Navigating Toxic Work Environments: A Guide For Leaders

Navigating Toxic Work Environments: A Guide For Leaders
Summary: Toxic work environments are a growing concern across industries, causing employee burnout and low morale. Research shows leadership plays a big role in creating and sustaining toxic cultures. It also shows leaders can be a critical part of cultivating a positive employee experience.

How To Fix A Broken Workplace Culture

Work shouldn't be a place where people feel unsafe, unvalued, or unhappy. Yet toxic work environments are a growing concern in the business world.

Recent research by TalentLMS and Culture Amp asked employees about the causes of toxicity at work, its effects, and how companies could eliminate it. The results share important insights into the role leadership plays in causing and sustaining an unhealthy work environment. They also give an indication of how leaders can prevent harmful culture going forward.

What Is A Toxic Work Culture?

A toxic work culture goes beyond just being annoying, disappointing, or unpleasant. It is one where bad behaviors are ingrained in the culture. They're so prevalent that they hurt employees, the work they do, and the company's overall success.

According to MIT Sloan, a toxic culture has five distinct attributes. It is an environment that is:

  • Disrespectful
  • Non-inclusive
  • Unethical
  • Cutthroat
  • Abusive

These characteristics can be fatal to wellness at work. According to the study, which surveyed 1000 US tech employees working in toxic work cultures, here's how it may be hurting you:

  • Retention – 45% of employees say they plan to quit their jobs because of toxic work conditions.
  • Wellness – 46% of employees report suffering from burnout because of a toxic work environment. And 45% of respondents agree that the culture is impacting their mental health.
  • Productivity – 48% say that the toxic work environment negatively affects their performance. And 45% of employees agree that it's damaging their confidence.

Respondents also shared that they feel leaders are largely responsible for shaping the culture in their organizations.

Executives, leaders, and managers have the potential to promote and sustain a toxic culture. Which means they also have the potential to reverse it and be your best asset in building a safe and healthy workplace.

How Leaders Help Create A Toxic Culture

It's not hard to understand how leaders are responsible for the work culture. They set policies and make decisions for every aspect of an employee's work experience.

In our research, employees stated that they feel leadership—from senior management to team managers to HR leaders—is mostly responsible for the toxic work environment.

Poor Management Skills

When leaders don't have the skills to manage their people with respect, they can end up (intentionally or otherwise) leaving employees feeling abused.

Poor treatment was a big reason people cited for their toxic culture. In fact, 42% of respondents say their managers are often inconsiderate and disrespectful of employees.

Bad feelings also build when leaders don't know how to handle the ins and outs of their jobs. When leaders don't prioritize projects or manage time well, employees get overloaded. Disorganization and confusion lead to burnout and resentment.

The micromanagement that results when leaders don't know how to delegate work also causes hard feelings.

Lack Of Communication

People get frustrated when managers don't know how to communicate or fail to be transparent. Being left in the dark about decisions or policies creates stress, and employees guess at how they should be fulfilling their jobs.

Frustration also builds when leaders make decisions behind closed doors and fail to share the purpose behind them. People have a hard time supporting a decision they don't understand or agree with.


Biases (real or perceived) hurt morale. They can also lead to legal problems and reduced productivity. And they're another problem at the forefront of toxic work cultures.

Biases can show up as favoritism, where certain people get preferred treatment consistently. Many employees surveyed see it show up in the form of discrimination. They reported unfair treatment based on age (43%), race (42%), and gender ( 41%).

Leadership's Role In Maintaining A Toxic Culture

Leadership's role in a toxic culture isn't just in creating it, but may also be in sustaining it once it's in place. Even well-meaning managers can be part of the problem when they fail to recognize or address bad practices at work. They keep up the status quo in the following ways.

Failure To See The Problem

If leaders don't know to look for problems, they'll often be completely oblivious. In our study, 45% of employees say that leadership is unaware of the toxicity and lives in a bubble. While their employees are considering quitting, many leaders are under the impression the company culture is healthy.

Being oblivious doesn't just keep the problem going. It can also make it worse, as employees feel their pain is being ignored.

Failure To Include All Voices

When leaders ignore employees or don't encourage them to contribute, those employees feel devalued. This happens when managers don't listen or don't respond to employee communication.

It also shows up as excluding people from important communication. In our research, 44% of respondents say they see leaders silencing employees often (i.e., cutting them out of key meetings or decisions).

Lack Of Accountability

Culture also stagnates when leaders do see a problem but don't do anything about it. Or worse, when they punish people for reporting the problem.

Nearly half of surveyed employees said they don't do or say anything about the toxic behaviors they see at work. Almost a third because they don't believe it will make a difference. And 20% because they're nervous about the consequences.

4 Ways Leadership Can Fix A Toxic Culture

With all these potential factors negatively affecting your culture, there is some good news. Just as leadership can be a big driving force behind the problem, they can also be a big part of the solution. Here are 4 ways leaders can help prevent and fight unhealthy behavior at work.

1. Prioritize Training

Upskill (or reskill) your executives and managers in the essentials of good leadership.

Many employees (43%) think training for leaders would help eliminate toxic work culture. Help out by making leadership training part of your L&D strategy. Cover the basics, like good communication and how to manage and assign workloads.

But don't forget to include more soft skills training as well—things like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training and courses on recognizing the signs of a toxic workplace (burnout, fatigue, etc.).

Training isn't just for leaders, either. Almost half of the employees surveyed agree that workplace training can help foster a more positive and healthy work environment. Make sure you (and your leaders) support wellness and soft skills training for employees as well.

2. Establish (And Support) Clear Policies

Having clear policies for the company and within teams will make it easier to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. Ensuring leaders are aware of and support them is equally important.

According to our survey, 44% of employees think applying rules fairly and equally for all employees and managers will help wipe out toxicity. Set policies for how leaders will handle bad behavior. And show employees you're dedicated to supporting those policies.

You should also create policies that promote healthy behaviors. Support good work/life balance by setting expectations around how and when employees should respond to work requests.

3. Provide Open Channels Of Communication

Leaders need to share important information but also have a platform for hearing employee voices. People want to know about decisions and events that will impact their work lives. A good 43% of employees agreed that increasing transparency would help eliminate negative feelings.

Giving people clear ways to share with their managers can also improve the culture. These could include direct contact info for HR teams. Or a dedicated "suggestion box" email or forum.

And don't forget about the importance of direct conversations. Use regular one-on-one meetings or performance reviews as an opportunity to ask for employee concerns.

When people know they'll get a response to their concerns and questions, they'll be more likely to speak up and be part of the solution.

4. Focus On Culture

Look for ways you can help foster teamwork and a stronger connection to the company. Host events that give people a chance to get to know one another and collaborate.

Nearly half of those surveyed said they've found company-organized social events helpful in combating a toxic culture. Things like team activities, off-site retreats, or daily companywide snack breaks. These kinds of activities provide chances to bond and build connections.

Connected Leaders Create A Healthy Work Environment

In our study, 43% of employees state they don't feel optimistic about the future of their company's culture. However, one-third of respondents said they believe their workplace culture will improve and become healthier in the future.

You can instill that feeling of optimism in your organization by committing to ending toxicity in the workplace. Make a good start by connecting those who shape the employee experience with your efforts. When your leadership team helps you build the culture you want, employees will be hopeful about the company and their future in it.

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