Lindsay White
Latest posts by Lindsay White (see all)

PART 1 – How They Impact The Workplace

In the work I do with my clients, one topic that often comes up is toxic workplaces and what to do about them. I personally have experienced this type of unhappy work environment, and I’ve coached many leaders as they’ve worked to identify and fix their toxic teams.  When a workplace culture becomes unhealthy and dysfunctional, everyone within the organization suffers.  Soon, the client experience deteriorates, and ultimately the business starts to falter.  So how do you know if your workplace is toxic, and what can you do about it?  First, it’s important to understand and identify what a toxic workplace looks and feels like before we can begin to fix it.

What Is A Toxic Work Culture?

A toxic work culture is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a work environment that is unhealthy, caustic, harmful, and ultimately destructive to everyone that encounters it.  Often, people within this type of culture are unwell – physically, mentally, and emotionally.  In a toxic work culture no one is connecting, communicating or collaborating.   In fact, what they are doing is the opposite. There’s no fun, no laughter, no creativity or innovation.  This type of culture is really driven by fear, divisiveness and fierce competition. All of this creates an unhealthy environment for people, and results in little productivity, and no true teamwork.

How Do You Know If Your Work Culture Is Toxic?

There are a few key ways to identify a negative, or toxic workplace culture.  Often these unhealthy cultures value power, control, and hierarchy — job titles and positions, over connection and collaboration.   Strictly following procedure, with little regard for the impact on employees or overall outcomes, is also a sign you have a toxic culture.    

Power, and expressing that power over others, is often rampant, and sometimes encouraged.  I often see toxic work cultures that place the priority on process, rather than the people — to me it’s a big red flag. When employees are afraid to speak up, offer ideas, and would rather keep their heads down and stay off the radar, that’s an unfortunate sign of a toxic culture.

In a truly toxic workplace there is no real leadership.  Clock-watching, rule following, and minutiae monitoring, are more important than rewarding great behaviors and innovative ideas.  Creativity is stifled and all the fun and energy is gone. These types of cultures often see high rates of illness in their staff, including burnout and anxiety, incredible rates of turn-over, and very low engagement.

Forbes published a great article on the Ten Unmistakable Signs Of A Toxic Culture if you want to read in more detail about these top 10 signs.

How Often Do These Toxic Cultures Occur?

This kind of environment occurs far more often than you might think. Experts estimate that toxic cultures exist in about 65% of workplaces.  That’s an astonishing number!  In the Emtrain’s “Workplace Culture Report 2020” it was revealed that nearly a third of employees felt that power disparity, and the bad behaviour it often supports, was causing the greatest level of conflict at work. And of that same number, only one third, actually felt like they could be their authentic selves at work. Those are very sad statistics.

Even positive cultures, that value collaboration and connection, can easily turn into negative workspaces over time. It can be a subtle shift, or a change in leadership, and it really can happen anywhere. The shift can happen very slowly, and subtly, without any real recognition or acknowledgement of the problem. When those in management lose focus on true leadership, and begin to promote and reward destructive behaviors, the groundwork can be set for dysfunction to set in. 

How Does A Culture Become Toxic?

It isn’t always someone in a leadership position who drives this negative change. It can be a new hire, an associate on the sales floor, a team member in the mailroom, all the way to a new manager.  Whether it’s a small or large organization, a toxic individual can change the tone of the entire team, and it can spread rapidly from there. It’s driven by their behaviour and their influence.

In larger organizations, this could show up as a new VP who now heads a division, and through their behaviour, creates an atmosphere of fear and a dog-eat-dog mentality. It can feel like there is competition where there doesn’t need to be, instead of collaboration. Everyone starts to put themselves first, and then a hierarchy develops, where others are in charge and more important. 

In small businesses the impact is even more enhanced. Having even one person who is consistently late, is divisive in how they interact with others, or is careless in their interaction with clients, can create an unhealthy workplace.

How Do You Begin To Fix A Toxic Culture? You Open The Kimono.

One of the most defining characteristics of a toxic culture, is that no one talks about it.  It’s like the elephant in the room. Everyone can see the negativity, the bullying, the power-trips, but no one calls it out. In the Emtrain’s Workplace Culture Report for 2020, they discovered that only 42% of employees believed that those behaving , inappropriately in their workplace, people would get called out.  And less than 15% felt that they could say no, or speak up, to a manager.  

Worse yet, are those organizations that present themselves as highly functional, the “everything is awesome” approach to culture. These types of organizations keep their toxicity and dysfunction neatly tucked neatly away, and ignore the undercurrents of disengagement. Any employees that have the audacity to suggest that things are anything less that perfect are swiftly stifled or worse, dismissed. Outwardly, these organizations present themselves as highly functional and inclusive, but when you ‘open the kimono’ it’s clear they are riddled with toxicity and dysfunction.

In either situation, the impact on employees is depressive, oppressive and restrictive. Some people are so affected by this, they actually feel ill entering the office each day. It is similar to being a plant in a pot that gets no water, no sunlight and no nutrients. The end result is a plant that wilts, withers and dies. In toxic workplaces, human beings can feel like they are having the same experience.

What Can You Do About It?

The bottom line with a toxic work environment is that it impacts everyone mentally, emotionally and physically. There’s more absenteeism, more attrition and the business itself will struggle.  

So what can be done about it? Check back next week for part two of my blog on how to turn a toxic environment into a healthy and engaged culture.  I’ll have some expert advice on how to create a work environment where people are happy to come to work everyday, feel that they can do their best work, and create value in your business.

If you’re a small business owner, and you think your workplace culture may be toxic, we should talk. My People Strategy SOS program will diagnose what’s wrong with your team and provide you concrete strategies to fix the issues, so you can build a productive, inspired team. Connect with me today to discuss how this program can work for you.