Recognizing A Toxic Work Culture Before You Get In Too Deep

Toxic Work Culture

Maybe I’m the one wearing rose-colored glasses, but I refuse to believe that most leaders wake up every morning intentionally trying to create a toxic work culture. Why is it then that there seems to be a constant flow of breaking news stories of employees sharing claims of workplace toxicity stretching from The Ellen Degeneres Show, to the Washington Metro, to a slew of tech companies like Weta Digital? Even the Hawaii Department of Health recently became the target of allegations from a whistleblower about the effects that a toxic work culture had on epidemiologists’ efforts in contact tracing in response to COVID-19.

With tensions running high these last months as organizations grapple with massive disruptions stemming from the pandemic, one might assume that tensions are high due to losses in revenue and profits, elevated levels of professional and personal uncertainty, layoffs, and furloughs it is not surprising that many leaders may be reverting to their most instinctive flight or flight mentalities. We’ve seen similar things happen in years past as organizations met with disruptions that shook them to their core. We’ve observed leaders in these situations become overwhelmed to the point where they make knee-jerk decisions in an attempt to navigate the storm.

How do you know if a culture may be toxic?

Bullying, abuse, threats, incomprehensible hours and demands, overt sexism, and racism are all pretty in-your-face signs that there might be an issue but there are quite a few more subtle signs that you should be attuned to should you find yourself in a potentially toxic environment. Think of these as your canary in a coal mine- signs that something may be amiss.

  • Constant gossiping. When things become nebulous and stressed and when leaders being to behave markedly different than usual or begin to cut off open lines of communication, people tend to start to fill in the gaps with their best guesses. Unfortunately, those guesses then not to be entirely (or even remotely) accurate. Gossiping serves a function in groups, but it can also derail your efforts and be a sign that something may be off.
  • Significant turnover or sick callouts. Toxic environments can really deplete people’s willingness to extend themselves for their employer. Increases in voluntary turnover or absences from work may be an indicator.
  • Resistance to taking chances/fear of failure. In a world that relies on an ever-increasing pace of innovation, companies find themselves becoming more and more tethered to rapid iteration, failing fast, and learning quickly. These types of behaviors are only achievable in organizations that are willing to make mistakes. In toxic cultures, where people are blamed and punished for making mistakes, people will do exactly what you would expect- they shut down and toe the company line to not make any waves or to attract any negative attention from leadership.
  • A lack of communication. Toxic environments put people on edge. To protect themselves and their power, many may begin to hoard information from others.
  • Fear of leaders. Fearing one’s leader may manifest in a variety of ways but it all clearly points to toxicity. As the saying goes, “fish stink from the head”. Dr. Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, elaborates- “In a toxic work culture… [t]here is a real lack of leadership. [B]osses are usually toxic themselves and this trickles down and affects the entire work environment and culture. This results in declining productivity and decreased overall wellbeing and happiness of everyone in the office.”
  • An over-reliance on rules, hierarchies, and policies. When panicking from a perceived loss of control and an inability to influence people in more positive ways, leaders can begin to exert power through their authority via rules and policies. While it might work for a short while, it stinks of ineffectiveness and desperation.
  • Cutting mid-level managers off at the knees. Stemming from the previous point, leaders in toxic environments may tend to consolidate power by limiting middle managers’ authority. The assumption being, “I alone can fix this.”
  • A lack of ‘energy’. If you ever worked in, or visited, a toxic work environment you’ll agree- the energy just gets sucked right out of you when you walk the halls. It’s palpable and there’s no disguising it.
  • A hesitance, or outright refusal, to take stock and engage employees in open dialogue. It’s no secret when things are toxic. Leaders, whether they want to admit it or not, realize in their heart-of-hearts that things are not going the way they should be. During these times, leaders may tend to steer away from wanting to get input from employees about the state of things because they are afraid to face the truth.
  • The punishment to praise ratio is out of whack; a focus on consequences versus opportunities. Toxic cultures have to survive on something and it’s not the tears of puppies. Toxic cultures thrive when blame is placed on “others”; accountability is shirked, and praise is hard to be found or reserved only for those few that are in favor at the moment.
  • An increase in micromanagement behavior from leaders. When leaders fall into assuming that only they have the intelligence and skill to drive success, they naturally begin to engage in micromanagement.
  • A noticeable lack of pushback. Toxic cultures do not tolerate dissent. As employees begin to realize the situation they are in, they learn not to speak up. As they continue to disengage, things only continue to get worse.
  • A lack of a clear purpose and vision for the future. Toxic environments tend to be in sink or swim situations. These situations create confusion for people as behaviors tend to run the spectrum. This is exponentially worse when organizations lack a clear purpose and direction to aim in when times get tough.
  • Your main reason for wanting to work there is the paycheck or the ‘prestige’ of working for such a well-known brand. Some people will put up with quite a bit of toxicity simply to be associated with a brand. I never really understood this but it’s not uncommon. If you’re showing up to work simply for a paycheck you have to ask yourself why.
  • Rivalries, in-groups, and out-groups develop. Since toxic cultures are situations where effective organizational dynamics are extremely skewed, people tend to rely on playing politics. These politics lead to in-groups and out-groups which make it easy to find scapegoats and assign blame to those who are not in favor.
  • Leaders define the culture by the perks and freebies people get. This is a reg flag that even prospective employees can assess. Asking specific questions about the culture of the organization and how work gets done can be enlightening, especially if you can talk to several people. If they are misaligned and they tend to talk about the free snacks alone, you may want to take note.
  • People begin taking credit for the work of others. Desperate times call for desperate measures. When it’s dog-eat-dog, some people will do whatever it takes to stay in favor. Taking credit for others’ work and success while finding creative ways to pass blame is classic.
  • Discretionary energy is not put toward furthering the purpose of the organization; bare minimum. In toxic environments where employees are disengaging with the organization out of self-preservation, you will be hard-pressed to find many instances of people expending their discretionary energy in ways that help the organization. Instead of going above and beyond to help a customer, for instance, they will sit in the back room tapping away on their cell phone.
  • Teams and individuals begin to self-isolate. To the point above, toxic cultures create a system where people intentionally isolate themselves to protect themselves. In some cases, highly effective leaders will work to isolate their teams to protect them. In these instances, it is not uncommon to find small sanctuaries within larger, toxic environments. Unfortunately, these leaders wind up bearing an enormous load, shouldering the dysfunction on behalf of those they lead.

Unfortunately, toxic work cultures are not as uncommon as we’d like to admit. The speed of business, relentless competition, rapid technological innovation, and other complexities continue to strain the capabilities of leaders and teams to continue to adapt and reinvent themselves to stay viable. Many leaders find themselves getting in over their heads and their attitudes and behaviors begin to permeate dysfunction throughout the organizations they lead.

Nobody says being an effective leader is easy. Creating an environment in the workplace that promotes value-add behavior and attitudes has a significant long-term impact on an organization’s ability to thrive amidst the myriad of challenges that are encountered. In my opinion, leaders exist to align work effort and to accomplish the mission of the organization they lead. This cannot be accomplished sustainably if these leaders allow toxicity to permeate their teams and organization.

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Related reading: Toxic Cultures: Where Does The Buck Stop?