The Early Warning Signs of a Toxic Workplace Culture

Posted by Gemma Glover on Nov 17, 2021 10:13:52 AM
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What makes a workplace culture toxic and not just imperfect? 

Is it deeply ingrained problems everywhere you look, a company riddled from top to bottom? A siloed team closing ranks? Or can it be subtle and infrequent? A vague nod to a troubling road ahead. 

When it comes to the word ‘toxic’, the first thing your mind will probably jump to is an early 2000’s Britney Spears (be honest you sang the song in your head too didn’t you)? But if we look at its true meaning, ‘Toxic’, as defined by Merriam-Webster (online dictionary) is, ‘containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation.’ 

Translating this to the workplace, our definition is that toxic is anything that’s damaging to people and business. This can span across harmful practices, omissions and behaviours. And, as Britney expresses in her song, damaging personality types and rituals can even come across as charming and compelling - the underlying agenda and ultimate impact isn’t always obvious. 

In this blog, we’re going to focus on the individual experience of a potential toxic workplace. But don’t worry, plans are afoot for a sister blog exploring this subject from the perspective of leaders too. 

So let’s get familiar with some of the early weeds you need to look out for which can be difficult to detect. Things which, if left to their own devices, may naturally snuff themselves out or grow deep rooted and sinister. 

It’s time to do some gardening…

Welcome to the echo chamber

We love it when people agree with us, when they reinforce our opinions and tell us how brilliant we are. It’s validating and it feels good. So it can be tempting to surround ourselves with relentless cheerleaders and promote carbon copies of ourselves (be it the way we look, act or think). This preference, when combined with unconscious bias, can be very bad news for diversity. And when everyone thinks the same, tunnel vision sets in. This can mean a lack of representation and stifled new ideas and fresh perspectives; all things which help businesses grow. 

Warning signs: hiring practices which don’t provide equal opportunities. No introspection, particularly regarding diversity and inclusion or policies to support. Impenetrable cliques. Difference is viewed as a threat or the benefits aren’t recognised.

Introducing the dark triad

This delightful triangle represents three of the most toxic personality types: narcissism, machiavellian and psychopathy. You can read about the specific traits of each here, but at a high-level, they can appear confident and charismatic, lack empathy and seek power (which is why you often find them in leadership positions). If you work with anyone, or god forbid a number of individuals, who manipulate and deceive to get what they want, and also run the show, it might be time for pastures new. 

A healthy culture often starts at the top with leaders as ambassadors. But if you’re battling a whole different deluge, one of passive or direct aggression and self-serving values and it’s taking a toll, ‘winning’ here probably means walking away and protecting yourself

Warning signs: duplicitous characters; people who change significantly depending on who they’re talking to. The feeling that there’s a hidden agenda and you’re being coerced. Big, relentless egos. 

No comments welcome

An environment where individuals are reluctant or even fearful to challenge the status quo is a red flag. This reticence may be due to a previous negative response or the prevailing feeling that change is the enemy. Either way, if some people shy away from contributing to or debating ideas, and it’s down to the culture at play, your organisation might really struggle when it comes to evolving and adapting down the line.

Leaders might also view feedback as a tick-box exercise and hold up leaver’s questionnaires and the annual anonymous engagement survey as ‘proof’ they’re really listening. The true indicator is what happens once the data lands. Are leaders genuinely interested, open and responsive? Do they communicate an action plan? Don’t get us wrong, it’s typically not feasible (nor advisable) for a company to strain to meet the needs and preferences of every employee, but if there’s no appetite or opportunity for conversation, that’s a serious problem

Warning signs: the same areas of improvement crop up without fail every year only to go unaddressed once again. A distinct lack of questions (or opportunity to ask them) during meetings. Suggestions are ridiculed or met with silence. 

On your marks, get set, go!

How are you encouraged to see your colleagues? As peers? Friends? Competition? Threats? Whilst a company doesn’t explicitly control your work relationships, ‘toxic architecture’ can contribute to culture and set the tone in a number of ways. A big one is how performance is managed - there are plenty of large organisations which annually place employees on a rating scale where each level has a fixed quotient. In other words, there can only be a certain number of ‘high’ performers and by design, there will always be ‘low’ performers. What constitutes ‘high’ and ‘low’ differs with every iteration as it’s all about comparison, how good you are compared with others in that year. In this set-up, pitted against your team, it can be difficult to nurture collaboration and support alongside. 

Warning signs: management commonly ask how you think you measure up to your colleagues or they refer to them as examples and benchmarks. Things get very intense and uncomfortable as performance reviews draw near, with plenty of strategies employed (and allowed) in order to get the upper hand. There are clear favourites, unrelated to performance. Poor behaviour which results in someone getting ahead, is rewarded. 

Above and beyond

Is this something you hear so often that it’s just the expected standard? If beneath the compliments of ‘dedicated’ and ‘committed’ there’s just a lot of people with no work/life balance, drowning in unpaid overtime, toxic expectations might be the issue. Going the extra mile when it’s warranted (to help out etc.), and stepping up the effort when it counts are perfectly understandable, when it’s recognised, mutually beneficial or short-term (ideally all three). But once it’s the culture and expected, it’s time to rethink the boundaries. What impact is this having on you mentally and physically and does this matter to your employer? If ‘burnout’ is the flavour of the day at your company and no one’s fight or flight time.

Warning signs: a lot of focus on perception such as being told to work late to impress certain people. The assumption that you’ll sacrifice your time and energy without question and schedule your life around work. The use of the word ‘family’ to cover up poor practice and unfair requests.

What can you do about a toxic work culture?

If you think you’re dealing with a toxic work culture (of any variety) here are three things you can do next:

1. Reflect and consult

Time away from the situation is important when trying to figure out your thoughts, especially when you’re see-sawing on what to do (if anything). Toxicity can be in the eye of the beholder but if your gut is telling you something’s not right, why not talk it over with family, good friends, or even helplines such as Citizens Advice Bureau and ACAS for a second opinion. You can also get informed on your rights (if it comes to it)

2. Diagnose the root cause

Try and work out exactly where the problem stems from - is it the behaviour of one individual, the approach of the entire leadership team, a start-up with expected teething problems? Maybe there are several troubling things, but try and pin them down. Then work backwards from the problem - what are the possible solutions and avenues available to you? Perhaps you’re at the point where a gentle nudge is needed, like an honest comment in an engagement survey or an informal chat with colleagues. If it’s more serious, you could consider a meeting with your HR team, raising concerns with your manager or escalating the issue, in line with company procedure. Before this, it’s worth seeing if your organisation has a Whistleblower policy - particularly if you’re witness to wrongdoing (also read up on Gov guidance here.) 

3. Exit strategy

Regardless of how many people agree with you or how seemingly easy the answer is, it’s always an option to walk away. We can often feel that showing courage means battling, relentlessly standing up for yourself or wanting to stay around to protect others. But as an individual you get to decide what feels comfortable, professional and healthy and when it’s time for self-preservation. That can actually be the strongest move. So if you’re regularly not enjoying work, for whatever reason, consider what ‘good’ looks like for you and make a roadmap to pastures new. Look out for symptoms of physical and mental stress (our bodies are pretty good at showing us when we’re really struggling) such as rashes, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, substance reliance and mood swings). Put yourself first.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.” Steve Jobs

Is it time to upskill your employees in soft skills and create an awesome workplace culture? Speak to Gemma about our large course collection spanning emotional intelligence, coaching, conflict management, unconscious bias, and much more.

Topics: Learner Engagement