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Toxic Leadership & Toxic Employees: How to Fix a Toxic Workplace

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.
Published on January 4, 2024

In today’s dynamic and competitive business landscape, the role of leadership in maintaining a healthy work culture cannot be overstated. One of the most critical challenges leaders face is dealing with toxic traits in the workplace.

Toxic traits can permeate an organization at various levels, from toxic leadership to toxic employees, and they have a profoundly negative impact on both the organization’s culture and its people. Below we deep into the concept and provide actionable strategies for leaders to address these issues and foster a healthier, more productive workplace.

What is a Toxic Work Environment?

A toxic work environment is characterized by negative behaviors, attitudes, and practices that create a hostile, unproductive, and stressful atmosphere. These negative elements can manifest at multiple levels within an organization, spreading like a virus and affecting employee morale, productivity, and retention. To truly understand the impact of toxic traits, it’s crucial to recognize their presence and take proactive steps to mitigate their effects.

Understanding Toxic Traits

Toxic traits in the workplace encompass a wide range of behaviors and characteristics that harm the organization and its employees. These traits can include:

  • Manipulation
  • Workplace bullying
  • Lack of empathy
  • Micromanagement
  • Favoritism & more

They undermine trust, damage relationships, and foster a culture of negativity, ultimately hindering individual and collective growth.

Toxic traits negatively impacts employees & organizational culture in several ways

Eroding Trust - Toxic traits erode trust within teams and the broader organization. Employees become skeptical of leadership and their colleagues, making it challenging to collaborate effectively.

Damaging Relationships - These traits create interpersonal conflicts and strained relationships among employees, leading to a divisive and unhealthy work environment.

Decreasing Productivity - Toxic traits often result in reduced productivity, as employees may become demotivated, disengaged, or focused on navigating office politics rather than their tasks.

Hindering Growth - Toxic traits can stifle individual and organizational growth, as they discourage open communication and innovation.

Promoting Negativity - The prevalence of toxic traits encourages negativity and cynicism, which can spread rapidly, further perpetuating a toxic company culture.

Toxic Work Environment Signs

Recognizing the signs of a toxic workplace is essential for leaders. These signs are often indicative of underlying issues and may include:

High Turnover Rates- Frequent departures of employees suggest dissatisfaction and a lack of loyalty to the organization.

Chronic Disengagement - Employees who seem disinterested or apathetic about their work are likely influenced by a toxic atmosphere.

Increased Conflict - Frequent conflicts, disputes, and disagreements among team members may point to deeper cultural issues.

Culture of Blame- A pervasive blame culture where mistakes are punished rather than seen as opportunities for improvement.

Decline in Productivity and Innovation - Reduced output and a lack of creative solutions can indicate a toxic workplace.

Identifying Toxic Leadership

Toxic leadership plays a central role in the creation and perpetuation of a toxic work environments. Leaders who exhibit destructive behaviors can have far-reaching consequences, affecting not only their teams but the entire organization. Recognizing toxic and destructive leaders is a vital step in addressing these issues effectively.

What is Toxic Leadership?

Toxic leadership can manifest in various ways, including:

Lack of Accountability - Toxic leaders frequently shift blame onto others and are reluctant to take responsibility for their actions or decisions.

Micromanagement - They excessively control and scrutinize their employees’ work, stifling creativity and autonomy.

Poor Communication - Toxic leaders may withhold information, leaving employees feeling excluded and undervalued.

Favoritism - They may play favorites, creating an unhealthy sense of competition and resentment among team members.

Lack of Empathy - Toxic leaders often disregard the well-being and emotions of their employees, causing stress and dissatisfaction.

Signs of Toxic Leadership

To help identify toxic leadership, here are some real-world examples of behaviors and traits:

Blaming Others - Toxic leaders frequently blame others for their mistakes and rarely accept feedback or criticism.

Unrealistic Expectation - They set unattainable goals and expectations, leading to constant stress and burnout among employees.

Incompetence - Toxic leaders may be incompetent in their job roles, eroding trust and respect from their team.

Undermining Confidence - They are often highly critical and undermine the self-confidence of their employees, leading to self-doubt and insecurity.

Lack of Support - Toxic leaders provide minimal support for employee growth and development, hindering professional advancement.

Physical Symptoms of Stress - The negative impact of toxic leaders can manifest as physical symptoms of work-related stress among employees.

Unhealthy Interpersonal Relationships - Toxic leaders tend to foster unhealthy interpersonal relationships within the organization, leading to a divisive atmosphere.

High Disengagement and Turnover - A direct consequence of toxic leadership is high disengagement and turnover rates among employees.

It’s important to note that toxic leaders aren’t necessarily bad people; rather, their behaviors and traits unintentionally create toxic work environments. However, this doesn’t excuse their actions, and it’s crucial to address these behaviors for the well-being of the organization and its employees.

Impact of Toxic Leadership

The impact of toxic leadership on an organization can be far-reaching and damaging. Some of the key effects include:

Employee Dissatisfaction - Toxic leadership leads to widespread employee dissatisfaction, as employees feel undervalued and unsupported.

Low Productivity - Employees under toxic leadership often experience reduced productivity due to stress, disengagement, and a lack of motivation.

Interdepartmental Conflict- Toxic leaders can create rifts between departments and teams, hindering effective collaboration and communication.

Stagnant Innovation - A culture of fear and blame under toxic leadership stifles creativity and innovation, inhibiting the organization’s growth and adaptability.

High Turnover Rate - Toxic leadership drives talented employees away from the organization, resulting in high turnover and increased recruitment costs.

Gaslighting - Employees frequently feel gaslighted, as toxic leaders manipulate perceptions and deny the reality of their actions.

Unrealistic Expectations - Toxic leaders set impossible standards, resulting in employees perpetually feeling like they’re falling short.

Incompetence - Leaders who exhibit toxic traits often lack the competence required for their roles, negatively impacting the organization’s success.

Lack of Confidence - Employees may lose confidence in their abilities due to the constant criticism and negativity of toxic leaders.

Limited Support for Growth - Toxic leaders provide little support for employee growth and development, leading to stagnation and frustration.

Physical Symptoms of Work Stress - Toxic workplaces can manifest as physical symptoms of emotional health and work-related stress, including headaches, fatigue, and anxiety among employees.

Unhealthy Interpersonal Relationships - Toxic leaders foster unhealthy interpersonal relationships within the organization, contributing to a culture of distrust and animosity.

High Disengagement and Turnover - Disengagement and turnover rates soar under toxic leadership, as employees seek a more positive work environment.

Overcoming Toxic Leadership

While toxic leadership can seem daunting, it is possible to address and rectify these behaviors. Leaders, with the right mindset and commitment to change, can transform themselves and create a healthier work environment. Here are some strategies to overcome toxic leadership:

Self-Reflection - Leaders should engage in regular self-reflection to identify their toxic traits and their impact on others.

Seek Feedback - Leaders should actively seek feedback from peers, subordinates, and mentors to gain insights into their behaviors and areas for improvement.

Coaching and Development - Investing in leadership development programs and coaching can provide leaders with the tools and skills they need to change.

Recognize the Need for Change - Leaders must acknowledge the need for change and commit to personal growth and development.

Is it possible to truly detoxify a toxic leader?

The answer lies in the willingness to change and grow. Some leaders may resist change or lack the ability or self-awareness required to address their toxic traits effectively. Others can evolve their skills and create a more positive work environment.

While complete transformation is possible for some leaders, it may not be attainable for all. In cases where transformation is not possible, organizations may need to consider alternative strategies, including leadership development or leadership changes to ensure the well-being of their employees and to create a healthier work environment.

Identifying Toxic Employees

Toxic employees exhibit behaviors that undermine team dynamics and productivity. It is essential for leaders to differentiate between a difficult employee and a truly toxic one.

Difference between a Difficult employee and a toxic employee

While difficult employees may have occasional challenges, toxic employees consistently exhibit detrimental behavior that negatively impacts their colleagues and the organization.

Characteristics and behaviors of toxic employees may include

Toxic Positivity - They may constantly maintain a facade of positivity while undermining colleagues behind the scenes.

Toxic Empathy - Toxic employees may feign empathy but use it manipulatively to achieve personal gain.

Culture of Blame - They contribute to a culture of blame, deflecting responsibility for their mistakes onto others.

Toxic Productivity - These individuals may focus on productivity at any cost, disregarding the well-being and boundaries of their colleagues.

Lack of Accountability - Toxic employees often refuse to take responsibility for their actions and may blame others for their failures.

Manipulative Behavior - They may manipulate and exploit colleagues for personal gain, eroding trust and cooperation.

Resistance to Feedback - Toxic employees may resist constructive feedback and become defensive when their behavior is addressed.

Impact of Toxic Employees

Toxic employees can have a ripple effect on team dynamics and productivity.

A toxic person and their behavior often leads to:

Reduced Morale - Toxic employees create a negative atmosphere, lowering team morale and enthusiasm.

Increased Turnover - Their presence can drive talented employees away, resulting in higher turnover rates.

Culture of Blame - Toxic employees contribute to a culture where blame is the norm, making it difficult to foster accountability and growth.

Decreased Productivity - Team productivity can suffer as employees focus on managing their toxic boss’ behavior rather than their tasks.

Unhealthy Interactions- Toxic employees often engage in unhealthy interpersonal interactions, undermining team cohesion.

Dealing with Toxic Employees

Effectively dealing with the toxic behaviors of employees requires a strategic approach.

Strategies for leaders to address toxic employee behavior

Open Communication - Encourage open dialogue with toxic employees to understand their concerns and provide constructive feedback.

Clear Expectations - Set clear expectations and boundaries to establish a framework for acceptable behavior.

Support and Development - Offer opportunities for personal and professional growth to help toxic employees improve their behavior.

Constructive Feedback - Provide specific and constructive feedback on their behavior and its impact on the team and organization.

Document Incidents - Keep records of incidents related to toxic behavior to support your actions and decisions.

Seek HR Guidance - Consult with your HR department or a professional if the situation becomes particularly challenging or requires legal expertise.

Team Intervention - Consider involving the entire team in addressing toxic behavior, fostering accountability among peers.

Accountability - This is probably the most important point - hold toxic employees accountable for their actions and provide consequences for continued detrimental behavior.

Ultimately, addressing toxic employees is essential for maintaining a healthy work culture and ensuring the well-being of the organization and its employees.

Do You Have a Toxic Work Environment?

Recognizing a toxic workplace is the first step in addressing the issue effectively. If you observe signs of toxicity in your workplace, it’s crucial to take action promptly.

To determine whether you have a toxic workplace

1) Define What Constitutes a Toxic Work Environment

Clearly define what constitutes a toxic work environment within your organization. This may involve assessing factors like employee morale, turnover rates, and the prevalence of toxic traits.

2) Recognize the Signs

Be vigilant in recognizing the signs of toxicity, including high turnover, chronic disengagement, increased conflict, a culture of blame, and declining productivity and innovation.

3) Proving the Existence of a Toxic Work Environment

To convince your superiors that something needs to be done, gather data, conduct surveys, and collect testimonials from employees who have experienced the negative effects of toxicity.

4) Addressing Toxic Workplaces

Understand that leadership plays a critical role in shaping the work environment. Commit to addressing toxic traits at all levels of the toxic traits organization.

5) How to Deal with a Toxic Environment

If you are a leader within the organization, take responsibility for addressing the toxic workplace. Encourage open communication, set clear expectations, and actively work towards creating a healthier culture.

Fostering a Healthy Workplace Culture

To combat toxicity in the workplace, leaders must prioritize building a culture of trust, respect, and accountability.

Fostering a healthy workplace culture involves several key steps:

Open Communication - Encourage open and transparent communication at all levels of the organization. Ensure that employees feel heard and valued.

Recognize and Reward Positive Behaviors - Acknowledge and reward positive behaviors and contributions to the company and reinforce a culture of positivity.

Provide Opportunities for Growth - Offer opportunities for professional development and career growth to show employees that their well-being and advancement are priorities.

Lead by Example - Demonstrate the desired behaviors and traits by leading with empathy, humility, and integrity.

Create a Safe Space - Foster an environment where employees feel safe to voice concerns and provide feedback without fear of retaliation.

Set Clear Expectations - Clearly define expectations and boundaries to guide behavior and decision-making.

Promote Diversity and Inclusion - Encourage diversity and inclusion to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

Implement Conflict Resolution Strategies - Develop effective conflict resolution strategies to address issues promptly and constructively.

Leaders play a pivotal role in identifying and addressing toxic traits in the workplace.

A toxic employee or toxic leader’s behavior can have severe consequences for workplace culture, employee well-being and organizational success.

While the journey to overcoming toxic traits can be challenging, it is essential for the long-term success of any organization.

By recognizing the signs and taking proactive steps to address and rectify toxic behavior, leaders can foster a healthier, more productive workplace for a more fulfilling business and personal life for themselves and their teams.

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