I’m finding this topic come up more and more in client conversations, in the burnout interviews I’m doing and in what I’m reading on a daily basis. Not only it is damaging for the employees finding themselves working in one, but it’s hugely detrimental for the business due to plummeting engagement, productivity, innovation and loyalty.
What’s Considered Toxic?
In a nutshell this comes down to behaviours – respect, integrity, honesty, trust, empowerment – or lack thereof. It doesn’t just have to be about extremes such as bullying or harassment, and I suspect that’s what many people still think of when considering what makes an environment toxic.
Over the last few months I’ve been doing interviews with people who have experienced burnout and they have courageously shared their stories with me. One of the areas we explore is unpicking what factors led to their chronic stress and ultimately burnout.
There are always numerous factors involved for each individual, but I am finding some common themes coming up and they mirror not only my own experiences, but also what many of my 1-2-1 clients share with me.
The people I’m talking about here are exceptional people – high achievers, plenty of responsibility, exceptionally credible and well respected, and not afraid to work hard to make progress, deliver results and push boundaries. They are leaders, highly capable and used to pressure.
Whilst they may already have the ingredients for burnout as a result of the work-hard ,play-hard, push-on-through approach to life, there is often something that starts to tip the balance and that something is frequently a someone.
Is it Really About Toxic People?
What’s staggering is that a toxic environment can be influenced by just one person, often a leader whose style demonstrates little regard for the those working around and for them, whose ambition for pushing their own agenda supersedes the basic need for humanity in the workplace.
But what’s also fascinating is that it’s not always about that person, the one who people constantly complain about. It’s also about some of our basic relationship needs not being met as a result of poor leadership, poor communication, poor engagement – it won’t be as overt as that person creating a whole load of negativity, but it has an impact nonetheless.
So I would conclude that when people talk about toxic work environments, they are actually referring to toxic people, toxic relationships and toxic leadership.
The Implications of Toxic People at Work
The implications are endless in my view. For the individual enduring a toxic work environment they will experience stress on a daily basis which will spill over into their personal life and health, they will quickly become disengaged and have little interest in going over and above for their employer, they will gain zero fulfilment from the activity they spend more hours than anything else doing, they certainly won’t be an advocate for their company. You can also read more about the hidden effects of stress here.
And for employers this environment creates damage beyond the obvious. Not only are your employees not as productive, effective or creative as they could be, their loyalty to you will be non-existent. You’ll be bad-mouthed inside and outside the office affecting your reputation. Your customers will not be receiving the standard of service you want. Your suppliers will be feeling the impact. It’s just all-round bad business.
What Toxic Behaviour Looks Like
I’ve heard too many stories of bullying, discrimination and harassment and have also experienced my own fair share. These are the obvious ones and you don’t need me to explain.
However, what often gets overlooked as that factors such as these described below are also what people refer to when they’re diagnosing their work environment as toxic.
- A lack of respect for and interest in people– their ideas, opinions, feedback, wellbeing, life outside of work – simply them as a whole human being.
- A lack of fairness– in how people are treated, often raising its head when it comes to job opportunities, appraisals, recognition and reward. But it can also be about day-to-day favouritism – who gets to know about things before everyone else, who’s always being consulted over and above others in a team.
- Poor communication and transparency– keeping people in the dark, not updating teams on anything new, the absence of clarity, concealing the truth – and therefore the grapevine being the source of all information.
- Poor behaviour– a very broad statement I know and examples include being ridiculed in a public meeting, being shouted at, having someone put the phone down on you. If it’s something you would be offended happening to you or a family member, then it falls in this category.
Banishing Toxic Behaviour
If you want your company, your team and your colleagues to thrive then pervasive toxic behaviour must stop. Listen to the feedback, do some deep self-reflection on whether your style is rewarded with getting the best from others, take action if you observe something that doesn’t seem right, have frequent adult conversations about what’s working and what’s not.
And most importantly, do not allow someone to “get away with it” because you think they’re gifted in other areas – you will lose out in the long run.
We’re all Human
Now having said all of that, I do want to temper it all with some thoughts on the vicious cycle of stress in the workplace.
Toxic behaviour undeniably causes stress, and for some this can lead to the devastating impacts of burnout and ill-health. But I also believe that toxic behaviour is often driven by stress itself – the pressure to perform and deliver can drive behaviours that display as a lack of respect, tolerance and care. I’m not excusing it on this basis, it’s just that sometimes there’s a deeper explanation and root cause to look at.
In my corporate career I mustered up the courage to speak to my boss about what was driving their poor and toxic behaviours (I didn’t put it like that obviously!). I knew I couldn’t continue to work in the environment that was being created, but I also knew that with the right environment I loved my job and could perform well. So rather than vote with my feet and a job application elsewhere, I decided I had nothing to lose by confronting the situation.
What followed astounded me. The level of personal stress that person was experiencing outside of work due to a whole range of factors, along with the pressure they were receiving from above, was driving some erratic and inconsiderate behaviour. We had a good conversation, albeit a very tough one, and decided on some next steps.
Did things improve overnight, of course not! However, with a deeper insight into my boss as a fellow human being and vice versa, we made steps to move forward.
I’ve also thought long and hard about whether my leadership style created something toxic at times and the answer is probably yes. Have I said the wrong thing in a meeting and upset someone – yes. Could I have given some tough feedback in a better way – yes. Have I been overly demanding of standards and delivery at times – yes. Have I expected too much of my team – yes. Am I devastated by these things – of course. Does all of that make me a toxic leader – I really hope not, but I am willing to reflect, learn and change.
Given most people who know me well will describe me as enormously caring, generous and supportive, this all seems a little incongruent. Significant long-term stress undoubtedly played a part, but some of it is simply about learning growing as a person. None of us are perfect; the key is that we take the lesson and always change for the better.
Taking a Look in The Mirror
My first recommendation is always to look inwards first. Are you doing everything you can to create a work environment for your colleagues and teams that will bring the best out in them? If in doubt, just ask. We’re all human.
Resources to help
I’m passionate about reducing stress and helping people avoid burnout, in order to enable everyone to thrive and excel. I do this through coaching, presentations, workshops and consulting. Here are a few resources I can offer in support:
- If you feel as though workplace stress is affecting your confidence then my Confidence Confessions book is an ideal starting point. I’ve experienced and observed simple but effective strategies for building lost-lasting confidence. And I share them all in this book.
- If you would prefer 1:1 support, then I offer a Coaching & Mentoring Taster Experience offer. It’s essentially a coaching session at a very special price to allow you to try it on for size, get a sense of me, and experience some great support in the process.