackle as many as you can, as soon as possible. This way, you’ll avoid stalling, which is often a powerful tool against fostering true inclusion.

The second cause of a toxic work environment: poor leadership

The negative energy coming from certain individuals can ruin the healthy atmosphere enjoyed by the rest of the collective and impact the team’s performance. 

Whereas it is possible to avoid negative people in our personal lives, the workplace makes it inevitable at times for you or your employees to have contact with those harmful individuals. 

Now that we’ve seen the two most common symptoms of toxicity inside an organization let’s raise our magnifying lens and take a closer look at what poor management can do. What does a dysfunctional team-leader look like? 

When the head of a team has no idea how to lead, the consequences can be pretty grim.
Think about this: a Randstad study confirms that 60% of employees surveyed left or were considering leaving a job because of their direct supervisor.

Usually, leadership is poor when the boss thinks it’s all about them. This can make them mistrusting, anxious, and sometimes even tyrannical.

Micromanagement and overwork can become the new norm for your team, and a toxic boss often doesn’t take responsibility for their mistakes either.
Poor leadership can translate into a variety of profiles: the Career Contessa piece “I hate my boss” compiled a list of 7 major ‘bad boss’ personas.

The problem seems to be more common than one would expect, especially considering what has come out of the woodwork during the current crisis, which has seen the “Bossware” industry booming.

What’s the treatment in such a situation? Toxic bosses are often incapable of taking feedback, whether it is top-down or bottom-up. If your boss is the toxic kind, it might be worth it to attempt an honest conversation. Or two. Or three. It could mark the beginning of a healthy dialogue. 

You could also reach out to the Human Resources department and make them aware of your suffering. Having a support group involving colleagues with similar experiences could bring the attention of the Human Resources department to you quicker. They might suggest some counseling or seminars for the bad bosses to attend, or even realize that there’s no space for unreformed tyrants in their organization.

I’ve so far ignored the possibility that, while reading this, you've asked yourself, "Do I fit the description of the bad boss?". If that’s what’s happening, ask yourself this: what is your goal as a leader?
If the answer has to do more with you than with empowering those around you, then you might be on the wrong track.

The third cause of a toxic work environment: harmful employees

If you watched our interview with Atta Tarki, you’d remember how he shared with us the importance of hiring top-notch talent. It might, therefore, be surprising for you to hear this, but, according to a Harvard Business Review study, avoiding hiring a toxic employee is more vital than getting star talent to join your business. In fact, “avoiding a toxic worker was worth about $12,500 in turnover costs, but even the top 1% of superstar employees only added about $5,300 to the bottom line.”

How can you identify toxic individuals in the workplace? 

The piece Toxicity in the Team: How to Recognize and Defuse, identifies four different types of toxic employees. 

Power-thirsty vampires

Let’s start off with Power Vampires. Vampires are so common in the workplace that they’re part of pop culture by now, immortalized by two characters in the hilarious HBO show What We Do in the Shadows: an Energy Vampire, and an Emotional Vampire.
How do you identify a Power Vampire? It’s quite simple. Don’t waste your time looking for fangs and capes, but know that their pessimism is strong enough to “drag everyone into an endless whirlwind of failure and bad mood.” Sometimes their energy is so strong that you can feel the grey cloud of disappointment and frustration before you’re visually aware that they’ve entered the room. For every solution, ten more problems arise: they need an excuse to complain incessantly. Naturally, their feedback is never constructive.
Why are these people dangerous to your organization? Simply put, their negativity is contagious and can end up suppressing your employees’ motivation to perform. Even the more persistent positivity can be crushed by their neverending comparisons with the competition and bleak perspective on things. 

The best cure

Your employees’ state of mind needs to be protected from overflowing negativity at all costs, but coaching sessions won’t solve your problems either. All you can do is talk to these employees and try and understand if there are driving factors under your control. Can their outlook and behavior be fixed? If not, you might have to let them go, for the sake of the business.

The spilled tea

You’ll hear them before you see them. These individuals spend most of their time sharing unpleasant thoughts or remarks concerning their colleagues.
It’s been shown that we see in others the flaws and qualities that we recognize as intrinsically ours. Based on this assumption, these people’s negativity possibly comes from a place of poor self-esteem and dissatisfaction with their lives. The gossip distracts the attention of their colleagues from themselves, to make it fall on a coworker’s personal life. 

The best cure

This type of gossipy behavior affects Loquacious Larry's and Chatty Cathy’s performance and that of those around them. It also negatively affects the office atmosphere, dragging in tension and possible frictions.
Gossipers might be successfully coached, and need to be reminded that, if there was a time for such narcissistic activities, it is certainly not during working hours. 

Nobody likes a know-it-all

Control Freaks are champions of micro-management and detail obsession. They only rely on themselves and never miss a chance to remind the rest of the team how much better they are at their job. They have the additional tendency to ignore their teammates’ right to have ideas and express them.
Clearly, this attitude can be detrimental to teams. 

The best cure

Sometimes a clearer division of responsibility inside the team can help, but, sadly, this character line cannot be corrected. It’s necessary to inform their superior or the manager of the HR department. 

Fishing for compliments

Some people are highly dependent on praise. Validation addicts only see their worth through someone else’s words, and when those don’t come, they can feel like their efforts haven’t been sufficiently noticed nor their merits recognized. Whenever that happens, they might feel demotivated, which negatively impacts the workflow, and could even resort to sabotaging the process. 

The best cure

The best thing that you can do in this situation is to help them understand that their team is their support system and not their competition, all while working on extirpating their insecurity.

Too long; didn’t read (TL;DR)

Toxicity in the workplace is, sadly, a very common phenomenon. In this article, we explored the three main root causes of it: a corrupt culture, poor leadership, and harmful employees. 

A corrupt culture can show these two symptoms: the weaponization of cultural values, or a lack of integration within the company. The solution for the first issue is to replace the affected values, whereas, for the second, it’s recommended to tackle integration as soon as possible.

When it comes to poor leadership, there are several ways for it to affect the office environment: a culture of overwork, micro-management, tyrannical behavior. Usually, bad bosses have a hard time taking feedback the right way, but the HR department can and should help you out. And if you are a boss yourself and you’re questioning your worth, you’re probably doing alright as long as your goal is to empower and unleash those around you. 

Finally, there are four major types of harmful employees: the Power Vampires, the Gossipers, the Know-it-alls, and the Validation Addicts. Some of these categories are, unfortunately, impossible to reform, but there are cases in which, for instance, the fourth category, consisting of insecure employees, can make huge progress. 

As much as toxic work environments are a common issue, that doesn’t make it any less vital for you to eradicate the issue. The stress that such workplaces cause can affect your employees’ personal and professional lives to a high degree. Hopefully, this read gave you some useful tools to identify and solve the problem.

Read also:

If you want to dive deeper into how to support your workforce better, we recommend for you to read Supporting Your Employees Through the Crisis. It might help you utilize this phase to transform your organization for the best. 

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