If you look at teams that are happy, engaged, and doing their best work, they typically have one thing in common—they work in a healthy and supportive work environment.
But the opposite is also true, and a toxic work culture can not only cause serious issues for your team—but serious issues for your business.
“Morale tends to be lower in these sorts of [toxic] environments—and less engaged employees tend to produce lower-quality work,” says corporate psychologist Patricia Thompson PhD, President of executive coaching and organizational consultancy Silver Lining Psychology. “Further, if the culture is toxic, employees will be more prone to quit, which creates an increased need for constantly finding and training new staff.”
How To Identify And Solve Common Toxic Workplace Traits
So, if you want your team (and business!) to thrive, you need to not only recognize signs that your work culture is inching into toxic territory—but also correct those signs before they cause serious problems.
But what are the signs of a toxic work culture you need to be on the lookout for—and if you see those signs within your organization, what steps do you need to take to fix them and get your culture back on track?
Employees Are In Constant Conflict
Every team has occasional conflict or disagreements; it’s part of working collaboratively. But if those conflicts are constant—or particularly mean-spirited—it could be a red flag that the work environment has gone toxic.
“You know you have a toxic work culture when there are consistent acrimonious, antagonistic, and suspicious feelings among coworkers,” says Scott Dust, PhD, Professor of Management at Miami University in Ohio.
All that conflict can make it harder for teams to collaborate—and make it harder to move forward on team and organizational goals.
“If the environment is overly competitive, and people are not willing to work collaboratively with one another, it will be a lot harder to get things done, as coordination and communication will suffer,” says Thompson.
And it’s not just the lack of collaboration that can cause issues. When there’s constant conflict within teams, team members can get to the point where they’re more invested in the drama than the work—which can cause productivity to plummet.
“If people don’t trust...each other, there’s likely to be unnecessary energy spent on office politics, instead of the work at hand,” says Thompson. “There is reduced alignment and collaboration, because people will be more prone to look out for what’s best for themselves, as opposed to thinking about the company as a whole. This can create a lot of blame and finger-pointing, which can cause there to be more of a focus on interpersonal difficulties than on tackling business problems and goals in a team-oriented manner.”
How To Fix It:
There are a number of reasons why your team may be in constant conflict—so, before you can correct the issue, you need to identify what’s causing the perpetual problem.
Spend some time observing and interacting with your team to see where, how, and why conflict arises; once you know the source of the conflict, you can figure out the best way to correct it—and make your team culture less toxic.
For example, you may find the main source of conflict is that your team has trouble agreeing on what to do and how to do it. In that case, setting clear expectations—for example, developing processes around workflows and making sure all team members are clear on who is responsible for what at the onset of a project—can help to resolve conflict.
Or you may find that two employees have a major personality clash, and their conflict is affecting their coworkers—in which case, you could assign those employees to separate projects, minimizing the amount of time they need to work together (and minimizing the impact their conflict has on the rest of the team).
The more time you spend with your team, the better you’ll be able to pinpoint the source of conflict—and the better you’ll be able to manage it.
Results Are Valued More Than People
Producing results is an important part of running a sustainable business. But when those results come at the expense of the team—for example, by forcing your team to work unrealistic schedules in order to hit a quarterly goal—it’s definitely a sign of a toxic work culture.
“Obviously, it is important for businesses to put an emphasis on outcomes, so they can be profitable and stay in business,” says Thompson. “Still, if there is little attention paid to the well-being of employees, it can be a recipe for low engagement, burnout, and turnover.”
How To Fix It:
If you realize your culture is too results-oriented, it’s important to take steps to bring things back into balance—and make sure you’re taking care of your team as they work towards those results.
“If the culture skews too much towards results at the expense of people, then you’ll need to work to create a more appropriate balance,” says Thompson. “Whether it’s being more intentional about empowering employees, providing more recognition, ensuring expectations are reasonable, or helping leaders to develop emotional intelligence, making sure that there is adequate focus on relationships and emotional factors is critical for having a culture that performs on a high level with respect to tasks and people.”
A Lack Of Psychological Safety
One of the most straightforward signs of a toxic work culture? Employees are afraid to speak their mind, make mistakes, or be authentic—or, in other words, a lack of psychological safety.
“In a toxic culture, employees often feel that they don’t have a voice and that they are punished for raising concerns,” says Thompson. “This can lead to inefficiency, as problems will be less likely to come to light. They are also punished for making honest mistakes, which can cause them to hide them—[and] can create bigger problems in the future.”
When your team is scared to speak their mind or make mistakes, innovation is impossible, which can make your organization less competitive. Plus, if employees feel like they can’t speak up or try new things at work without the fear of repercussions, eventually, they’re going to get sick of walking on eggshells—and bring their voice and ideas elsewhere.
How To Fix It:
If you want your team to feel safe and comfortable at work, you need to foster an environment that supports that safety and comfort.
For example, ask your team for feedback on ways you can better support them—and when they share honest feedback, listen, support, and celebrate those ideas (even if they’re challenging to hear).
Schedule a monthly “mistakes” meeting, where employees can talk about any mistakes they made over the previous month, what they learned, and how those mistakes can support the growth and evolution of the team. And make sure that you’re the one kicking off those meetings; as a leader, sharing your own mistakes can be a powerful way to make your team feel safe and comfortable doing the same!
“Leaders need to be in the ‘people growth business’ and create a safe culture where people feel validated and [that] their ideas are appreciated,” says Randall P. White, PhD, founding partner of organizational and leadership development consultancy Executive Development Group.
If you want to repair a toxic work culture, it’s not enough to just address toxicity at a cultural or organizational level; you also need to address it at an individual level.
Toxic employees can cause “a ripple effect throughout the organization,” says Dust. For example, a toxic employee that spreads gossip can cause conflict within teams—and can ultimately make other employees so uncomfortable at work, they may start looking for other opportunities. Or a toxic employee with a negative attitude can spread that attitude to their immediate coworkers—dragging down morale (and productivity) for the entire team.
How To Fix It:
“The first step is to talk to them about their behavior,” says Thompson. “Be specific about how it is at odds with the culture, and provide examples of the behavior,” says Thompson. “Help them to create a development goal related to the behavior, along with action steps that they will take to address it.”
For example, let’s say an employee has a seriously negative attitude—and it’s starting to negatively impact the rest of the team. You might schedule a 1:1 and let them know how their negativity is impacting the workplace—and help them brainstorm ways to bring more positivity to work.
It’s also important to examine how your work culture might be influencing the employee’s behavior. “A toxic environment can cause good people to act in toxic ways,” says White. So, as you’re talking to your employee, be on the lookout for any culture issues that may be impacting their behavior. For example, if their supervisor has unrealistic expectations around their workload (and they’re having to work nights and weekends in order to get through their tasks), their argumentativeness could be a result of overwork and burnout—which is an issue that needs to be addressed at the organizational level as much as the individual.
If you give an employee the opportunity and support to address and change toxic behaviors—and they refuse to change—you may need to take more drastic action to prevent them from influencing other team members.
“If the employee’s behavior doesn’t change across time, you will likely need to transition them out of the organization,” says Thompson. “If you allow toxic behavior to continue, other employees will assume that the organization tolerates it. That is not the message that you want to send.”
Concerned that your work culture has crossed the line into toxic territory? Then you’ll need to take a good, hard look at your leadership.
“Culture starts at the top,” says Dust. So, if leadership has toxic behaviors and attitudes, those behaviors and attitudes are going to trickle down to the rest of the organization and boom—before you know it, you’ve got a toxic work culture on your hands.
For example, let’s say you have a leader within your organization that raises their voice at people when they’re having a big day. Not only will that yelling make for an uncomfortable work environment, but managers will get the message that yelling is an acceptable behavior—and will be more likely to yell at their team as a result.
How To Fix It:
As mentioned, culture starts at the top—so if you want to shift your work culture from toxic to healthy, that change needs to start with leadership.
“Leaders have to live up to the culture they want to create,” says White.
As a leader, think about what ways you want your culture to change—and start modeling that behavior with your team. So, for example, if you worry that your culture has become too negative to support your team’s best work, make a commitment to show up at work with a positive attitude every day.
If you notice your team is working around the clock (and quickly approaching burnout as a result), set a firm end time each day—and then respect that end time by not messaging your employees, sending them emails, or asking them to work during off-hours.
The point is, leaders shape work culture—so if you want to change a toxic work culture, changing any toxic leadership behaviors or attitudes is a good place to start.
Stay Ahead Of Toxicity In Your Work Environment
These strategies will help you identify and address any toxicity in your work environment and get your culture back on track—which is a crucial part of sustaining a healthy, supportive work culture.
But that’s not all you need to do to keep a toxic work culture at bay! Reacting to—and correcting—signs of a toxic work culture is only one part of the equation. If you really want the kind of culture where employees (and, as a result, the organization) thrive, you need to be proactive in building that culture from the get-go.
“Organizations tend to wait until things get bad to make corrections—but by then, it’s too late,” says Dust. “Organizations need to be proactive in managing their culture, because it takes a significant amount of time and resources to fix something that’s broken.”
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