Let’s be real: work can be tough. It could be manual labor that fatigues the body or taxing mental work. I never cease to be amazed at the conditions that humans can work in. From ship-breaking in the port town of Alang, India, to assembly-line work or coal mining in the United States, some jobs are truly arduous. It’s a testament to the human spirit that we endure what we must.
But what nobody needs is a toxic working environment. A toxic environment will make any job, no matter how difficult, an absolute grind to endure. A fellow workplace consultant and I were musing about how amazing it is that in every industry and every company there are employees who are miserable, no matter what the sector. Whether an organization is large or small, public or private, or whether the employees are white-collar or blue-collar, there’s always a possibility that the conditions at work will be bad for some employees.
Toxic workplaces aren’t just miserable for the workers, they are super expensive for employers and the economy at large. Mostly due to turnover and retraining, toxic workplace culture is estimated to have cost a cumulative $223 billion over the past 5 years. That cost comes straight out of the bottom line of businesses small and large.
What causes toxic workplace culture, and what remedies are there for a negative working environment?
In this article, I address just that question. First, I use a helpful analogy to describe how workplaces can become toxic and to illustrate just how careful senior leaders need to be in leading their organizations for success. Next, I address the four most common (and powerful) causes of toxic workplace culture. In so doing, I point out the signs and symptoms of each cause and also begin to suggest a path toward solving these chronic leadership issues.
How toxic workplace culture begins in the first place: the frog analogy
There’s an old fable, once believed true, that goes like this:
If you take a frog and place it directly into a pot of boiling water, it’ll hop right out. But, if you put a frog in comfortable water and slowly raise the temperature, it’ll die before it knows what hit it.
While this fable is a bit gruesome, it provides a profound lesson for understanding human thriving at work. Let me explain.
Humans are tough, resilient creatures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the various ways we work. Workers perform jobs as diverse as shoveling coal or crabbing on the Bering sea, reading research for 16 hours a day, or selling stock options over the phone. No matter the conditions, you will find workers thriving in all kinds of extreme settings. Work is a testament to the endurance and strength of the human body and spirit.
And, unfortunately, there are just as many workplaces where humans suffer and feel miserable. In fact, worker satisfaction polls suggest that, at best, about 50% of workers are satisfied in their job—leaving another 50% unsatisfied. The stress and unease that comes with dissatisfaction at work can be seen in our bodies. Diseases like chronic pain, diabetes, heart failure, and obesity can often be traced back to job-related stress and dis-ease. In my work as an organizational development consultant, I often see workers and leaders at their worst. More often than not, people only call me when things aren’t going well in their company.
The symptoms of workplace disease vary. Sometimes it’s as simple as a leader “feeling like my team just isn’t working well together.” Other times leaders experience recurring feedback reports where employees say, “My boss doesn’t understand me, and I can’t tell if they value my work.” Each of these symptoms can be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dangerous workplace dynamics.
Before I accept my clients, I ask them, “How long can your organization go on like this without intervention?” The answer is almost always less than 6 months. People are desperate, and they don’t understand when, where, or how things stopped working.
I call this the “boiled frog” problem. Somehow, without realizing it, the organization I work with discovers they’re in boiling water. It creeps up on them slowly, and they are so deep in it that they can’t see where it came from or how to get out.
These companies are like a pot of water brought slowly to a boil, and all their employees are like the scalded frogs. Their business was running smoothly until one day, it stopped.
Unlike frogs, however, we humans can learn to adjust the metaphorical temperature. The critical step is to begin identifying the heat source.
The top four causes of toxic workplace culture, their accompanying symptoms, and solutions
A new study just came out in the MIT Sloan Business Review that confirms what I’ve known in my heart for decades.
Let me tell you the story.
The team of researchers behind this paper set out to ask a straightforward question: “what’s driving people to leave their companies?”
To answer this question they turned to publicly accessible databases of customer reviews (like Glassdoor) for about 600 companies across 39 industries.
They used this massive database of reviews as data in a robust textual analysis. Basically, they were able to ask, “in their own words, why do people leave their companies?”
This kind of research is super cool because it’s one of the few ways of really capturing wide-sweeping truths about what workers experience. (One limitation of this research is that the average company size was 60,000 employees—but more on that in a minute).
They found that the single most significant factor capable of predicting whether an employee would leave their company was toxic culture. The toxic culture was over ten times more predictive of attrition than compensation.
People care more about what it feels like to go to work than they do about their salary.
But this answer wasn’t enough for the researchers.
They wanted to know what differentiates an annoying or bothersome culture from a toxic one. I mean, we all moan and complain about work sometimes, right?
But what is it that tips the scales into toxicity?
Here’s what they came up with, ranked in order of its impact on the level of toxicity:
- Unethical behavior
- Cut-throat – “when people are going out of their way to undermine one another, and that leads to a very negative review.”
- Abusive managers
Now, while this research is super affirming and should truly underscore the importance of paying attention to culture for any leader, it doesn’t do much to explain how leaders should deal with culture in their organizations.
It’s like, “great. I don’t want a toxic culture. But what might I be doing that’s creating toxicity and what can I do about it?”
There are four mistakes I see People Leaders make that contribute to creating a toxic culture. I’ve even outlined how each mistake relates to one of the five elements of toxicity uncovered in this new recent research.
As you read through the list, ask yourself:
- Do I know what this is like, either in a previous role or currently?
- Do I see this playing out in front of me now?
And don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging having identified all the pain points at work. Further down, I’ll share more about how to begin cooling things down and how to heal or reduce toxicity in your workplace.
How overdependence on technology and unrealistic communication expectations break down workplace culture
How to tell if there’s flawed communication at your work
- People are burning out
- Employees come in early or stay late–without getting paid for that time
- There are unhealthy standards like sending emails at 5 am
- You’re constantly interrupted during your “off time” with work
Why is technology destroying healthy workplace communication?
How we communicate at work determines so much about the felt experience of a workplace. But when we don’t communicate well it’s easy to mistakenly disrespect our peers or direct reports.
We’re always connected. We carry our devices on our bodies and access them every few minutes.
Work is always ready to find us, and we’re always willing to work. Every ping and buzz urges us to respond. While there’s a lot about this that’s good–it enables us to work anywhere, anytime; it speeds up our capacity to communicate so we can solve problems faster; it connects us globally, so we can have strong teams built with all the right people–there’s also something pernicious about always being able to work.
I’ll tell myself I’m failing as a leader if I am inaccessible to my team.
Constant communication can make every small thing feel like a fire alarm. When everything is a top priority, there’s no room to actually sift through information overload and find what is most meaningful to your business.
How to fix your organization’s communication
Make sure everybody is getting adequate and sufficient rest
Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong’s trainer, revolutionized endurance training by incorporating rest. Athletes can’t always improve. Their bodies need time to rebuild and recover. The same applies to the rest of us.
Our brains and bodies need time to rest, recover, and think. Modern workplaces, with their frenetic pace, leave little time for simply thinking.
People Leaders resist the urge to overdo. They put aside time for themselves and their people to consider things, respond, analyze, and think. When that happens, the quality of ideas improves, people contribute more, and results increase.
Set clear boundaries around working hours
Set clear boundaries for yourself and outline meaningful expectations for you and your team. If you’re often writing emails at 4, 5, or 6 in the morning (or late at night), consider using your email service’s “send later” function to send the email at a more appropriate time. At the very least, make it clear that just because you work certain hours does not mean everyone in the company should. Ask yourself, how much screen time is too much?
An important aside is to address comparison. A culture rife with comparison can often also be flush with scarcity. Scarcity is a sneaky mindset that paints the whole world under a coat of insufficiency. I don’t work hard enough. I don’t create enough. I don’t earn enough. Without thinking, it can be easy to run a negative script in the background all of the time. These negative messages only serve to perpetuate a scarce reality. Be courageous, look inside yourself, and ask yourself, am I enough? And the answer here is about you. In your own heart, are you enough?
Foster resilience in your organization
Physicists define resilience as the power of a material to resume its original shape or position after compression. Steel has high resilience, which is why it’s used to build bridges and skyscrapers that need to be strong and withstand powerful winds without breaking. Skyscrapers dance in the wind like trees. Without the resilience inherent in the steel, these structures would crumble and fall. Like steel, humans are strong. We work hard. For hours we’ll labor pulling crabs from the Bering sea or hunched over a desk all day long. But, like steel, we need to be able to bend a little bit so that we can bounce back from the tidal waves of life that press on us. More like trees than steel, humans grow and develop throughout their lives. In fact, resilience is a learnable skill. Research has shown again and again that with correct practice, we can get more resilient.
Humans develop their resilience by learning to respond appropriately to active stressors. One excellent model for doing so is Emily Nogaski & Amelia Nagoski’s best-selling book, Burnout. Drawing on outstanding research, the Nagoskis outline the qualities that make people resilient. It’s a short book and a fun read that I highly recommend.
The issue with lack of inclusion at work
Following George Floyd’s murder, it felt like every company everywhere was verbally and publicly committing to end racism and racialized oppression and violence. But how many orgs actually did anything? Is anyone still saying these things? Very few have kept their focus on long-term culture change beyond the easy act of publishing a glossy public statement. Trust me: for the people in your organization, this dissonance between what you say you value and what you show you value is highly pronounced.
How to tell that your workplace isn’t inclusive
- Underreporting of discrimination and harassment.
- Tone-deaf deliverables (or even values).
- Blind structures (schedules that don’t accommodate diverse needs, buildings that are hard to access, etc.).
Why does inclusion matter at work?
The causes of inadequate inclusion at work can seem difficult to pin down. Whether it’s a long-standing and deeply entrenched cultural and systemic bias that devalues the life and work of people of color, women, non-binary or LGBTQIA2+ folk, or differently-abled people, many forces come to bear on how workplaces decide (or, more often, don’t decide) who to include in their workforce. Regardless, the fact is that outsider groups continue to lag behind white men in their wages, power, and authority in almost every sector, despite the increase in their representation in the workplace. What’s more, that ‘insider’ group’s state is quite precarious. As a cohort, white men exhibit high rates of suicide, addiction, and alienation and being the majority of perpetrators of mass gun violence.
The demographics of our work worlds are changing fast. The workforce is aging and will continue to do so; it’s also becoming more diverse and, overall, more educated. It’s been shown repeatedly that diversity is a competitive advantage, allowing companies to have diverse minds working to solve complex problems. In other words, diversity is a good thing. Despite this, inclusion still stymies us at work. Women, people of color, LGBTQIA2+, people with disabilities, and other outsider groups continue to lag behind white men in their wages, power, and authority in almost every sector, despite the increase in their representation in the workplace.
In addition, the state of white men as a group is precarious. They exhibit high rates of suicide, addiction, and alienation and are the majority of perpetrators of mass gun violence. We need a new way to talk about inclusion in a way that leads to practicing inclusion, which honors and benefits everyone. White men, who are typically outside of diversity and inclusion conversations, must be invited to learn, contribute, and benefit from the exploration of how limiting systemic advantages to one group has created inequities at work that we can (and must) change. Bravespace workplaces are ones in which race, gender, sexual orientation, and other things that make us both different and the same are discussed. Leaders of these workplaces eschew political correctness by tackling the tough issues that continue to stratify our society at home and at work.
How to make your workplace more inclusive
Teach courage and belonging
One of the realities of business is that we swim against long-standing currents of bias, prejudice, and inequity. Racism, sexism, ableism, ageism—these buzzwords of political correctness nonetheless name essential and genuine forces. It’s not about one person acting “racist” or “being a racist”; rather, the -isms as a group serve to name hierarchies within the category of the “human”, such that different sub-categories receive partial or limited access to the “default” categories—white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male. These structures are systemic and overlay any individual’s actions—indeed, isolated acts of violence are atrocious, but they must be seen as waves in an ocean. Changing the tides of oppression requires courage to speak against the so-called “norm” to learn to create cultures of true belonging. Cultures of belonging recognize the histories of oppression and outline practices, norms, and expectations that properly account for the past and the future.
Encourage and practice self-awareness
While the -isms are more than any individual action, they nonetheless show up in individuals. Often beyond our awareness, we value people differently or make snap judgments based upon oppressive histories. When you see a filthy man walking down the street, do you turn the other way? What if he’s black? What if he’s wearing make-up and a dress? What if he’s a she? If you’re like most people, you won’t start yelling at this person, telling them to “get a job” or somehow change themselves, but you might tense your shoulders or react in a way that repeats what this person has experienced much of their life: rejection, shame, non-acceptance. The more we can bring these reactions into our awareness, the more sensitively we can approach their presence. Take a proactive stance to increase your self-awareness. One great way to do this is through implicit bias tests, like those offered for free from the Harvard Implicit Project.
The flip side to personal self-awareness is institutional self-awareness. We need to audit and assess our practices as businesses and institutions to ensure that we don’t have discriminatory practices that value people disproportionally.
Acknowledge that people are different
What’s worse than being targeted as being different? Being ignored for being different. Difference is important. It’s part of what defines us. What’s more, the realities of oppression are genuine for those who experience them. It’s impossible to ignore. And yet, many people with visible or invisible differences aren’t recognized for their differences. It can be awkward to be the only black salesperson in a high-performance team and even more uncomfortable if everyone’s walking around pretending there’s nothing different about anyone. This naive ignorance overwrites people’s lived experiences and reinforces the narrative that they are invisible. We need the courage to talk about difference at work, even if it makes our palms sweat.
How bad leaders create a toxic workplace
Every worker experiences the culture of the organization as a whole through their relationship with their immediate supervisor. If you have one manager or leader who’s abusive, unethical, or inept with people, everyone beneath that person experiences the organization’s culture as toxic. There are many reasons companies keep bad managers around, but the biggest is that they are often high performers. When output trumps People Leadership you create a toxic culture.
How to tell if you have bad leaders on your team
- High employee churn
- Low team motivation & morale
- Destructive behaviors from team members
What makes a bad leader?
When companies ignore bad managers, everyone suffers.
I have seen company after company ignore the dead weight of terrible managers for a host of reasons. The most common cause is that they are high producers and untouchable in a protected class. When companies ignore bad managers, everyone suffers. People who work for toxic leaders wonder why no one is doing anything, they’re demoralized, and they’re confused by the gap between the values espoused by these leaders and the toxic world that the employees live in every day.
With no attention from senior leaders, these situations usually worsen and result in employee churn, low team motivation and morale, and destructive behaviors from team members. When the leader misbehaves, it signals that the behavior is okay and that no one minds. Leaders in Bravespace workplaces who are people-centered (they believe that people are what make companies great) and have demonstrated the ability to connect well with employees and colleagues are purposely invested. And when leaders don’t act per the cultural values and norms professed by the organization, there are swift consequences. Employees tune into, imprint, and copy what they see done by the leaders in their organization. In Bravespace workplaces, leaders who are bad for people are swiftly and effectively dealt with.
Fixing bad leaders to create a healthy workplace culture
Leadership training is very important
Train leaders to be good leaders. Often, leaders are in their position because they were promoted again and again until they reached a ceiling. Usually, those promotions were because they had remarkable skills, not because they were good leaders. Leadership is a skill of its own, so treat it that way. Get training for your leaders so that they are good leaders. One good baseline starting point is Dare to Lead™️. In particular, good leaders are good at making and sustaining healthy connections. They are empathetic and comfortable with vulnerability. If their strong with these skills, then trust comes easily. A team with solid trust is resilient to business stress and can leverage its skills to perform better.
Importantly, training needs to happen at every level. A company with the best CEO in history is limited by leaders all the way down the hierarchies. Workers experience their company through their direct supervisors, so be courageous enough to weed out the leaders that aren’t working for your people. Train them or find replacements that are capable and equipped to fully activate everyone on their team. People will want to work for your company, and they’ll do a damn good job of it.
Why failing to tell the truth breaks down healthy workplace culture
How to tell if lying, gossip, and poor communication is damaging your workplace culture
- Triangulation (telling our feelings to someone else, not the person we have an issue with)
- Gossip (talking smack about someone behind their back)
- Avoidance (just not dealing with the situation)
- Low trust
- Pervasive defensiveness
What’s so bad about lying at work?
When I work with companies of all types, a central piece of the work is developing the norms and skills needed to have hard conversations. We often struggle mightily at work to tell our truth and reveal what we feel, particularly when it comes to telling people about their impact on us or navigating conflicts. People at work no longer straight talk, instead of triangulating (telling our feelings to someone else, not the person we have an issue with), gossiping (talking smack about someone behind their back), or avoiding the problem altogether (just not dealing with the situation), which is the most common behavior. This lack of truthfulness, and the masking of real feelings and needs, results in disconnection, isolation, and frustration at work.
The values and methods needed for handling conversations about difficult issues are commonplace in Bravespace workplaces. Leaders at every level are taught ways to be kind and clear while also delivering direct feedback. Emotions at work are essential for necessary (even if hard) conversations that lead to creativity and innovations.
The absence of truthfulness and subsequent masking of real feelings and needs results in disconnection, isolation, and frustration at work. Decades of business ethics that kept emotions out of the workplace have resulted in those emotions leaking out unproductively, at inappropriate times, and in devastating ways, leading to stress-related illness and employee absenteeism.
Fixing gossip and back talk at work
Build a culture that values psychological safety
The core tenant of a strong team is for every member to feel like the rest of the team has their back. In an elite special forces team, every person knows that everyone else on the team can and will pull them out of battle. This is why the Special Forces physical fitness tests are the same, regardless of gender or sex. And while most of us don’t think about losing our life or limbs at work, the same emotions of risk, exposure, and vulnerability are present in any workplace.
Your people need to know how to and be willing to care for each other. I recommend as a starting point the fabulous work of Amy Edmondson whose research on psychological safety at work and in classrooms proves its importance and outlines steps to baking psychological safety into the foundation of your culture.
Leaders set the culture of an organization
Nothing will make a more significant impact on company culture than how the leaders behave. People do things the way that their leaders do things, even if it means contradicting a direct, written mandate to do so otherwise. If you have leaders who play a dirty game, this will trickle down to everyone beneath them in your organizational hierarchy. How do we prevent this?
Invite critical feedback healthily. Often as leaders, we create tension in our blind spots. Sometimes the way we do things is just the way that we were taught to do them. It can be hard to know what isn’t working without hearing it from others. In particular, new hires or third-party teammates can have remarkable insights into the culture at your workplace. Trust the new people, and ask them for feedback about your culture long before they are ready for a performance review.
Establish a healthy courage practice
Courage is a skill. It gets better with focused practice. Why is courage necessary?
Courage is directly correlated to an individual’s capacity to face fear and uncertainty. And what, in business, brings fear and uncertainty? Risk. The risk of not making money, not making payroll, starting a new venture, or developing a new product. Courageous teams can healthily tolerate more trouble as they say: the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Again, Brené Brown’s excellent work with Dare to Lead™️ can be a great place to start.
Harnessing healthy culture to make an organization where people can thrive
Humans aren’t reptiles. And toxic workplace elements can be harder to identify than a pot of boiling water. Toxic workplaces can look healthy outside, with a beautiful annual report, a fitness center, and ergonomic chairs.
But what makes an organization fit for human life is the opposite of the four frictions we just examined. These organizations stay healthy by drawing boundaries around work time and not expecting 24/7 digital connection, creating cultures of inclusion, fostering leaders who are good for people, and expecting (and modeling) real and true (even when difficult) conversations.