5 Ways to Tell If a Workplace Is Toxic

May 22, 2016
Dr. Paul White
  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 experience a company which has major problems with their policies and procedures being implemented.

In some companies, this is due to the fact that the policies are not written down (often in smaller businesses). In other situations, they have a “policy manual” but employees ignore what is written because there is no monitoring or accountability. And in family-owned businesses, family members often go around the policies that “are for everyone else.”

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).

 “How do I hate thee? Let me count the 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. Grumbling and complaining by employees is common – they can find something to complain about almost any time. 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 widespread (and often reflects the poor communication and lack of accountability in place).

Eventually, team members either start to withdraw, not interact with others (except in a very defensive manner) or leave the organization.

  1. Employees are affected 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, we 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, and illegal substances.

Often, employees can tell if work is affecting them negatively when friends and family start to notice and make comments about how work is changing who they are at the core. When personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on.

Not sure if you are in a toxic work environment? We’ve developed a tool to assess whether or not a business is toxic, as well as steps to assist in taking proactive steps to address the problem areas identified.

More From Dr. Paul White

An Antidote for Disengagement: Being Appreciative for Your Job

Do You Have a “Difficult to Appreciate” Co-Worker?

3 Simple Steps to Detoxify Your Workplace

Paul White, Ph.D., is a speaker, trainer, author and psychologist who “makes work relationships work.” Dr. White is co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, and has developed training resources to help businesses avoid becoming toxic. For more information, go to appreciationatwork.com/toxicworkplaces .

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