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Leaders Be Aware of the Signs of a Toxic Workplace Culture

Here's When You Might Have a Toxic Work Culture

A toxic work culture is one where employees do not feel fulfilled or safe and often complain about the dynamics of the workplace. The workplace is plagued by in-fighting, drama, and unhappy employees, and it may negatively affect productivity. Sometimes, the elements of the toxic work culture will be right out in the open and so, easy to fix, other times they are hidden and leaders should make consistent efforts to unearth them. Here are seven signs that have been identified of a toxic work culture both leaders and employees should look out for and avoid.

  1. Low morale at work. A positive attitude and high morale are missing so that employees are not happy at work.
  2. There is lack of communication. Communication is one way and employees are afraid to ask questions.
  3. Employees are afraid of the boss. The boss creates an environment of fear. Employees are afraid to ask questions. The workplace culture can foster bad behavior if this is the way the leader acts.
  4. Insistence on policies over people. You are in a toxic work culture if management follows every infraction or deviation from policy with punishment because this usually leads to employees constantly being stressed and afraid to take risks.
  5. There is a high employee turnover. People keep leaving because of unhappiness, fear, and not being rewarded for accomplishments.
  6. There are cliques and groups in the office. Bosses may isolate themselves, totally closing off employees and forcing them into their own cliques. The tone at the top does not foster collaboration.
  7. People in middle management are just figure heads. Power lies in the hands of one or a few inaccessible employers. There is no delegation and so employees are not empowered to grow and see no hope of advancement.  No one is looking out for the employees so they will have to look out for themselves.

The Role of the Leader

The boss sets the tone for the workplace culture and their management and interaction style can either lead to a toxic work culture or one where employees are happy.  A bad boss can make toxic work culture even worse because he gives cues to others about how they can behave by sort of ‘endorsing’ bad behavior and providing precedent for rude interactions. In short, if the top boss yells, it will not be a surprise to find department heads and team leaders yelling.

Leaders must lead by example. Leaders should establish an ethical workplace culture that promotes those who act in accordance with the code of conduct and expectations for ethical behavior. If not, employees may be reluctant to raise issues of concern for fear they may be blamed for doing so, especially if they are complaining about the behavior of a supervisor. In other words, they may fall victim to the ‘Kill the Messenger’ syndrome.

An article in the MIT Sloan Management Review discusses “Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About a Toxic Culture.” Basically, identifying the characteristics of a toxic workplace culture in an organization can help leaders to focus on addressing the issues that lead employees to withdraw from the organization and quit. The article states that a toxic culture is the “single best predictor of attrition during the first six months of the ‘Great Resignation’—10 times more powerful than how employees viewed their compensation in predicting employee turnover.”

By one estimate, employee turnover triggered by a toxic culture costs U.S. employers nearly $50 billion per year before the Great Resignation began.”

The Toxic Five

The MIT Sloan article identifies five attributes of a toxic culture — disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. These have the largest negative impact on how employees rate their company’s culture. Each bar below represents the marginal impact a negative mention of a topic had on an employee’s rating of their organization’s culture. If an employee says they feel disrespected in their review, for example, their culture rating will be 0.66 lower on a five-point scale on average, all else being equal.

Notice the importance of ethical behavior. As I have said many times before, an ethical culture builds morale and employees feel the leader sets an ethical tone at the top. Employees feel more confident in raising matters of concern. They believe their supervisors will listen to them, show compassion and understanding, and take the steps necessary to bring the toxic culture back into balance.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on July 21, 2022 Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.