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Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and What to Do About It

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and What to Do About It

Steven Borders

A toxic work environment can have a significant impact on employees, leading to decreased productivity, low morale and even mental health problems. If you think that your workplace may be toxic, it is important to take action.

At times, it might be best to leave the company, but that’s not always an easy option. Not every job affords an easy lateral move, so you might feel trapped – at least in the short run. So, you can choose to do nothing, or you can attempt to give your best effort to improving your work environment.

You also might see a toxic work environment beginning to develop. If so, there’s still a good chance that you can help to reverse the trend.

In this blog post, we will discuss some of the signs of a toxic work environment and what you can do about it. We will also provide some practical tips for creating a more positive work culture.

The signs of a toxic work environment

  1. People don't feel appreciated – You might not immediately think of this as a sign of a toxic workplace, and it’s not always one. However, a company that fails to recognize and reward the hard work of individuals can foster worker apathy and dissatisfaction. One of the most common signs of a toxic work environment is when employees feel like they are not valued or appreciated. If your coworkers feel like their work is not being recognized or that their opinions do not matter, this may be a sign that you are in a toxic workplace.
  2. Gossip or drama - Gossip and grudges in the workplace are harmful because they do not promote a spirit of collaboration. When this happens, people are not motivated to work together in order to move projects and tasks forward. It produces a hostile or defensive workplace.
  3. There is a lack of trust - In order for a team to be effective, there must be trust between employees and management. When employees feel like they can't trust their boss or their colleagues, it can lead to breakdowns in relationships and in communication.

    As a result, people begin to operate in self-serving ways that are protective and defensive. In the end, problems are not identified and solved, nor are projects completed in a timely manner. Instead, each employee begins to not care about their work, nor about seeing the company and team succeed.
  4. Employees are constantly stressed - A moderate level of stress in the workplace is often the consequence of a high performing culture that is always driving into further improvements. However, when the load becomes too great and each employee is loaded with too many tasks, the stress can increase to unhealthy levels.

    This can be caused by unrealistic deadlines, excessive workloads, and unfair expectations. As a result, employees may feel like they are constantly under pressure and that there is no relief in sight. This leads to frustration or apathy as employees feel overwhelmed.
  5. High employee turnover - Toxic work environments have a high employee turnover rate because of these discussed indicators, such as lack of employee recognition, communication and trust, as well as high stress. If you've noticed that your company has an unusually high employee turnover rate, it could be a sign that the environment is toxic.
  6. Lack of communication - In a healthy workplace, there should be an open line of communication so that everyone feels heard and valued. But in a toxic workplace, employees may feel like their voices are not heard. They may be encouraged to simply do their jobs and keep quiet.

    Sometimes the lack of communication happens between teams or co-workers. This breakdown can lead to inefficiencies and frustration. The lack of communication can develop from competing visions or lack of cooperation between teams or team members.

    Good employees want to contribute and take ownership in their jobs. When employees are not heard, it discourages them from taking ownership. This can lead to frustration and resentment among employees.

    The same goes for teams. If teams and departments are not creating space for open communication and collaboration, they will soon become rivals and this will lead to the drama and lack of trust found in a toxic culture.
  7. Bad leadership - Toxic workplaces often have bad leadership. This can be a result of managers who are micromanagers, bullies, or who simply do not care about their employees. Bad leadership is not necessarily abusive - it can simply be lazy.

    Good leaders cast vision and they serve their team along the way. When leaders don't seem to care about employees or investing in them - this is a sign of poor leadership. When people don't feel inspired, led or cared for - they begin to lack motivation and may even become disgruntled.

How to create a more positive work culture

There are many practical steps that you can take to create a more positive work culture. If you are a manager, taking these steps will help improve morale and productivity. If you are not a manager, talk to your boss or HR about your concerns. If they aren't willing to listen, try to find other key individuals who might listen, and attempt to build support. Creating good relationships with others around you will build trust that can combat the effects of a toxic workplace. Here are a few helpful suggestions of ways to shift your work culture to a healthier place.

  1. Create and promote a set of company values - Even if you aren't the designated leader or manager, try to encourage them to lead this or to allow you to lead it. Create a brainstorm session or request input and submissions from co-workers on values that they believe would be important in the company. This will already be a good step in giving people a voice in shaping the values and inviting their ownership in the process. Studies show that actions like this give employees a sense of control and reduces the feeling of burnout. It will increase employee engagement and make them feel empowered.

    Present these values and try to create a culture where everyone attempts to adhere to them. Create celebrations that highlight the work of others when they are found working exceptionally well in ways that illustrate one or more of the company values. Rewarding or celebrating them will reinforce this behavior in the workplace.
  2. Encouraging open communication and constructive feedback - As stated earlier, toxic workplaces often have a lack of communication. If you are in a position to help improve communication, do so. Try to build trust with your colleagues by encouraging them to give feedback - both positive and negative. Help create an environment where people feel safe to speak up without fear of retaliation or retribution. Don't join in on the gossip but manage these conversations in ways that might help resolve conflict.
  3. Foster collaboration instead of competition - Encourage teamwork and collaboration instead of competition among employees. Create meeting times where teams can collaborate and share information. This will open the lines of communication and help people feel like they are working together for a common goal instead of feeling like they are in constant competition with each other. Remember to celebrate accomplishments or project completions between all the involved parties. This will help everyone share in the feeling of accomplishment and victory, and make them care more about the work they do.
  4. Invest in employee development - One way to show that you care about your employees is by investing in their development. One study on employee turnover found the top reason for leaving a company was due to lack of career development. Try to start sharing your knowledge or helpful information with co-workers. Position yourself as a person who enjoys teaching others. You will earn the respect and appreciation of co-workers and it will begin to forge healthier work relationships.

    You can also direct people to helpful videos or online trainings that will help increase their knowledge base. Many of these videos, trainings and websites are full of helpful information and free to anyone.

    It can also be done by simply providing opportunities for employees to learn new things and grow in their roles. When people feel like they are growing, it helps create a more positive work culture. Additionally, it can create a learning culture where people share new learnings with their teams.
  5. Create a feedback system - This can be done through a survey or an online form that allows employees to give feedback anonymously. It's also beneficial to create an exit interview process to learn why employees are leaving. Even if you are not a leader, you can present survey findings to managers - but be ready to make recommendations on how to address the results.

    If you are a leader or manager in your workplace, try to make a personal connection with people on your team. This is one of the key ways to build trust on your team. Making personal connections positions you the boss on the team’s level and signals to them that you are all working together to accomplish the goals. You’re still the boss but you also build the trust that you working alongside them to get the job done.

How to prevent a toxic work environment in the first place

Want to help your workplace avoid becoming a toxic environment? In addition to the actions mentioned above, here are a few key things you can do to prevent a toxic work environment:

  1. Leverage new hire onboarding - When onboarding new employees, take time to teach them about the company values. This is the best opportunity to inspire them as they are often eager to join in and become part of the team. Also, be clear about the expectations from the beginning. This will help set the tone for how you want things to be done and what the standards are. Onboarding is also a great opportunity to help new hires buy into the culture and values of the company.
  2. Lead by example - As a leader, it's important to lead by example. If you want your employees to be respectful, then you need to be respectful. If you want your employees to have a good work/life balance, then you need to model that as well.

    When leaders don't practice what they preach, it creates an unspoken pressure to conform to the precedent they set. If a leader never takes off for lunch, your employees are more likely to do the same - because your actions have created an expectation that others will soon mimic.

    Even if you aren’t a manager, your actions and behavior will influence those around you. Lead with the values you want to reinforce to those around you.
  3. Encourage open communication - As mentioned before, encourage open communication from the start. This will help create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up. People want to be heard, and they often have good feedback and ideas to provide. Creating channels for open communication will produce more engaged employees who are motivated and feel valued by the company.

Final thoughts

A toxic work environment can have a negative impact on employee morale, productivity, and even physical health. If you think you might be in a toxic work environment, take some time to assess the situation and see if there are any signs that indicate it might be time to move on.

If you're a leader or manager, remember that it's your responsibility to create a positive and healthy work environment for your employees. Take action to prevent a toxic workplace from developing - it will benefit everyone in the long run.

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