5 Ways to Tell if Your Workplace is Toxic

“Toxic workplaces” have become a hot topic of conversation in the business world. And almost everyone has a story to tell about a bad boss, a crazy colleague or just a terrible place to work.  But how do you tell if your workplace is really toxic , a worse-than-normal place to work, or just a normally stressful work environment?

Having researched toxic workplaces for over the past two years, we were able to identify common characteristics that, when put together, make a work environment unhealthy for those who work there.  Here are some of the most important factors.

  1. Major problems in communication. An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is that there are significant problems in communication, and often across multiple areas – between employees and their supervisors, from management to departments, across departments, with suppliers, and even with customers.

Problems can be demonstrated by a lack of communication (often referred to as “no communication at all!”) where employees find out about decisions after they have been implemented.  Indirect communication (sending messages through others), withholding information, and giving misleading information are other variations of dysfunctional communication patterns.

Why is communication so key to a healthy organization?  Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the tasks of the organization is virtually impossible.

  1. Inconsistency in following policies & procedures. Have you ever been a customer in a business where no one really seems to know what they are doing, you get different answers to questions depending on who you ask, and eventually the employee just seems to say “whatever” and does what they want? Then you’ve experienced a company which has major problems with their policies and procedures being implemented.
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When a company’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency and poor quality follow.  Customers, vendors and employees wind up hating having to deal with the company and its staff.

  1. One or more toxic leaders in the system. It is not clear whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders – in either case, the two go together. The hallmark characteristic (that becomes evident eventually) is their narcissism.  They are “all about” themselves.  They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around.  And, as a result, they are deserving of special treatment – the rules for everyone else really are beneath them.

Toxic leaders relate to others in a condescending manner, they take credit for others’ successes, and they manipulate others (and information) to ensure that they look good (others don’t really matter.)  While they may appear “successful” for a while, over the long term, their attitudes and actions catch up with them.  Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas; they have a high turnover rate in their department, and they will eventually destroy the health of the organization.

It is important to note that toxic leaders do not have to be at the top of the organization; they often occur in mid-level management and even in front-line supervisory roles. 

  1. A lot of negative communication is occurring (and in many different ways). Just like rusty holes in the side of an old car that was driven where the streets are salted in the winter, a toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms.
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Grumbling and complaining by employees is common – they can find something to complain about almost anytime.  Then sarcasm and cynicism show up, which demonstrates a growing lack of trust of management and leadership, and turns into a low level seething disgruntlement.  Making excuses and blaming others is commonplace. Eventually, team members either start to withdraw, not interact with others (except in a very defensive manner) or leave the organization.

  1. Your work is affecting your health negatively– physically, emotionally, and relationally. When a workplace is toxic it is, by definition, unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments (especially over a long period of time) begin to see problems with their own personal health.  This can include physical symptoms such as not being able to sleep, gaining weight, and having increased medical problems.

Emotionally, employees become more discouraged which can lead to depression. For some, they are more irritable, “touchy”, and demonstrate problems managing their anger.  Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work.  These symptoms then can lead to increased use of alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances.

You know your work is affecting you negatively when your friends and family start to make comments on “how you’ve changed”, or “you seem stressed” and “maybe you need to talk to someone”.  When our personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on.

What Can You Do?   

If you work in a toxic workplace – one which is poisonous, damaging, and even potentially dangerous to the mental and emotional health of those who work there – there are steps you can take to make your workplace less toxic.  You are not just a helpless by-stander.

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First, do a self-assessment.  Ask yourself and consider, “What am I doing that really isn’t that helpful in creating a positive workplace?”

The second pro-active step you can take is to actively disengage from participating in negative interactions.

Beginning to communicate positive messages to others is the third simple step we each can take.  Often, the easiest way is to share your appreciation for your teammates, and the work they do. Realize that not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways; find out what is meaningful to your team members and communicate appreciation through these actions.

Even though you may work in a really toxic environment, don’t succumb to the belief that it is all just happening to you.  Figure out what you can do to not add to the trash and help clean up the air a bit.

Paul White, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and trainer. He is co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, the 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,  and Sync or Swim: A fable about workplace communication and coming together in a crisis. Through his company, Appreciation at Work, White helps business leaders to effectively communicate appreciation to co-workers, leading to higher levels of job satisfaction, healthier relationships, and decreased burnout.

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