11 tell-tale signs of a toxic work culture you might be normalising

We all want to prevent working in a toxic culture. Everyone hates it, and no one benefits from it. Absolutely no one!

Why can’t we seem to get rid of this damned thing?

There is much evidence and experience available that points to the negative impact on employee’s health as well as on the organisation’s ability to perform.

With all this knowledge available why do organisations continue to be bedevilled with its presence?

This is crazy, right?

The first step will be to build awareness about how toxicity shows up. In many organisations, the toxic culture has been normalised to the point that it isn’t even noticed. ‘This is how people are here!’ is a common exasperated comment.

If we remain blind or in denial about it, we collude with the toxic status quo and are in for many more days of the ‘same-old, same-old' energy-sucking, productivity depleting story!


Take a look around and observe what is happening.

With your awareness sharpened you will start noticing the tell-tale signs which in turn enable you to act on the choices you have to engage more skilfully when toxicity arises.

An upfront myth buster! Here’s the deal...

You cannot expect a 100% toxic-free company culture.

Toxic behaviours will show up, especially during high levels of pressure in tough and uncertain times.

Through cultivating the necessary awareness, co-creating ways-of-working agreements and making intentional choices, a positive workplace culture is created and maintained.

Empowering your organisation with awareness and intentional skills development shifts the experience.

Here are 11 red flag signals that should be heeded:

1) - The leader’s voice takes the majority of airtime in meetings and brainstorming sessions, with the rest of the team (there are a few extroverted exceptions) not bringing their voices in.

Why do the majority of voices choose to remain quiet?

2) - Leaders don’t actively solicit and encourage diverging views in meetings to help enrich the team’s perspectives and solutions on team challenges.

Why are diverging views often seen as an irritation and are overtly or covertly shut down?

3) - Problems cycle. Just as a problem in a team seems to have been resolved, it shows up again, and so once organisational performance is up it dips to its low levels again. The increase in performance is often achieved through effort from the leader and accompanied by measures that are laden with threats.

If everyone is part of the problem, why are they not asked to be part of the solution?

4) - Cutting each other down and showing disrespect is an obvious sign of toxicity. The more silent and subtle versions of contemptuous behaviour need a closer look at. These include eye-rolling and subtle dismissive and condescending body language and should not be underestimated. Our bodies are honed to pick these signals up and respond with protective behaviours.

Why is this type of subtle behaviour not addressed or condoned?

5) - Some work cultures advocate the ‘naming and shaming’ approach as an effective way to uplift performance. While this is widely used, it is a source of toxicity with a great impact on the turnover rate. People will take action to prevent being shamed, it however also drives disengagement, disloyalty and bullying in the organisation.

What is attractive about this inhumane style?

6) - Favouritism is a frustrating topic for everyone in teams and organisations and is often denied by the leader and their ‘favourites’. Attempts to deny or defend this approach often goes along the lines of justifying why this or that person is chosen or awarded. This approach, however, misses the opportunity to appreciate the myriad of contributions all team members bring to your business.

How can a leader’s self awareness help to notice the signals of marginalisation of some team members?

7) - Gossip is a given in all organisations. The typical water cooler or smoking area conversations are good channels for employees to find out what everybody else thinks and feels about the organisation and to vent about frustrating topics.

Here you will find a lot of emotive talking and it acts as a pressure valve for the organisation.

Why are these conversations not happening around the table?

8) - Everything depends on the leader - the rest just execute. Finding this heading here under toxicity might be surprising to some. Isn’t that how it is supposed to be and isn’t this the case in most organisations every day? Isn’t that what we have leaders for? To tell everyone what to do?

Why is no one else shouldering some ownership for excellence?

9) - Blaming vs problem-solving. When the pressure is high and things haven’t gone the way that they were intended to, blame is all too often quickly allocated. Who or what will be scapegoated for the current outcome. You hear many explanations, often implicating someone for not doing what they were told to do. The presence of blame then brings on another toxic behaviour, namely defensiveness. This perpetuates a toxic work environment, preventing the team to sit through a creative problem-solving process.

Why do we not see how this approach prevents forward looking solutions?

10) - The lack of emotional language. While this is not a toxic behaviour per se, it is an important tell tale sign of a toxic culture.

In general, there continues to be a lot of shyness about bringing the language of emotions into the workplace. At the same time, many leaders are wanting people to bring their full self to work. If we bring our full self to work, then we need to acknowledge that we are relational beings and we all have emotions that we feel.

The question ‘How are you feeling?’ builds emotional intelligence through self awareness.

How can you be more emotionally aware to also improve productivity?

11) - Lack of appreciation. Appreciation to an individual or team is like oxygen to our body. Everyone flourishes in the presence of appreciation.

Our common culture, however, is more attuned to looking for evidence about what didn’t work, what could have been done better and who did what wrong.

How do you shift your focus to start seeing and acknowledging the myriad of great things that happen around you all day?

Some of these points might look like the standard modus operandi in your team or organisation.

This may be a good indication that they have been normalised.

Here is the opportunity to take a step back and to look at why this has become the norm! How and why is everyone colluding to maintain this unhealthy work environment?

By allowing this to continue, what is the long term impact on your organisation’s ability to deliver on its potential? And what about the personal lives of your employees?

What’s the bottom line?

We as human beings are wired for connection, for relationship. That is our biological and psychological make up. We cannot walk away from this, and if we don’t include it into our leadership competencies and skills, it will keep tripping us up.

Working in and across teams is rife with the complexity of human relationships. High performing teams have developed the necessary awareness and competencies, and through that created clear contracts around managing toxicity.

We are all human beings that come to work and have an irrepressible urge for meaning and belonging. Leading with Relationship Systems Intelligence equips leaders and their teams to navigate this complexity with awareness and skill.

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