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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Markgraf

The Rise of the Toxic Workplace: What’s Going on? And What Leaders Can Do to Fix It

In recent years, many workplaces have become increasingly toxic environments. Whether I scroll through my LinkedIn feed or read through curated questions from other professionals, the topic of a toxic workplace/culture/boss appears. This trend causes many problems for companies, like decreased productivity and higher turnover rates. What is causing the increase in toxicity, and what can leaders do about it?

Unhappy man staring at laptop

Leadership and the Toxic Workplace

We espouse great leaders as people who demonstrate humility, empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence. Memes of servant leaders abound. Yet, people who become leaders are often the opposite. Hiring criteria for top-level positions often focuses on financial metrics alone. This gives the advantage to people with a win-at-no-costs attitude because they project the self-assurance of a “winner.”

However, research indicates that business success is linked to leaders who spend time and effort developing and recognizing people, welcome feedback, and foster cooperation. A Baylor University study found that honesty and humility were predictors of higher job performance.

What this means.

We must change how we evaluate and promote individuals into leadership positions. This means a move from platitudes about servant leadership to developing ways to measure the traits that make good leaders. Leadership training often stops at the end of the seminar. Companies must develop outcome measures to promote people with a heart for leadership. This way, companies can identify those who will lead with integrity and continue cultivating their employees into future leaders.

Pressure to Perform

Many companies have become obsessed with productivity and profitability, often at the expense of their employees' well-being. This can lead to a toxic work culture in which employees feel undervalued, overworked, and stressed.

One sign of this obsession is micromanagement. When supervisors feel intense pressure to perform, they may resort to frequent check-ins with employees to ensure they are doing their work. This creates resentment in the employees and can increase disengagement.

Another sign of this pressure is the expectation that an employee is available anytime, even outside working hours. Cell phones mean supervisors can reach their employees almost anywhere by text, phone, or email.

What this means.

Boundaries are more crucial than ever before. Leaders must set the expectation that employees only need to respond to emails or text messages during work hours. As an executive director, I often worked outside regular working hours because those times worked for my life. I told my employees to refrain from answering when they received a late-night message.

Yet, they did. Me telling them not to answer did not trump the instinct to “do what the boss wants” right away. That meant I needed to change my work style. I put emails in a queue that would be sent the following morning. Sometimes, I started a message with, “I don’t want you to read this or answer me till you’re in the office!” All this helped employees understand that I was serious about boundaries and that they would not be reprimanded for enforcing them.

Lack of Communication and Transparency

Lack of organizational transparency can lead to a lag in employee engagement. People fear the unknown. Without accurate information, they resort to gossip to fill in the details. This can lead to misinformation and judgment of others. It creates a stressful and toxic environment.

Employees need open communication to feel that they have a voice and that their concerns are heard. They want to offer solutions and can provide information from their frontline experiences. Companies with open communication encourage employees to share their valuable insights with leaders.

What this means.

People need transparency and two-way communication. Leaders can promote transparent communication by sharing updates regularly. Meetings are a natural place for sharing information. If meetings are few and far between, leaders can add a reminder to their calendars to send out a weekly or bi-weekly email.

Some items, such as confidential information about a potential acquisition, are not for sharing. In these instances, leaders alleviate the fear of not knowing by sharing what they can and explaining why they cannot share specific information.

The People

Some workplaces are toxic because of the people who work there. These people delight in criticizing others; some need to control everyone around them. The result is a constant tension that leaves the people around them emotionally drained. Unaddressed toxic behaviors impact team performance, productivity, and collaboration. In extreme cases, it can result in organizational failure.

What it means.

Leaders tacitly approve toxic behaviors when they allow them to occur unaddressed. The first step is creating a definition of behaviors that are not acceptable in the workplace. This works best when the employees come together to create the norms for the work environment. These norms define how people will act at work.

Most people want to do the right thing. Often, a toxic offender does not understand how their words or actions affect others. Addressing behaviors when they happen in a kind and clear manner can change behaviors before they become habits. If they do not change, additional disciplinary may be necessary.

Many reasons exist for the increase in workplace toxicity. However, leaders can address these issues and create a healthier work environment. Employers must prioritize the well-being of their employees, listen to their concerns, and foster a culture of transparency and communication. Doing so can make workplaces more productive, harmonious, and fulfilling.


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