5 signs your workplace is toxic...

Toxicity: noun

The degree to which a substance is toxic

The state or quality of being poisonous

There is seemingly little debate in business circles these days about the power and affect of workplace culture on both business productivity and success. A strong vibrant workplace culture is what many businesses seek, yet recent staff engagement figures show the pursuit for an uber culture might be beyond the reaches of not just a few, but many.

Sure, most people have had the experience of working in a workplace with poor morale or uninspiring leaders. But a culture is a sum-of-the-parts. Employees, management and even the tea lady make up a company culture. At its most basic level a culture is;

 a repeatable set of behaviours in a given context

So as much as we’d hate to admit it, company culture is a shared responsibility across the board. We’re all in this together. Like peas in a pod.

Not all peas are created equal

So the sum total of all our behaviours is what makes a culture, right; but some people within the culture exert more influence than others. They are the leaders; not necessarily with titles. And whilst some leadership traits and qualities never really change (integrity, care etc) there are many that change to suit current context.

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We’re going to be exploring what leadership looks like into the future.

But back to our topic of toxic workplaces. Thanks for indulging me.

Toxic is often slow and deliberate 

When you hear the term toxic workplace, you might be thinking of a chaos-filled workplace with tyrants, but toxicity presents in many forms. Often the toxic workplace culture can manifest slowly, becoming chronic over time; before you know it good people are leaving in droves, and your results are bottoming out.

So how can you tell if your workplace culture has become toxic without you even knowing it? There’s no litmus test, just behavioural observation. Here’s five observations to start with.

Passive aggressive communication is the norm

You’ve seen it before. People agreeing to each others faces, all nice-and-the-like, then immediately rubbishing it (or you) when they’ve moved out of earshot. In it’s subtler form, the passive aggressive method is when people start to create third-party conversations where an issue between two people suddenly grows into three, then four, then five…when it could’ve easily been sorted out by a direct conversation between the original two.

Lack of discretionary effort

The mantra for this one - it’s not in my job description – it’s not healthy. Whilst union reps might jump up and down about some unscrupulous organisations taking advantage of people doing ‘extras’ one common behaviour in thriving, healthy culture is people step outside their personal responsibility areas and help out others. It’s rarely driven by a desire to help the company out, but rather helping your teammates out. It’s called caring. Avoidance of care and responsibility (other than for yourself) is a sure-fire sign your culture has become toxic.

Death by committee 

Not another steering committee! Whether it’s micromanaging or archaic processes, decisions always needing to be approved by committee is not only dysfunctional, but it is likely to be a killer of agility and innovation; both essential requirements for the current workplace. Great cultures embrace a principle of seek forgiveness rather than permission. Cultures that require permission as a first step are cultures where trust has left the building. There’s always room for good governance, but that is distinctly difference to distrust.

People become clock-watchers

At 4.00pm the desk starts to get tidied, at 4.15 the email gets shut down. At 4.25pm all eyes are watching the wall clock, and at the stroke of 4.30pm there is a race on to catch the lift. Functional behaviour is when people leave work when they’re supposed to – constantly burning the midnight oil is ridiculous – but when people can’t stand to be in the workplace and second longer than they have to?! If it sounds like a sure-fire sign of a workplace being toxic, you’d be right; it is.

There aren’t any quality shared experiences

Workplaces are social settings. Human beings are a social animal. We need to be sociable at work to be at our best. Newsflash: your weekly team meeting that everyone detests is not a high quality shared experience. Great cultures don’t let people slide into anonymity and seclusion. Dysfunctional cultures are cultures where people are expected to work together but not actually like each other. It’s rubbish. Whilst we don’t expect people to get on like the Partridge family, a team that has each other’s back is a functioning team. Have lunch simply to break bread, perhaps you could work on a corporate social responsibility project together; but most of all, take time to celebrate success. That’s what the great team cultures do.

So that’s just five behaviours that represent a toxic culture, or a workplace that is on it’s way to becoming toxic; how’d you score? One or two an issue that needs remedying? 

If you ticked every box - got 5 from 5 - don’t just curl up into the foetal position, roll your sleeves up, don the surgical gloves and get to work detoxing. Time starts now.