Breaking the Cycle of Toxic Workplaces

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  • ‘Toxic workplaces’ might be a buzzword, but toxicity’s impact on productivity and turnover are very real
  • You don’t have to accept a culture of negativity and diminishing returns
  • It’s possible to foster psychological safety and bolster productivity at the same time

How would you describe your workplace culture? Collaborative? Supportive? What about toxic?

The word “toxic,” when applied to a workplace, is a loose term. But it broadly describes an environment troubled by negative interactions between peers or management. Toxic environments make it difficult for employees to do their best and remain committed.

Those negative interactions? They can run the gamut from outright bullying to unlawful harassment to less obvious incidents. We could write whole blog posts about behaviors like micromanaging, microaggressions, or passive aggression. But in all of these instances, the results are similar: employees feel unheard, unsupported, unsafe, and/or not respected.

The results of that are stark. A toxic work environment is a breeding ground for bad morale. Low morale has been linked to reduced productivity, lower revenue, and high rates of turnover. Recent studies estimate that 1 in 5 workers have left a job due to a toxic culture. Turnover costs companies nearly $44 billion a year. In turn, these talent gaps worsen productivity and training issues. They force companies to focus disproportionately on hiring instead of training. Rather than building a positive culture, the revolving door continues the cycle of workplace toxicity.

In one study, Manuela Priesemuth of HBR said that “the problem [of abusive behavior] often goes further than a single individual … [it] can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.” Abusive managers model these behaviors to other employees and things grow from there. Their leadership role enshrines this disrespectful behavior in the status quo. Employees begin to accept and expect the behavior and perpetuate it themselves. This abuse can, sadly, become a deeply rooted part of a workplace’s culture.

You don’t have to work in a toxic environment. It is possible to have a positive, supportive environment. Here are some ways to improve the culture in your workplace.

Creating Psychological Safety

“Psychological safety” might sound like a buzzword, but don’t let that put you off. This one is easy. People need to feel safe, heard, and accepted. That means employees feel comfortable speaking about an issue without fear of retribution from management. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel like they can be their true self. They don’t feel judged, and they don’t feel gas lit.

While the concept of psychological safety is easy to grasp, achieving it can be tough. Managers aren’t psychic, so it’s a challenge to try to weigh other peoples’ emotions. Sometimes managers must make calls that employees won’t like. This might include delivering critical feedback or announcing position changes. In some cases, it could even mean corrective actions or layoffs. Those decisions aren’t personal, but they can be necessary. Managers can build goodwill with their reports by clearly communicating during these situations. Up-to-date information will allow you to control the narrative and discourage employees from creating their own stories about what’s going on.

But not all situations need to be so serious. Employees — people — make mistakes every day. A manager’s response to a mistake is crucial. Mistakes are a natural part of learning. Your business process should have ways to address mistakes through training and constructive feedback. Punishing or separating people for making mistakes breeds fear. If you allow for mistakes, then respect, positivity, and efficiency will grow.

Changing Culture from the top-down

Think about how often you check in with your employees. Do you encourage open and honest discussion about workloads and expectations? Your employees should have a chance to express their concerns without fear of retaliation. These steps could make massive impacts on productivity and engagement. Start by holding one-on-one or small group discussions. Focus on creating a forum your employees can use to sound off. These chats may reveal issues you didn’t know exist. You can then work with your employees to solve them.

Fostering employee engagement

Employee engagement isn’t always easy, and it isn’t about pizza parties or free coffee. True employee engagement is an inexpensive effort with a potentially profitable outcome. Employees need feedback to succeed in their job. Yes, that means they need constructive criticism of their work if they’ve done something incorrectly. But it also means that their positive behaviors and successes also need reinforcement.

Keeping employees engaged and recognized helps neutralize burnout and turnover. With many employees working remotely, this could be a great way to help them feel less isolated. So don’t hold back. There’s no limit to how much you can simply acknowledge a job well done. It costs nothing but could tighten your team and improve morale.

Employee satisfaction is also tied to employee confidence. The more they feel that they have the support of their manager and teammates, the higher their confidence and morale. A vacuum of feedback can hasten burnout, especially during periods of high workload.

Work-life balance

Employee satisfaction is also directly tied to work-life balance. Your employees’ work-life balance is strongly influenced by the company culture. Everyone understands that sometimes overtime is necessary. But making overtime a constant, compulsory threat shows disregard for employees’ personal lives. This isn’t about denying them downtime after work. It could mean disrupting medical appointments, routines, or child or elder care schedules. That could have collateral impacts on the lives of their families, spouse’s employment, and even their health.

But do not discount that downtime. People need to rest, relax, and regroup. They need time to indulge in hobbies, spend time with friends and family, and attend to personal chores. Denying people this time regularly is a recipe for low morale and high turnover.

Are we saying you should abolish overtime altogether? Of course not. But where possible, look for ways to be less reactive in your staffing. In other words, try to give your employees a solid idea of their work schedules as far out as possible. Be sure to communicate to your staff when and why you need to deviate from that schedule. That regular and dependable schedule will allow them to build a work life balance that works for you and them.

You don’t have to have a toxic workplace

Toxic workplaces and the cycle they create may appear difficult to improve. But you aren’t stuck. There are actions you can take. If you’re a manager with a team with high turnover, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are your employees getting stuck on tedious processes that stop them from being more productive?
  • Does your team feel there is honesty and understanding with leadership?
  • Are your work schedules irregular and is overtime common?
  • Do your employees feel safe, heard, and accepted at work?
  • Are you frequently asking employees to work on urgent tasks after hours?

Take a moment to consider those questions. You probably know how much overtime is being spent or how regular schedules are. But unless you’re a mind reader, the rest is probably just a guess. But you don’t have to rely on your guesses. Humans are, after all, notoriously bad at guessing. So take a moment to set up some time to talk to your employees. Keep engaged, have one-on-one meetings, and keep the lines of communication open.

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