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Toxic work environments: 15 factors that create a toxic workplace

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All organizations have the potential to become toxic. The potent chemical that permeates a toxic workplace is suffering. We choose whether to have an open mindset and trust a situation. If we choose not to, we’re choosing to suffer. We’re choosing not to make progress.

I recently hosted a webinar on toxic workplace culture with our SVP of Talent Optimization, Jackie Dube. We discussed the factors that create toxicity at different levels within an organization. Here I share some actions you can take to solve the issue and move your company forward.

Why workplace toxicity matters

Now more than ever business leaders need to be talking about and addressing issues of workplace toxicity. This is because the concept of career has changed—and will continue to change.

Employees no longer stay at the same company for long periods of time. According to the BLS, the average employee has been at their current company for 4.2 years. That statistic declines to 2.8 years when looking at a millennial demographicthe largest generation in the workforce.

This means employees aren’t afraid to jump ship when faced with a toxic workplace—and if it’s your high performers jumping ship, you’re in trouble.

Employee engagement statistics aren’t very encouraging. Gallup’s annual data has shown us roughly half of the American workforce was disengaged. There are four main forces of employee disengagement. Unsurprisingly they double as forces of workplace toxicity.

Is your workplace a toxic environment?

If you’re not sure if your organization meets the criteria for a toxic workplace, check out your Glassdoor ratings. When toxicity is really bad, people talk about it.

According to Forbes, the average CEO rating on Glassdoor is 69 percent, and the average company scores a 3.4 on a five-point scale. If your ratings fall below these benchmarks, your workplace could be toxic.

You can also look at your most recent Glassdoor reviews. If they’re negative, it’s a sign that your culture is suffering, and it’s time to do something about it.

Join 10,000 companies solving the most complex people problems with PI.

Hire the right people, inspire their best work, design dream teams, and sustain engagement for the long haul.

Who’s responsible for a toxic workplace?

All this begs the question: Who or what is responsible for workplace toxicity? Who should be held accountable? Is it the fault of toxic managers? Is it a byproduct of rapid scaling—just another growing pain? Is it caused by high turnover that disrupts team functioning?

Individuals at every level of an organization can contribute to workplace toxicity.

Toxicity can begin with business leaders, bad managers, or disengaged employees. Often it’s all three at once.

Just as anyone can create toxicity, anyone can solve the problem too. As I mentioned earlier, we all have a choice whether or not to feed into that toxicity. We can choose to suffer—or to do something about the problem.

Let’s take a look at 15 missteps that can create a toxic workplace, as well as actions to improve the issue:

Organizations can create a toxic workplace.

At an organizational level, toxicity means you need to have a conversation about core values. If you resonate with any of the following statements, it’s likely you and the rest of your leadership team is contributing to workplace toxicity:

1. You don’t have core values outlined and articulated.

Your corporate values are the expectations you have for your employees. They are the foundation for the decisions you make and how you expect employees to behave and perform. Without them, it can be difficult to establish and communicate culture.

If your company doesn’t have core values established, I strongly recommend checking out the books “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish and “Traction” by Gino Wickman. These books provide excellent frameworks for identifying and establishing your corporate values.

2. Your core values serve as copy on your website, not as the basis for how your organization functions.

Your core values aren’t just something you say to look good. You have to actually act on those values. 

Here at The Predictive Index, we share our corporate values at all-company meetings. We talk about them regularly during weekly team meetings. We have dedicated Slack channels where we recognize our peers for exhibiting behaviors that align with our core values. We also broadcast our values on televisions around the office.

We even pay our annual bonus based on our core values rather than on performance. This promotes a strong organizational focus on adopting and maintaining culture day in and day out.

3. Your employees can’t cite your company values.

Again, your core values can’t live on the culture page of your website.

How often are you communicating those values? How are they being communicated?

If your employees can’t cite your company values, it’s time to reconsider how you communicate your organization’s values. You also need to examine how you create a culture around those values.

4. Your processes and procedures aren’t aligned with your core values.

Often we create processes and procedures separate from our company’s core values. This creates misalignment.

For example, let’s say your organization values empowering employees to resolve their own problems. If your managers are micromanaging, it’s going to be hard to create the kind of environment and results you’re looking for.

Here at PI, one of our core values is energy. We created our unlimited vacation time benefit around this value. Employee burnout leads to low morale, reduced productivity, and a higher turnover rate. We want our employees to have ample time to recharge in their personal life so they can perform  professionally at full capacity. Encouraging better work-life balance makes a positive impact on the mental health and general well-being of your employees, which, in turn, benefits your entire organization.

Take a look at your policies, procedures, and even your benefits. See where there may be a disconnect between what your organization values and the standards that are currently in place.

5. You do things because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

As leaders, we should be always looking to modify and adapt the things we’re doing to better align with our core values.

One thing most organizations do is an annual performance review because that’s where you can hone in on an individual’s value to the company, right?

Unfortunately, performance reviews don’t always have the desired effect. As Dr. Joanna Wilde shares in her book “The Social Psychology of Organizations,” performance management focuses on where someone is performing compared to his or her peers. But often this causes an unhealthy culture of competition—and resulting disengagement.

Take a look at what you’re currently doing and compare how it ties into your core values (or not). Are these activities producing the desired effect? Knowing this—and adjusting as necessary—is a crucial component of maintaining a healthy workplace.

6. You aren’t paying attention to the needs and drives of others.

It’s important to understand behavior at the individual level. What drives people? What specific needs do they have?

Behavioral drives and needs are unique to each person in your company. Understanding this gives you insight into how different people will respond to change. Sometimes that response is positive; other times, it is negative. Either way, it needs to be dealt with on an individual level, which—again—requires an understanding of what motivates and drives each individual.

It’s also critical that leaders—and employees across the organization—understand their own motivating behavioral drives and needs. One of the best personal development books I’ve read that has translated into professional development is the Harvard Business Review’s “On Managing Yourself.” It covers how to straddle work-life balance and increase your self-awareness to be more effective in the workplace.

Bad bosses can create toxicity.

As the saying goes, good employees leave bad managers.

Managers need to be self-aware to avoid contributing to a toxic work environment. If the following red flags sound familiar, it’s time to step in.

7. Your managers are providing irregular feedback.

Ideally, your managers give just the right amount of feedback. Our recent people management study showed that employees would rather have a manager who provides too much feedback than one who provides too little feedback. If managers aren’t sure what the right amount looks like, teach them to err on the side of “more.”

Most managers have weekly or bi-weekly meetings with their direct reports, but how often are they using that time to deliver and ask for feedback? These meetings are a prime opportunity to communicate what’s been going well and what they need to improve. Employees should know where they stand. Not communicating honest feedback early and often can backfire in a big way.

8. Your managers don’t uphold the values of your organization.

Managers are held to a higher standard than individual contributors, and for good reason. If managers don’t uphold the values of your organization, it sets a poor example for employees to follow. It also creates toxicity in the workplace environment.

Be aware of the dissonance between your corporate values and the actions of your management team. Being tuned in is key to maintaining a healthy workplace and increasing employee engagement.

9. Your managers commiserate with employees.

When an employee comes to complain about something, managers might commiserate to show they understand and sympathize. But there’s a better way to show empathy. Managers need to be taught to say, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. What can we do about it?”

When employees bring their suffering to their managers, managers should teach their teams to disagree and commit. And when employees at all levels of the company trust the organization, they can disagree and commit.

This is something Jeff Bezos talks about a lot. The 13th principle of “The Amazon Way” is:

“Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

If employees disagree without fully committing to the decisions that have been made, they create a toxic workplace.

Toxic workplace

10. It’s evident when managers disagree with a company decision.

In follow up to committing wholly to decisions that are made, it’s important to present a united front. Managers need to serve as the filter for toxicity.

I remember being a new manager and wanting to be liked. My direct reports would come to my office, looking to commiserate about something they didn’t agree with. It was a struggle to strike a balance between understanding where they were coming from and being a leader who commits. Especially when you’re at odds with decisions being made.

This is why companies put “conflict management” in their toolbox. It will inevitably arise when you’re managing people. These management books have been invaluable in my growth as a leader and manager. Leave these on a bookshelf in a common area and make them available to borrow.

11. You’re not coaching and mentoring your direct reports against the values of the organization.

One of the best management tips I can offer is to learn how to coach and mentor people.

Our People Management Study showed us great managers are interested in their employees’ personal and professional growth.

When meeting with your employees, talk to them about your company’s core values. How are they doing in comparison? Which do they need support with? What are their personal goals? What are their professional goals? How can you support them in achieving those goals?

Toxic employees can create toxic work culture.

Not every individual in an organization is in a position of leadership. But there’s an opportunity for self-leadership and taking accountability at a personal level. At PI we believe in the concept of “leaders at every level.”

The following are some ways individuals can contribute to an unhealthy work environment:

12. They’re entitled.

Entitlement often shows up as resentment. Think about employees who were passed up for a role or promotion. If their response was, “Why didn’t I get that promotion?” it’s likely they struggle with entitlement.

The reality is that someone might not be ready yet. Or perhaps they simply weren’t the best fit. If they could put their ego aside, they could talk through how they feel about the situation, then ask the question, “What would it take for me to get there?” Teach employees to respond to failure in a positive way so they can be more resilient. This will set them up for future success.

Cy Wakeman’s book “No Ego” outlines how ego-driven behaviors can cause workplace drama. This leads to disengagement and a toxic work environment. If your employees struggle with resentment or entitlement, I highly recommend giving it a read. She has some great suggestions.

13. They’re not the right fit.

Sometimes employees contribute to workplace toxicity by staying in a role—or at an organization—that’s not the right fit.

If an employee seems checked out they need to consider the following questions:

  • Is your job the right role for you? Does it play to your natural strengths and interests? Does it challenge and motivate you?
  • Is your manager the right manager for you? Does he or she support your personal and professional development? Is your manager self-aware and understanding of your unique needs?
  • Is your team the right team for you? Do your co-workers push you to grow and improve? Do you have healthy conflict and trust?
  • Is the organization aligned with your values?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, this employee might need a change. This could mean you shift them into a new role on the same team, a new role on a different team—or they part ways with the company. Recognizing that one’s role or company isn’t a fit and having the courage to talk about it and act on it should be celebrated.

14. They’re resistant to changes taking place within your organization.

In academia, when we talk about change management, we talk about a concept called “psychological safety.” This is the idea that your team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

In business context, this might look like your organization is adopting a new technology, and your employees feel comfortable jumping in and learning the ropes because they know it’s okay to not be an expert the first time you use a new technology.

Employees who are anxious to learn new skills or adapt to change, likely don’t feel safe to take risks. Edgar Schein’s influential book “Organizing Culture and Leadership” can help you understand and improve psychological safety within your organization.

15. Your employees aren’t honest and forthcoming with others.

We discussed the idea that resentment can come from a sense of entitlement. But it can also come from holding back how you feel about a situation.

In Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” he says the base of successful teamwork is trust. If your employees don’t trust the people they work with it creates a fear of conflict. Employees who fear conflict don’t express disagreement with decisions or policies. Staying silent can fuel bitterness, resentment, and disengagement. In other words, it can fuel toxicity and lead to a hostile workplace environment

If your employees struggle to trust their team, encourage introspection. Ask them: Why don’t you trust your team? What would happen if you spoke up? What are you afraid might happen if you did?

Where does HR fit into workplace toxicity?

Human resources is typically responsible for workplace culture. But it’s important to keep in mind that if core values and the implementation of corporate vision isn’t owned by leadership, it will breed toxicity. This isn’t a job that HR can do alone. 

If you work in human resources and notice that your workplace has become unhealthy, there are things you can do. You can talk to the leadership of your organization about creating or communicating corporate values. You can also empower people within your company to take ownership of embodying those values. Or you can create intentional practices that enforce the values in place. 

You can also screen potential job candidates to ensure they’re aligned with your organization’s values. Make sure anyone you hire for a new job aligns with the kind of culture you’re trying to cultivate.

At the end of the day, we each play a role in contributing to or taking away from a healthy work environment. If your company is not where you’d like it to be, that’s an opportunity to create change within each level of the organization to improve engagement and workplace quality. It starts with a simple awareness of where things are at, digging into why and how they got that way, then taking the action steps above to change course.

Join 10,000 companies solving the most complex people problems with PI.

Hire the right people, inspire their best work, design dream teams, and sustain engagement for the long haul.



Drew is a former SVP of Sales & Marketing at The Predictive Index. He is currently the CEO of Lever Talent, a PI Certified Partner.

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