In 2018, Oxford Dictionary made toxic its word of the year. Toxic work environment, toxic culture, and toxic relationship were among the top ten ‘toxic’ collocates that year.
Business executives, managers, and disengaged employees can all create toxicity. Spotting a toxic workplace can be simple, not only from within, but outside. We don’t have to examine turnover statistics, reports, or interview anyone to know Donald Trump’s White House was a super toxic environment. Here are a few signs of a toxic workplace:
- Lack of articulated and lived core values
- Procedures, practices, and decisions made situationally
- Poor communication
- Disengaged employees
Lack of Articulated and Lived Core Values
Leadership is advancing others, not promoting self. Leaders set the tone and create safe workplaces. Leaders set and live core values.
Values are our default position, our North Star. Doing what’s right, period! Values include respect for individuals and families, trust, integrity, transparency, caring, rigor, good stewardship, and accountability.
Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau’s actions showed no ethical guiding principles or core values. Trump pressured his loyal vice president—among others—to overturn certified election results. Trudeau pressured his attorney general to cover up his conflict of interest. Both acted in their best interests. Neither suffered legal consequences; thus, their message to compatriots: Core values are not beacons for decisions. The end justifies the means.
Without consistent application of ethical guiding principles and core values, leaders ignore trust, integrity, caring, good stewardship, and accountability in favor of a particular outcome—a basis for a toxic culture.
Procedures Practices Decisions Made Situationally
Align procedures and practices with core values. Hire people of character and train, develop, and empower them. Accept mistakes as they grow and learn. Don’t micromanage or rebuke them for learning curve blunders; use them to teach and learn.
Values should include providing a safe environment. Don’t compromise and “cut costs” associated with core values, like safety, to “save” money when times get tough. Do what’s right and bear the costs!
When leaders and managers create procedures and practices contrary to core values, they confuse, frustrate, and cause disgruntled employees. Employees become fearful, accidents occur, rumors abound as toxicity creeps in. Value statements need consistent decisions to affirm them.
Leaders build trust by action. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines trust, the foundation of good communications, as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.” Telling an employee eleven months later about poor performance doesn’t help. Regular feedback shows care and a desire to listen, learn, and help the employee succeed. Employees need positive and negative feedback; positive feedback alone is as bad as none.
Practice the TAP Principle:
Be transparent: what you see is who I am, which fits with core values.
Be approachable: effective managers and leaders listen, ask questions, and encourage.
Be predictable: apply core values always. If you see an error which lowered costs by $100,000. Fix it because that’s the right thing to do.
When the workforce see core values applied consistently, they know who you are and what you believe in practice.
Leaders must respond to employees’ legitimate issues. Share company performance with the workforce. Give them a chance to ask questions about the business, and share their challenges.
According to Gallup, the number one reason people change jobs today is for career growth opportunities. Yet, most firms do not engage employees.
Worldwide, 85% of employees are disengaged versus 65% in the U.S.. Disengaged employees gossip and spread rumors, which breed toxicity, lowers productivity and increases turnover. Any wonder the average length of service of U.S. employees is 4.2 years; 2.8 years for a millennials, the largest generation in the workforce!
How Employees Should Respond to a Toxic Boss
One size doesn’t fit all. Dealing with a boss with a toxic attitude depends on the situation. Is she a micromanager, a bully, an ignorant and arrogant talker? Let’s look at micromanagers:
Stay one step ahead: feed them with project updates. Don’t wait for requests.
Be proactive: provide solutions to improve processes and effectiveness.
When their projects swamp you, ask for priorities. Tell them you can carry out their requests, but as you have limited time, you need to set priorities.
Ask questions; playback what you grasped.
Clarify team members’ roles and responsibilities. Micromanagers want to meet your direct reports alone; be present when they meet your staff.
Understand your results will never satisfy them; they want their way.
Focus on what you control. Ensure you have a solid red line you will not allow them to cross—ever.
Form alliances with like-minded colleagues. When micromanagers get what they want, they might trust you.
Not everyone will work with micromanagers. Don’t stay, grumble, and accept “this is the only way.” Find a channel to present the toxic situation.
Don’t accept abuse. Seek help; but don’t allow them to cross your red line.
How to Manage a Team Consumed by Toxicity
This situation should be easier to fix because the basis for a healthy workplace exists at the leadership level. It needs effective intervention to learn the issues:
Unclear goals: Common goals foster cohesiveness and lowers conflicts. Clear team member roles and team goals help combat toxicity.
Lack of trust: Trust in the leader and one another is the glue in a team. People work better in a supportive, trusting environment.
Poor team leadership: Listen, encourage, and resource the team. Be authentic, humble, and fair.
Lack of recognition: Thank team members for everyday tasks; engage with team members often. Give credit when things go right; accept blame when they go wrong,.
Ensure everyone is on the same page. Inspire, motivate, and reassure team members.
Sometimes one person won’t get with the program. Delve deep to find out the cause. Is something happening at home? Often, the employee has valid concerns she won’t discuss because she doesn’t trust you. Maybe the team member needs reassignment to workout her issues. Provide funding for counseling, if needed.
A toxic work environment is harmful to your health. Seek professional help if you feel trapped in your position. But set a red line and don’t allow anyone to cross it. Beware: effects of your toxic workplace will spill over to your home, marriage, and family.
A toxic workplace will cause burn-out at any level. No organization is immune. Toxicity infects businesses, government, charities, and churches. Learn symptoms, identify them early, and work to change the culture. Though some creators of toxicity won’t change, try to help them even if they must leave the organization.
By Michel A. Bell
About the author: Michel A. Bell is an author, speaker, adjunct professor of business administration at Briercrest College, and founder and president of Managing God’s Money, a mission devoted to providing free Christian financial and biblical stewardship advice.