Friday, March 22, 2013

Five Characteristics of a Toxic Workplace

Culture is a collective mindset, attitude, habit, behavior and brand. 

It is crucial to measure the effects of a toxic workplace against the impact on people's lives in terms of stress, de-motivation, under-performance, diminished confidence and also the effect of toxicity on company growth. Otherwise, our daily working experience and a large percentage of one’s lives are going to be challenging and potentially stressful. Though what's 'right' can be subjective, is toxicity a natural part of any corporate or it can be avoided? Here are five characteristics of a toxic workplace:

1.  Poor Leadership 

It doesn't take long for a workplace to become toxic in short order. And the spirit of an organization comes from the top, the culture becomes “toxic” when leadership sets unrealistic goals, micromanages and is non-inclusive with regard to the day to day of running a business. Like it or not, the leadership of a company drives culture and vision and if they are doing so in a vacuum or without regard to its best asset (solid employees), things can turn toxic very fast.
  • "Skilled incompetence" is a symptom: In upper management, corporate executives unconsciously follow the mantra "do as I say, not as I do." Breaking habits and learning new ones is just too difficult for too many people who run organizations, and with skilled incompetence running the show, it's almost impossible to have anything other than a toxic workplace. 
  • One of the most toxic characteristics of the workplace is that of management making decisions without the consideration of the people. Everyone can be guilty of it sometimes but often managers take a 'hands-off' approach to their staff and so easily make changes and decisions which make waves over the employees which alter their lives! And often do so in a whim. What happens as moving toward larger and larger companies, with ever-more-toxic leadership seeking to silence those who challenge the status quo? Turnover is today's cost. What will it cost in the future?  
Leaders should coach the team on: WHY they are doing what they are doing, and how it fits in with the company objective. If management is taking the time to assign work, it does not take that much longer to say WHY the work is important. If this habit is followed on each and every major work assignment, then employees will gain some job satisfaction from understanding why they are important to the organization. Of course, this means that the organization as a whole has to know where it is going and why.

2) Un-Professionalism 

A toxic workplace is usually identified by the lack of morale evidenced throughout the organization. A caustic environment will not attract the best and brightest hires

  • Toxic characteristics may include: Unethical conduct, un-professionalism, unsatisfactory communication (in general), back-biting and rumor-mongering, obsessive favoritism, discrimination (age, racial, sexual, etc), harassment of any kind, abuse of any kind, and lack of teamwork. These are just some of the characteristics -and the numerous possible combinations thereof -would make a workplace more or less toxic. 
  • Organizations are often in conflict with the expectations of employees, regardless of what is said, understanding what the organization is doing, why it is doing it and then understanding how each employee contributes to the whole. We need to understand that the drivers behind attitudes and behaviors. Talent must decide where they want to invest the time, energy and expertise. If it's with a company or organization, it's important that individual values are in alignment with that company or organization. 

3. Apathy 

  • A lack of real support for employees can be an issue: Who do you go to if there's a problem with your boss or someone in a senior role? Often, there's an 'elephant in the room' that no-one wants to address until the problem begins to spiral. Unhelpful behavior that leads to general gossip can very quickly create a toxic environment 
  • The "care less" attitude perceived in corporations today be simple responses to supply and demand, those two unforgettable axes controlling the consumption of all resources, human or otherwise. What level of toxicity existed in corporations during a thriving economy? Is the level of toxicity inversely proportional to economic health? Perhaps part of this toxicity comes from the financial crisis. Everybody is pushed to the extremes and everybody is jittery. Pressure on top is released in the form of toxicity down the stream. Then it is the greed. This does not excuse corporations spewing a toxic environment. But it may help us understand and deal with occurrences of toxicity.  
  • Another one that comes to mind would be terrible communication skills. Communication without empathy or people can't communicate to their teams appropriately to keep them in the loop as well as motivating them to grow and develop. Leadership itself should be something that breaks down these boundaries and brings a more personable expectation to organizations and companies. 

4.  Fail to “Walk the Talk”

  • Toxicity also exists when an organization very obviously fails to 'walk its talk'; when the behaviors they profess to value are not supported but rather may even be punished - most often indirectly. The company literature says it values honesty and integrity, yet shoots the messenger more often than not. Or an organization that says it welcomes diversity and entrepreneurial schools of thought and then discourages such behaviors with an un-accepting culture that speaks far louder than the company literature. 
  • Long story short, the most toxic element is a lack of trust which permeates everything. Toxicity is always spawned in the gap between what is said and what is done. Toxic culture is embedded into the toxic workplace. This is usually indicative of a culture that lacks clear and realistic goals, does not provide "authentic" and balanced communication throughout the organization, and does not make employees feel as stakeholders and beneficiaries in the collaborative creation of equities created through their work

5) Lack of Appreciation

  • Lack of “Freedom”: Toxicity is nothing new and it seems that it has prehistoric roots. In order for individual to make changes, the organization should have to give them some grade of freedom. No matter how hard one tries to diminish and reduce the effects of a toxic working place, one gets washed away. There are managers that enjoy seeing people suffer. Toward the lower layer of organization, they show their real face and promote the culture of horror and towards that higher level in the organization, they have a baby face. In this case, the organization is not in for changes.  
  • A "toxic workplace" has characteristics of not investing in their employees; accepting status quo as the new norm, and not having a standard of excellence; thinking leaders have all of the right answers, all of the time; failing to acknowledge accomplishments, performance, and milestones; not leading by example; not listening to its employees. 
Toxicity needs to be eliminated. Respect, professionalism, and perseverance are the values that are the foundation of the X (positive, innovative and digital) culture, guiding us in our daily work - how we relate to people and how we do business.

Read more about Corporate Culture:


I Like point number 4b on lack of trust, once someone says something and doesn't keep their word or they can take for granted the trust and confidence placed in them it becomes the most demotivating thing and resultantly a toxic environment enshrines. Well articulated true issues.

Hi, Jacob, thanks for the comment, true, trust is the bridge to connect people, business and society, and trust is two-way street as well, at business environment, trust from management can empower team & talent to unleash potential, people trust their leaders who should also take trust very seriously.And nobody should take it for granted, it's the "currency" need be exchanged to keep business flow.

Again, appreciate your thought.

You are so correct! People seem to forget where they come from, what it takes to grow a business, and how to trully succeed, and succees is not always about the money. By focusing on the people who have made you, work for you, work with you, and work around will be successful and that could be money, or Trust (what a concept...right?). Just because someone has alot of money, was successful selling, etc., that doesn't mean they can lead. Listening (to your peers and employee's, etc.) is the major component of communication.....isn't it interesting how little we listen. Lack of healthy "Borders" at and within the workplace adds to the toxicity and lack of trust. It is so sad that we can lose our empathy, caring, purpose, and focus on what's right (not who's right) by moving up the corporate ladder. Thanks for your article! Robb

Expedia, in certain departments, could benefit from this article.

Great article and dead on. The bottom line is: when leaders, either intentionally or unintentionally (because they just don't have the proper leadership skills), disconnect with employees, discouragement, fear, apathy and resentment will take root and flourish. Incompetent leaders must be called out - train them if they are trainable or encourage them to find work elsewhere. I recently experienced the entire scenario you painted in a christian college that is now falling apart at its very foundation.

It's critical to a businesses long term growth that senior management recognise their own weaknesses and truly engage in succession planning. This is also why HR should always be involved with Board strategy decisions so they can highlight what talent the business needs to move forward an work with them to recruit where they are weak. We can't all be brilliant at everything forever in many cases the Board need to recognise that whilst they've grown the business to a certain level, they aren't as skilled as they should be to go to the next level. Recognising that and working to improve the organisation isn't a sign of weakness or incompetence it's a sign of good management.

Organizational environment denotes internal and external environmental factors influencing organizational activates and decision making. Organization or more specifically business organization and it’s activates are always being affected by the environment. In an organization, every action of management body is influenced by the environment.

My wife works for a big hospital. She can attest to 3a 1000%. While in a meeting with her direct supervisor, department manager and HR representative the manager approached her; inches from her face and stated "I think you are afraid of me". My wife noticed then at that moment HR and the supervisor turned their heads and later claimed to know nothing of such a comment made. It's a shame workplace environments exist and so does bullying amongst adults.

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