Toxic workplaces have become a hot topic of conversation in the business world. And almost everyone has a story to tell about a bad boss, a bizarre colleague or a terrible place to work.
But how do you tell if your office is really toxic, a worse than normal place to work or just a normally stressful work environment?
Having researched toxic workplaces over the past two years, I've been able to identify common characteristics that when put together make an environment unhealthy for those who work there. Here are some of the most important factors:
1. Major communication problems.
An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is the prevelance of significant communication problems often across multiple areas -- between employees and their supervisors, between management and departments, across different departments, with suppliers and even with customers.
Problems can be demonstrated by a lack of communication (often referred to as "no communication at all"), whereby employees find out about decisions after they have been implemented. Other variations of dysfunctional communication patterns include indirect communication (sending messages through others), withholding information and giving misleading information.
Why is communication so crucial to a healthy organization? Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the the organization's tasks is virtually impossible.
2. Inconsistency in following policies.
Have you ever been a customer of a business where no one really seems to know what he or she is doing and you get different answers to questions depending on whom you ask? Eventually the employee just seems to say whatever and do what he or she wants. In this way, you’ve experienced a company that has major problems with its implementation of policies and procedures.
When a company’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency and poor quality follow. Customers, vendors and employees wind up hating dealing with the company and its staff.
3. Narcissistic leaders.
It's 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 is the narcissism of such leaders. They are all about themselves. They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around and therefore more deserving of special treatment. The rules for everyone else are beneath them, they think.
Toxic leaders relate to others in a condescending manner. They take credit for others’ successes and manipulate others (and information) to ensure that they look good. Others don’t really matter to them.
While these leaders may appear to be successfull 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 departments and will eventually destroy the health of the organization.
Toxic leaders might not be at the top of an organization; they often crop in midlevel management and even in front-line supervisory roles.
4. Seething disgruntlement.
Just like rusty holes in the side of an old car that traversed streets that were 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 anytime. Then sarcasm and cynicism gain sway, demonstrating a growing lack of trust of management and leadership and turning into a low-level seething disgruntlement.
Making excuses and blaming others is commonplace. Eventually, team members start to withdraw, stop interacting with others (except in a very defensive manner) or leave the organization.
5. Physical and emotional health effects.
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 experience problems with their personal health. This might include not being able to sleep, gaining weight or racking up medical problems.
Emotionally, employees become more discouraged, which can lead to depression. Some become more irritable, touchy and exhibit problems managing their anger. Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work. These symptoms can lead to increased use of alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal substances.
You know your work is affecting you negatively when friends and family members start to make comments such as “how you’ve changed” or “you seem stressed” and “maybe you need to talk to someone.” When personal relationships are affected, it's time to take a serious look at what is going on.
If you work in a toxic workplace -- one that is poisonous, damaging and even potentially dangerous to the mental and emotional health of employees -- you can take steps to make it less toxic. You are not just a helpless bystander.
First, do a self-assessment. Consider, What am I doing that really isn’t that helpful in creating a positive workplace?”
The second proactive step to take is to actively disengage from negative interactions.
A third simple step is to begin to communicate positive messages to others. Often, the easiest way is to share your appreciation for teammates and the work they do. Recognize that people like to feel appreciated in different ways. Find out what's meaningful to your team members and communicate appreciation through these actions.
Even though you may work in a really toxic environment, don’t succumb to the belief that it's all just happening to you. You don't have to be a victim. Figure out what you can do to not add to the trash and help clean up the air a bit.
Related: 4 Ways to Diffuse a Toxic Workplace