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Toxic Workplace? 7 Warning Signs No Leader Should Miss

Nov 30, 2020

Business man having concerns about workHere's the problem with a toxic workplace: Today's toxic workplace becomes tomorrow's toxic work culture. As if recruiting and growing your company weren't challenging enough. Thankfully, it doesn't have to be that way.

Toxic workplaces and toxic work cultures can be fixed

But it behooves you as a leader to fix them now, while the problems are comparatively small—and relatively inexpensive. To transform a toxic workplace, you must first know the warning signs. Here are seven of them, along with why they matter and how each can be resolved.

Friendly disclaimer: The word "toxic" gets misused and overused. For our purposes, a toxic workplace is one with so much confusion, conflict and chaos that people can't begin to do their best work. A toxic workplace creates a great deal of distress, both on the job and off. Ultimately, a toxic workplace is one that does not sustain business or life itself.

1. Employee disengagement

Here are the most common signs of employee disengagement: 

  • Apathy 
  • Missed goals
  • Missed deadlines
  • Showing up late
  • Absenteeism
  • Disregard for office protocols
  • Negativity, in the form of gossip, cynicism or hostility

You get the idea. If these things are showing up in your workplace, here are some questions to ask yourself: "Is this a hiring problem or a morale problem?"

If it's a hiring problem (i.e., if the people you hired were never motivated to begin with), revisit how you're recruiting and screening new hires. For example, here's a behavioral question you can ask, to help screen candidates and assess their level of self-motivation:

"Tell me about a time you ran into an obstacle at work and had to keep yourself motivated." 

The candidate's response will reveal something about his or her world, the size of that world, and his or her capacities for problem-solving. 

If you determine your office has a morale problem, then ask yourself (and your team) what might have triggered it. Often it is not simply an outer event (e.g., downsizing) but how that event was communicated. 

Employee disengagement is a multifaceted problem with multifaceted solutions. For a framework to get you started, please see Employee Engagement Ideas Every Business Owner Needs to Take Seriously

2. Employee burnout

Think of employee burnout as employee disengagement with the volume cranked up. This is the phase when disengagement becomes "giving-up-trying." Maybe even giving up hope.

If you're seeing increased absenteeism, apathy, exhaustion or cynicism—especially among your high performers, now is the time to reverse course. A simple, heartfelt question such as, "How can I help?" may be all that's needed to start reversing the problem.

As the following article illustrates, employee burnout is a multibillion-dollar problem. Key takeaway: Challenge the notion that employee burnout is inevitable. It is not. Here are 15 strategies to prevent employee burnout or reverse existing burnout.

3. Lack of trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” — Ernest Hemingway

Lack of trust in the workplace can quickly turn into resentment en masse. Not exactly the path to dominating your industry.

If you find people talk more about each other than they do to each other, that could be a sign of lack of trust—or simply lack of communication. 

As with employee engagement, lack of trust begs the question of every leader, "Who owns the problem?" Or more subtly, "Which part of this problem is mine?" 

I bring this up because I have generally found that leaders who themselves are trustworthy see their staff members in the same way. And leaders who lack integrity, emotional security or both almost never trust their team. 

If lack of trust describes your workplace culture, be willing as a leader to look inward. What keeps you from trusting your team? What keeps them from trusting one another? Talk about it. But stay focused on solutions, rather than getting caught up in the problems. 

4. Problems aren't addressed

“What are you pretending not to know?” ― Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D.

If you want to empower your low performers and demoralize your high performers, simply ignore problems that are yours to solve, and cross your fingers that the problems go away.  Even well-intended leaders sometimes take this route—but again, it doesn't have to be this way.

One of the best and fastest ways to overcome a toxic work culture is to address problems head-on, even when it's uncomfortable. As an example, I once heard a leader say about a difficult employee, "What do you want me to do? I can't send her to personality camp!"

Fair enough. But if someone on your team is throwing an attitude around, it's your job as the leader to have words with that employee, to let him or her know the impact of the behavior, and the consequences if it doesn't improve by a set date.

Do not let a negative employee infect your entire workplace. Instead, if you want a workplace culture that truly works, hold yourself and your team accountable. Accountability among high-performing teams raises morale—politely, confidently insist on it.

5. Fear at work

"The beatings will continue until morale improves." — Author Unknown

Fear at work shows up in a variety of ways; for example, fear of ...

  • Failure; i.e., taking risks
  • Admitting mistakes
  • Sharing an idea
  • Speaking up when there's a question or a conflict
  • Not being heard or believed
  • Being criticized or ostracized
  • Being passed over for a promotion

You get the idea. Few leaders cultivate fear at work intentionally. However, if you want a happy workplace and a high-performing workplace, look for ways to encourage and reward not only risk-taking, but open, respectful communication.

Don't assume your team knows you value these things. Instead, tell them and show them. That's how you turn a toxic workplace into a healthy workplace—and a healthy work culture.

6. Lack of communication in the workplace

“People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it.” — Howard Schultz, Starbucks

All of these qualities, from rhetoric to knowing the plan of action to knowing one's role in achieving it, require communication. Just as hiring managers look primarily for communication skills in new college hires, employees at all levels thrive on clear and timely communication. 

When in doubt, find out from your team what they need. Questions to ask them: 

  • "What information, tools or technology would help you do your work most effectively?" 
  • "When (and how often) would you like this information?" 
  • "What else would be helpful for you to knowor for me to know about you?" 

In toxic word cultures, communication goes underground or behind closed doors. You can prevent this easily, simply by opening the lines of communication, listening and following through. 

7. Feeling unappreciated at work

"A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected." —Amy Rees Anderson

Just as the opposite of appreciation at work is feeling unappreciated at work, the opposite of doing more than what is expected is doing just enough to get by. Don't let this attitude creep into your company culture—and if it's already there, don't let it stay.

Simple Ways to Show Appreciation at Work

  • A sincere "thank you"(vs. a perfunctory or obligatory thank you)
  • Acknowledging someone's efforts, achievement or impact
  • Responding to a request in a timely fashion
  • Sharing team victories; taking time to celebrate them
  • Asking your direct reports, "How do you like to receive appreciation?" 

That last question will ultimately save you time. It will also make you more effective at showing appreciation in ways that can be felt. Encourage your team to show appreciation to one another.  

Positive leadership is the cure

Does all of this sound daunting? Maybe it is. Yet great leadership demands no less. If you're prepared for the challenge and I can support you in a coaching, consulting or employee training capacity, please reach out to me today to set up a no-obligation discovery call


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