What makes a workplace toxic?

70% of Brits have worked in a toxic environment, reports HRnews in an August 2021 article.

In research by MIT Sloan Management Review, toxic behaviour was cited 10 times more often than low pay as the reason people in the US recently left a job, making toxicity the main driver of the Great Resignation.

Toxic behaviour by a few can cause fear and intimidation in many. The impact spreads quickly, wreaking havoc on a company culture and ultimately undermining productivity.

So what is toxic behaviour?

There are many types, here’s a sample:

  • Bullying – repetitive aggressive behaviour towards an individual
  • Shaming – making someone feel inadequate, humiliated, or wrong
  • Harassment – individually targeted behaviour such as stalking, threatening or otherwise disrespecting individuals
  • Discrimination – unjust or prejudicial treatment of an individual or group because of some aspect of their identity (race, sex, age, etc).
  • Sexual misconduct – unwanted sexual-oriented advances
  • Gossip and rumours – people spreading stories (true or not) about someone

How do toxic workplaces impact the employees?

The severity may vary, but there are consistent themes:

  • Shaken confidence, reduced motivation, and feelings of inadequacy
  • People avoiding others or refusing to work together
  • Poor performance
  • Fear of speaking up
  • Exhaustion, stress, and burnout 
  • Anxiety, depression, feeling traumatised and other mental health issues

What impact does toxic behaviour have on the business?

  • Reduced productivity
  • High attrition
  • People taking sick days (75% of people admitted to calling in sick because they didn’t want to deal with somebody with whom they have a negative relationship)
  • Negative impact on a variety of stakeholders
  • Negative reputation with customers leading to a loss of revenue
  • Negative reputation in the job market making it harder to hire top talent
  • Project failures
  • Loss of psychological safety – people stop speaking up which reduces creativity in problem solving and more possible disasters due to people not feeling safe enough to alert others about impending problems.
  • Learn more: What is psychological safety and why should we work on it?

Why are people so toxic?

There could be many reasons, including issues from their personal lives, a general lack of awareness about their impact or a lack of training about how to lead effectively. For example, some managers (still!) believe that aggression is the way to get people to perform (well this approach does work short-term, it’s just not a sustainable approach) or they might be replicating an approach they learned from their own past or current manager.

While we might want to paint these people as the “bad guys”, they might also be suffering and in need of attention. Consider these situations that push people to become so overly stressed that they take it out on others:

  • Burnout (read more in What is burnout, really?)
  • Extreme stress due to life challenges – dying parents, ill family members, difficult children, divorce, financial challenges, etc.
  • Unaddressed psychological issues, including being bullied or abused earlier in life
  • Boarding School Syndrome – where people learned to disconnect from emotions and biting sarcasm is developed as a sport and played with pride.

Those are not listed here to excuse bad behaviour but to give a starting place for addressing it.

What can stop or address toxic behaviour?

  • Pay attention to the first signs of toxicity and address it rather than “seeing how it plays out” or letting the victims find their own way
  • Listen to people who complain, while it may be easy to write them off as playing a victim card, they might really be a victim in this case
  • Challenge the myth that superstars are worth keeping around despite their negative impact – it rarely works out well in the end
  • Watch out for “banter” that diminishes others and don’t fall for the “it’s just a joke” excuse
  • Collect and provide feedback to individuals who have a negative impact on others
  • Create consequences for continued toxic behaviour
  • Remove them from people leadership roles to protect others
  • Help them deal with earlier trauma, also see What do we do about trauma?
  • Provide support such as a coach or corporate psychologist to help an individual get to the root of their behaviour and address it
  • Train people about toxicity and its impact
  • Get curious about in-groups and out-groups who strongly form around a charismatic character – both groups may be suffering in different ways
  • Support people who suffer from a toxic boss or colleagues – help them minimise the impact by finding other colleagues to work with, finding a mentor who will support them or by learning coping mechanisms – but do not assume that this can be a long-term solution

Shooksvensen offers individual and team coaching that helps teams identify and address toxicity and increase their teamwork through building trust and psychological safety.

Rewired to Relate is a starting point in helping people understand the impact of stress on individuals and teams.