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What Makes a Toxic Work Culture - and How to Avoid it

9 November, 2017

If you’ve worked for several companies in many different environments, chances are you’ve come across a toxic work culture before. Toxic work culture does more than affect employees, often contributing to high rates of employee turnover, and it can even affect business results. And while there are several contributing factors for making a work culture toxic, there are some unilateral ways to avoid it.

Where does a toxic work culture come from?

We often contribute toxic work culture to a few bad eggs (employees) in the organization, but the reality is that the environment and culture of the organization must be already damaged in order for these people to have a dominating and lasting effect. Truth be told, bad colleagues can make life miserable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire culture is toxic. Let’s take a look at what really causes negative working environments:

  • Lack of organizational transparency and trust - distrust and avoiding top-down clarity in an organization can be detrimental to employees and the work environment. When employees don’t feel that they are trusted, or that there is enough transparency coming from the top of the organization, it can breed further distrust interdepartmentally, and even within teams.
  • Unhealthy competition and showmanship - when just a select few employees often take all the spotlight (or credit) in meetings or on projects, it can create animosity and resentment within the organization. Competition amongst teams can be good, as many people are motivated in this way, but when it becomes distracting, frustrating, or even angry, then it’s doing more harm than good.
  • Too little oversight and lack of employee accountability - a toxic work culture can also be created when we feel that our colleagues aren’t pulling their weight. In most situations, we trust our management teams to identify underperformers, but sometimes management can be distant or detached. When this happens, slackers can get away with bringing the team down because of a lack of accountability.
  • Unestablished - or unenforced - office policies and processes - sometimes we think it’s fun and exciting to work for companies who offer freedom and a general lack of restrictions in the workplace. But this can actually be really harmful when you don’t feel that everyone is operating in the same way. All employees should be held to the same standards, codes of conduct, and methods for completing regular tasks, otherwise a toxic culture of chaos can be created.
  • Overworked and underappreciated employees - when we love what we do and feel appreciated by management for a job well done, job satisfaction goes through the roof. But in an organization where employees are given too many tasks, or too high expectations are set - and no appreciation is shown for overtime or efficient delivery - resentment sets in very quickly.

Stressed woman

How to avoid a toxic work culture

Avoiding toxic work culture is often about the values set by the organization, managers who lead by example, and the knowledge and understanding that all employees are held accountable for their actions. When you look at the above reasons workplaces become toxic, you can see how management is, or should be, responsible for ensuring that there are no issues amongst staff and in the workplace.

First, those in executive and founding positions in the company should establish and encourage an environment of open communication. The necessary tools and policies should be in place in order to make sure employees feel that they are able to speak up if issues arise, and that they are heard when they do. Management should have a presence in the workplace that’s not overbearing, but understood as a position so that those few “bad eggs” should feel that they can’t disrupt other staff or the workplace as a whole without being held accountable.

Additionally, when management is on top of who is performing well, who needs extra motivation, and who is bringing the team down, employees can feel better acknowledged for a job well done, or that changes will be made to ensure overall effectiveness when need be. It’s also important that rules, guidelines, and processes are properly established and enforced, to make sure that the whole organization is held to the same standard of conduct and how work tasks are fulfilled.

Toxic work culture is created when we feel there is favoritism, unfairness, or that the conditions don’t allow us to do our best work. Avoiding toxic work culture really comes down to ensuring that employees feel they are able to have the most workplace productivity, that they can communicate with superiors and that they are clearly communicated to, and that everyone in the organization is held to the same expectations.

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