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  • Moya Winter

Five signs of a toxic work environment

A healthy and inclusive workplace is what most businesses should strive for, why? A no brainer! Because they produce the best results and maximise on everyone’s contribution. So why is toxicity prevalent in so many teams? Managers say they are ill-equipped to deal with toxic people, and training in this area is rarely given priority. Yet workplace culture is organic, it needs cultivating and nurturing, and at time addressing. Get it wrong and the consequences can be dramatic on performance and people. So, what creates a toxic workplace, and whose responsibility is it to shape it?

The power of leaders to influence culture – negatively and positively.

When we observe our leaders, we need to ask ourselves what example do they set? Do I feel supported, valued, and motivated?

Over the past few decades’ leadership has increasingly been presented as an academic matter. The perception that people skills are ‘soft skills’ by implication means that they are nebulous and fluffy. Yet the ‘human skills’ required by leaders takes emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and humility. They are undervalued and need to be practised. Their absence can lead to a lack of recognition, unclear communication, elitism, favouritism and ambiguity around standards. Yet leaders are the standard bearers of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

A leader can affect workplace culture directly, and indirectly. The absence of inclusive leadership role modelling, bystander responsibility and transparency around behaviour standards can disempower people, lower staff morale and ultimately reduce individual and team performance. Not the ingredients of success. When a team is not working cohesively, relationships can breakdown and the likelihood of people feeling disenfranchised increases. A cocktail that all to often ends at HR’s door.

So leaders also play an important role in recruiting and retaining staff. Instead of acknowledging ‘it’s just how it is round here’, and ‘that’s just the way they are’, we actively need to breakdown and challenge the behaviours that lead to a toxic work environment. And understand what is causing it…

The signs of a toxic work environment

How distrust impacts on a toxic work culture

It is now an expectation of office/desk-based professionals to be offered either remote or hybrid working as part of their employment contract. Research has shown a gap between employees and managers regarding attitudes to performance monitoring. What this boils down to is trust. Research carried out by Forbes showed that productivity increases when people can work remotely or hybrid – but despite this businesses and leaders do not trust their staff to remain committed to their work.

If employees witness or experience unacceptable behaviours, poor or inadequate communication, and receive little support from managers and colleagues it isn’t any wonder that mental wellbeing and performance will be impacted. If we do not feel valued, trusted, and included why bother? If our opinion or advise is never requested or accepted, we become invisible and disengage… In this situation people can ‘check out’ or worse still exhibit the negative learned behaviour of others as a response strategy, and that becomes a toxic norm. How does that work with motivation, ambition, drive and success? It doesn’t. It undermines and people feel unsafe.

So how do we know its toxic - do you wait for a disappointing staff survey? For staff grievances, absenteeism and retention to become problematic? Whatever indices you select, take a temperature check of what is happening, ask people ‘how would you describe what its like working here…’ if its positive, and they are being honest, great! If not….

Steps to create a healthy and inclusive workplace.

For leaders:

  1. Explore what good role modelling looks like and the leaders’ responsibility to be the standard bearers on acceptable language and behaviours.

  2. Create psychological safety where people can take risks or speak out without retribution

  3. If you need to monitor some work activities, explain why

  4. Provide relevant communication, welcome feedback

  5. Check in on wellbeing, especially for remote/hybrid workers

  6. Hold a dedicated meeting to discuss culture, behaviours and inclusion. Discuss:

    • Ways to challenge unacceptable behaviour, and what support is available.

    • The importance of giving and receiving feedback

    • Bystander responsibility

    • How you build trust in the team

    • Gossip – why it is unhealthy

    • What actions support people feeling valued – and unvalued

For team members:

  1. Check in with colleagues, offer support and advice, ask how they are feeling

  2. Speak out if you experience or witness unacceptable behaviour

  3. Practise the skills of having challenging conversations

  4. If you are given constructive feedback, reflect on it and consider the learning

  5. Recommend ideas on how to build the team and work together better

  6. Take time out to ‘socialise’ have ‘off duty’ time with colleagues

  7. Learn to flex your empathy skills

A shared learning experience can be powerful and engaging way unpacking issues, breakdown unhealthy norms, and identify unacceptable behaviours and the responsibility of all to address them, can provide a cathartic and energising platform on which to create healthy workplaces – where everyone is valued and can maximise their potential. A win-win scenario for individuals, teams and organisations.


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