Home Business & Industry How to Spot and Deal with Toxic Workplaces

How to Spot and Deal with Toxic Workplaces

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Your well-being can depend on your ability to spot, avoid, or deal with toxic teams, carcinogenic colleagues, and other forms of poisonous people that lurk at work. 

What are the signs that a workplace is toxic and psychologically unsafe? What effects do toxic people have on your wellbeing? How can you spot and stop them before they do you harm? How can you protect your wellbeing from such toxins? 

In horror films, the music, the scene, the sinister behaviour, are highly notable, immediately. Toxic cultures are very different. The damage done by them is emotional, psychological, reputational. Outward signs can be hard to spot, particularly when the toxicity is led by high functioning narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths. Each of the toxic triad, can, at interview, present as charming, likeable, even charismatic, as was the case with everyone in history guilty of genocide. How can you spot their toxicity early on, ideally before you are in their grasp?

Most common indicators of a toxic workplace

  • Law breaking and regulation breaching. If you are new to an organisation and you spot illegalities, that is a certain sign of toxicity. If the toxins have reached the point that they commit crimes where and when a new comer can easily spot them, they have, in their minds, become untouchable. They have seen off anyone and everyone who has challenged them, and no longer care who knows.
  • Moral and ethical wrongdoing. When the acts of wrongdoing are not criminal or regulatory breaches, yet are conducted in plain sight, the wrongdoers know they are on safe ground. Many people before you have seen it, been morally injured by it, and have been faced with a choice: become silently complicit, or leave.
  • Subjective and capricious application of internal rules. Toxic organisations apply and don’t apply their own rules, to suit the interests of the toxins in chief. For instance, a person may be subjected to disciplinary proceedings for challenging the toxic behaviour they are subjected to, on the grounds that they a breaching the “dignity at work policy” by making that challenge.
  • Principles of natural justice are ignored and deliberately circumvented. If an investigation is launched in an attempt to legitimise illegal acts, all principles of natural justice will be ignored. The veneer of justice will be put on processes which have their outcomes determined, by, for example, perverse terms of reference before they start. Or direct reports will be asked to conduct an “independent” investigation into their boss.
  • Subjective and self-serving decisions are passed off as objective and evidence-based. Self-serving opinions and claimed feelings, which are made up to suit the toxic stance taken, are regarded with the same weight as facts and evidence. Narcissists are infamously incapable of separating their feelings from reality; they present their emotions as if they were hard facts, and when challenged, go in to narcissistic rage, attacking anyone who draws attention to their wrongdoing.
  • Spin displaces standards. In toxic organisations, spin is the default setting. The values lived (values in use), contrast with the values espoused, or claimed. That is, for example, honesty, integrity and transparency are claimed, but opacity, deceit and duplicity are practiced.
  • Style is valued over substance. An example of this is when noxious narcissists are promoted more than conscientious contributors. When an organisation has reached the tipping of toxicity, almost always presentation is more valued than performance. Why? Because the preservation of toxic organisations is dependent on spin. The truth cannot be admitted or told. Toxic spinners are promoted and those who add real value start their mass exodus.
  • Hypocritical virtue signalling. Healthy workplaces avoid virtue signalling. Instead, they live the virtues; they set an example. They don’t need to virtue signal; they know actions are the best message. Toxic organisations, by contrast, talk but don’t walk they virtues they espouse. As a general rule, the more an organisation virtue signals, the surer you can be that they do the exact opposite of what they claim.
  • High staff turnover rate. Another of the certain toxicity benchmarks is the level of staff turnover. When people are choosing to leave even before their probationary period is complete that workplace is especially toxic.
  • Lack of recognition and appreciation. The old adage, “People join organisations, and leave their managers” is true. The staff turnover associated with any one toxic leader is a measure of just toxic they are.   
  • Surveillance and spying on staff. If staff are being spied on, above and beyond normal oversight, the culture is almost certainly toxic.
  • Blame culture. When things go wrong, as they do in every organisation, do the people “leading” the organisation seek to identify the cultural, structural or systemic reasons for the problem? Or, do they move to find someone, anyone, certainly not themselves, to blame? Those ‘leading’ toxic organisations play the blame game, and are devoid of self-insight or self-reflection.
  • Microaggressions, microinvalidations, microinsults. In toxic organisations the chief toxins create the culture by example. They make micro attacks on anyone who questions or challenges them; a subtle aggression here, an invalidation of someone’s experience there, and minor undermining insults aimed everywhere they think it will give them a perceived advantage. How do they create the culture? Other see such toxic behaviour going unaddressed. When such toxicity is coming from “leaders”, staff know won’t be challenged, they are faced with a choice: be subjected to it, or leave the organisation. Healthy people leave, and the fledgling toxic recruits remain, and the culture of toxicity grows.
  • Blocking contrary evidence and dissent. When people in organisations begin to block or refuse to see contrary evidence, they are headed towards the nadir of toxicity: group think. In that state, everything is interpreted to validate the toxic status quo.
  • Truth-tellers are terminated and whistleblowers are wiped out. Rightdoers are reframed as wrongdoers. For example, imagine that a person asking for necessary oversight information, is being denied that information on false pretexts, and then challenges those lies. In a toxic organisation, the people withholding the information will reframe the legitimate requests and challenges (about the lies), as ‘demonstrating a lack of trust’ in the obstructors.
  • The messenger is the problem. When toxicity gets hold of an organisation, and people of integrity raise that issue, they are seen as the problem: raising problems is the problem.
  • Right is wrong. Imagine someone uncovering multiple illegalities in a toxic organisation, and that person is legally obliged to alert the authorities to the legal and regulatory breaches. That lawful act is then reframed, by the toxins, as ‘undermining the credibility of the leadership group.’ Reporting breaches of trust to the regulator is reframed as a breach of trust. Refusing to participate in dangerous, illegal or irresponsible decisions, is packaged as ‘failing to abide by collective responsibility.’ 

George Orwell pinpointed it: in toxic organisations “newspeak” and “double-think” are common, and in the worst cases, the norm. A cubicle becomes an “executive suite”, a person in charge of a team of three, including themselves, in a vast department of several hundred, becomes the “vice president of…” Even words are twisted to mean the opposite of the truth: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Recognising and addressing signs of toxic organisational culture

“Trust” comes to mean, the willingness not to expose the wrongdoing and breaches of trust being used to exploit or harm others. ‘Trust’ees, are those who can trusted to be silently or actively complicit in illegal conduct.

  • The spiral of silent complicity. After someone has turned a blind eye to wrongdoing once, to protect their jobs, they are more likely to do it again, and be wilfully blind to worse wrongdoing the next time. Loop down that spiral often enough, and the person will be willing to break the law. Once they have done that a few times, they are implicated, and thus can be depended upon to do just about anything illegal asked of them.
  • Flying monkeys. For any toxic organisation to become so, there must be an army of flying monkeys. They are the minions of the toxins in chief, and will do their toxic bidding.
  • Self-delusion. Almost all villains delude themselves into thinking they are the good guys. To preserve that illusion, as George Orwell so aptly described in his landmark book, 1984, toxic people practice this principle: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
  • Silent treatment and exclusions. Are people ignored, excluded, sidelined, belittled, blanked, ghosted? If so, you are dealing with toxic people and a toxic organisation.
  • Empathy vacuum. When you or others have a personal problem, how are you treated? If there is no empathy, no support, no curiosity, toxicity is present.
  • One-sided loyalty is expected. If the organisation’s “leaders” expect loyalty, but never show it, you are in a toxic workplace.
  • Moving goal posts. Speak to any sales professional, and they will be able to tell you of toxic companies they left for this reason: when they achieved or came close to achieving their sales targets, the goal posts were moved, and in disgust, they left, and took their clients with them.
  • Jam tomorrow. How many times have you been promised rewards tomorrow that never come? When people are promised jam tomorrow, and it never arrives, trust breaks down, moral declines, and people start to secure a better tomorrow elsewhere. Toxic organisations promise jam tomorrow; healthy organisations contractually commit to it.
  • Ineffective regulators. Has there been a single prosecution of any toxic “leader” for creating a psychologically unsafe and toxic culture. If so, I can find not a single case. For as long as those who create toxic and psychologically unsafe cultures are not held to account, they will continue to increase in number.
  • Poor or one-way communication. One of the sure-fire markers of toxic organisations is the communication. If meetings are one-way communication, head for the exit ASAP. If information does not flow freely, or is it shrouded in secrecy and gossip, you are in a toxic environment. If leadership avoids difficult conversations or imposes unclear or unrealistic expectations, you are in a toxic workplace. Ineffective communication breeds mistrust and frustration.
  • Ignoring or rejecting new ideas. Good leaders know that ideas are the currency of effective organisations. Toxic leaders either ignore ideas, or reject them without a proper hearing. If you are required to leave your brain at home, you are certainly in a toxic workplace.
  • Buzzword blah, blah, blah. When people throw the latest buzzwords in to every other sentence, to be seen to be using it, you are in a toxic culture. Empowerment, engagement, sustainability are all wise, but when such words are over used to the point of becoming no more than virtue signalling, trust leaves, and toxicity enters.

There are many more toxic tells. 

Steps to protect yourself from a toxic workplace

  • In case of toxic emergency, run, don’t walk.  Your health is massively important; if you find yourself in a toxic workplace, get out ASAP, or sooner. The risks of damage are to every aspect of your life and health. I have provided therapy for people who have suffered the abuse of toxic cultures, and can confirm that it is devastating. Here are just some of the ways in which toxic workplace will harm you.
  • Physical health damage.  Chronic stress caused by a toxic workplace can manifest as headaches, stomach-aches, and sleep disturbances, and weakening of your immune system, leading to all sorts of illness.
  • Mental health harm.  Exposure to constant toxicity is known to lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.  Feeling undervalued and unsupported can lead to permanent damage your self-esteem.
  • Performance impairment.  Toxic workplaces decrease motivation, increase errors, absenteeism, and presenteeism (being present but adding no value). Being productive and creative is nearly impossible in a toxic workplace, while surrounded by toxic people.
  • Relationships damage.  If you are subjected to toxicity at work, with all the consequences above, that is bound to impact your relationships with loved ones.
  • What can you do to protect yourself from a toxic workplace? The best advice is: don’t; get out. If you can’t get out, what can you attempt to minimise the damage?
  • Document Everything.  If you experience toxicity, keep a record of incidents with dates, times, and witnesses, and the impact it had or is having on you.
  • Set Reasonable Boundaries.  Choose to say no to unreasonable treatment and demands and protect your time.
  • Maintain a Positive Mindset.   Focus on the aspects of your work that you find enjoyable and rewarding.  Connect with positive colleagues in a mutually supportive group.
  • HR is not your friend. Do not assume that HR is there to help you; they are not. They are paid by the organisation to protect the organisation, and that includes protecting it from anyone who may blow the whistle on the toxicity. “Who pays the piper calls the tune.” Faced with a toxic manager or a person who may sue the company because of the toxic manager or culture, who do you think HR will turn against and oust?
  • Develop Your Skills.  Invest in your professional development to improve your value in the market place. Explore other career options if necessary. Become someone so valuable that you can choose where to work, and with whom, and on what terms.

Bottom line

Toxic people are damaged people, and they will damage you, too, if you let them. Usually several from a wide range of mental health problems. The incidence of narcissism, sociopathy and psychopathy and other personality disorders in the work place is high, and those types of conditions are the most intractable; do not assume that the toxic people will change their behaviour. They won’t, they can’t; don’t try to change them.

Your first responsibility is to protect your health, and that of your family from them. 

If you are in a toxic workplace, what steps will you take to get out, and if you can’t, how will you protect yourself?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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