Toxic Work Culture

I had an article published in the Sunday Business Post on the hidden costs of a toxic workplace. In it, I describe some of the potential strategies that one may like to take if one finds themselves in an unhealthy work climate.

But what makes a workplace “toxic”? What are some of the tell-tale signs to look out for that may indicate your company needs to call poison control? I’ve listed my top seven below!


The Seven Deadly Sins:

1. Exploitative:

In an exploitative culture, there is pressure to be ‘always on’. The more hours you work, the better. The company expects workaholics and may offer little in return. Calls and emails outside of office hours are perfectly acceptable and to be expected. Planning on a holiday? Be prepared for some pushback!

Yes, your workload may consistently involve more work than any human could complete within working hours, but that’s your problem, not the employer’s. Leaders may claim to not expect everyone to be always on, but those same leaders start work at the crack of dawn and send off their last few emails late at night.

The result: burnout. It’s not a sustainable approach.


2. Disrespectful

To state the obvious, people need to feel respected at work. Disrespect is a key attribute which has the biggest negative impact on how employees view their company and is hugely de-motivating. Disrespect can show up in a variety of ways, for example, a lack of courtesy, honesty, and dignity for others.

Watch out for a lack of recognition, rude or discourteous behaviour, or a lack of respect for individual differences, i.e., people being treated differently based on factors such as gender, race, disability, LGBTQ+, age, etc.


3. Chaotic:

In a chaotic company, there are no (or few) clear rules, strategies, or structures. Key indicators are not accurately or reliably measured, there is no data to learn from, so mistakes or setbacks are forgotten rather than used as valuable experiences. Strategy tends to be reactive, rather than proactive.

The job a person interviews for and the job they end up doing may be very different. Employees don’t see how their work contributes to the overall organisational purpose, and have no idea what their career development path might look like, both of which are de-motivators.

This environment leads to confusion, dysfunction, and people not doing their job to the best of their ability.


4. Fear-based:

When we are afraid, we go into fight or flight mode. That’s useful if you’re being chased by a lion, but not so much when you’re at work. In a culture that’s driven by fear, people feel afraid to tell the truth, get something wrong, admit a mistake, or speak up with a new idea. The same few people may dominate meetings.

A lack of safety stifles innovation and progress. In this kind of environment, everyone is in it for themselves, in order to keep themselves safe.

Watch out for a blame culture, i.e. when something goes wrong, the focus is on figuring out who is to blame, rather than what to learn from it. These kinds of fearful cultures breed a “not my problem” attitude, as well as cutthroat, ruthless, or backstabbing behaviour.


5. Cliques

Think back to your teenage years. Do you remember overhearing gossip, trying to fit in, striving to behave in a certain way that your peers deemed acceptable? This kind of environment can be seen in some workplaces. Silos become clear, as people stick with their group and exclude others. Gossip, drama, inappropriate jokes, and exclusion are tolerated. Projects may be offered to a particular group, regardless of ability.

Groupthink is then more likely, meaning that people are not thinking for themselves, don’t come up with novel ideas, don’t speak up if there’s a problem, and may engage in unethical behaviour if that’s deemed to be the norm.


6. Control & Command

A boss has the title, a leader has the people, as Simon Sinek put it. In this culture, there are bosses.

Managers rely on positional power and adopt an authoritarian style, rather than inspiring and motivating employees. You are always going to be reminded of where you stand in the hierarchy. It can result in a lack of accountability, as people defer to the higher-ups.

Expect to see a lot of rules and bureaucracy, needing approval for everything, which leads to very little experimentation or risk-taking.


7. Mediocre

In a culture of mediocrity, there is little emphasis on results. People do not hold themselves or each other accountable. Perhaps there aren’t any definite targets, or if there are, there are no consequences for not achieving them. This kind of culture does not strive for continuous improvement, there are no incentives for going the extra mile or making the company or its offering any better.

You’ll see a lack of passion of enthusiasm from workers. You may also see “rust out” – rather than burnout, employees may feel bored and apathetic because they are not being sufficiently challenged.

So What?

Why should we care about whether or not we are dealing with any of these problems? Ultimately, to let these kinds of cultures grow is bad for business and bad for people.

All the above kinds of cultures will result in higher turnover, and people missing work due to stress, anxiety, and depression. The talent pipeline will likely slow down, as word spreads about the toxic culture. Recent research has found that a toxic work culture is the greatest predictor of attrition – over 10 times more than compensation.

Or, rather than leaving the organisation, you may see people showing up and giving the bare minimum. They simply tick the box, rather than think outside the box. This trend has been called “Quiet Quitting“. The company is then missing out on what they could be achieving if people were instead turning up as engaged, productive, contributing team members.


What you can do – when you’re the leader

For those in a leadership position who can make decisions that influence the culture of your company, it’s essential to consider the longevity of your business and recognise if any of the above signs sound familiar. If so, you are taking big, avoidable risks. Toxic cultures drive up costs in terms of turnover, absenteeism, and potentially legal fees.


1. Overcome defensiveness

The first step is to overcome any defensiveness you may feel. It’s normal to believe it’s someone else’s fault or responsibility, or that things will never change, but this is not the most effective approach. It is not your sole responsibility, but you are responsible.

The best leaders can be humble, acknowledge that there’s always room for improvement, and accept responsibility for faults without it being debilitating to their confidence.


2. Show Respect 

To state the obvious, people need to feel respected in work. Watch out (in your own behaviour and of others) for rude or discourteous behaviour, lack of recognition, or lack of respect for individual differences, i.e., people being treated differently based on factors such as gender, race, disability, LGBTQ+, age, etc.


3. Clarify and communicate codes of conduct

Clarify what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and the consequences, and then uphold those standards consistently. These codes of conduct could be developed in a team brainstorming session, or an anonymous online survey, so that you can listen to what staff are saying is most important. Developing listening skills is key to better leadership, and is something we can all work on.

A common mistake is to put these codes of conduct in a lengthy employee handbook and expect employees to take time out of their busy days to read cover to cover. Try to think of better ways to communicate these messages to make them accessible and interesting to all, both through synchronous communication (e.g. team meetings) or asynchronous communication (e.g. short videos or podcasts).


4. Walk the Walk

A leader must walk the talk. Telling staff you don’t expect them to be always working might not have much impact if you consistently start work at the crack of dawn and send off your last emails late at night.


What you can do – when you’re an employee

1. Raise your game 

Don’t stoop to their level. Manage your fight or flight response, e.g. with grounding techniques, or by taking a short break when you feel yourself becoming angered or upset. Try to decide how you want to be seen by others and the kind of impact you would like to have in your workplace.


2. Pay attention to what’s within your control

Try to focus your energy on how you think about and respond to situations, or focus on decisions you have influence over. Like swimming against a rip current, it can be exhausting and pointless to fight against something you have no control over. That doesn’t mean accepting everything, but recognising where you’re spending your energy. Manage your language and attention to remind yourself of the power you do hold.


3. Speak up, provide feedback

In toxic cultures, opinions are often stifled, or you may feel afraid to speak up. However, when possible, provide feedback in employee surveys or 1:1s with your manager. They may not be fully aware of the extent of the problem and are more likely to make changes than if you stay silent.


4. Find allies

Seek out allies within your workplace. Building positive relationships can help you feel less alone when dealing with challenges.

For those that you don’t get along with, remind yourself that most people don’t wake up wanting to be difficult or nasty. Building connection through empathy, reminding yourself that they are human with feelings and wants just like you, can help you work more effectively with them.

It can be difficult to show someone empathy when you strongly disagree with them or you don’t get along with them, or when they don’t treat you well. But, it can help you achieve better results and can sometimes make your life easier, as you could then gain a reputation for being someone who’s respectful and easy to work with. It ties in with the first point about not stooping to the level of toxic employees.


5. Create a paper trail

In case things do need to be escalated, or if promises are broken, it can be a good practice to create a paper trail, so that it’s not purely down to verbal or tacit agreements.

Just a quick email to follow up on a call and confirm what was discussed could save you hassle in the future.


6. Assess what the job provides for you

If all else fails, the best solution may be to remove yourself from the company or team – which can take a lot of courage.

Often, people feel they need the security that the job provides. However, no job can really provide complete security, especially not a toxic workplace. People also tend to believe that it will be the same in every workplace, but increasingly companies are realising the importance of a healthy culture and workforce, and are making efforts to improve working conditions.


It can be a financial risk to leave a job, but it can be a health risk to stay in a toxic culture for too long. It’s important to assess what the job provides for you, and make a decision to thrive rather than just survive.



What we do?

Jigsaw Better Business work with organisations to develop an “Organisational Growth Mindset”.  Our clients are successful businesses, and we work with them to harness their existing strengths & talents to drive improvement.  We measure, assess, and develop the people and processes in your organisation.

Our culture and climate assessment and development complements Lean initiatives and have an exponential effect on their impact and sustainability.

Get in touch with organisational psychologist Julie O’Sullivan who can support you in defining and improving your company’s or team’s culture.


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