Toxic working environment evolve slowly. Weak, self-centered leaders lay the foundation and from there it only takes a few years until people are running away and the P&L is impacted. Check on yourself if you are in the middle of it.
Do you know that boss who never wants to hear your ideas? Do you remember that colleague that doesn’t share all information but rather wants to get ahead alone? What about that team lead that mainly leads by cynicism?
How do you feel when you are around those people?
People do not quit on jobs, they quit on toxic work cultures.
When you don’t like to work for your leaders anymore chances are high that there is an aspect of a toxic work environment involved. Meaning: over time an atmosphere evolved in which people don’t feel valued, welcomed or important. In a more extreme way people would also feel bullied and mistreated. In consequence, they will lose engagement and eventually leave the company. Unluckily, the toxic air creates such a distrust that leavers will not tell you the truth for their exit.
Let’s examine this topic a bit further. How does “toxic” look like? How has it been created?
Your feedback is not welcome
Honestly, no one would really give that statement in a company’s brochure. Not even in the worst of all companies. Yet, people might fear to express what they really think. They might have expressed their ideas in the past but learned by the reaction of their superiors that their ideas are not welcome.
How would you know whether that might be true in your working environment? Check on your own vocabulary whether you have ever used the following sentences: “We already considered that aspect. It never worked in the past.” “Why are you even bothering!? ” “It’s none of your business.” “Don’t you have more important stuff to do?” “Get into my age … then you will see the matter differently.” “Why are you asking this question?”
Even if you think, you have every right to react that way, you must be aware that the underlying message is: your feedback/question is not welcome. And your staff will learn. Quickly.
In addition, if you never hear feedback or troubling questions from your staff, you might be in the middle of a toxic environment. Your staff already is silent. Ouch! Too honest? Too bold?
I am convinced, if your staff consists of young professionals with an academic degree, you should hear questions, opinions and feedback all the time. This is the environment where they are coming from. It’s their natural behavior within university. And if they turn silent in your team and projects, you are in trouble!
Be honest to yourself: Do you still discuss with your young teammates or are they already silent?
To backbite somebody is the primary conflict solution
How are conflicts addressed in your team/company? How often do you go to someone and give direct feedback? It is so much easier to talk about people instead of addressing them directly, right?
And yet, if we as team heads model such behaviour, the team will automatically copy it. In the beginning it might be unimportant topics like someone’s vacation destination or project situation. But quite quickly information regarding failure, bad behaviour or even sicknesses join the conversation. And soon it isn’t only about the share of information but also the expression of opinions. Judgement joins the talk – and soon everyone in the room knows that no one is safe of bad talk behind their backs.
And at that point the atmosphere is toxic. If your teammates don’t feel safe, they will start to protect themselves – by sharing less of themselves. And of what they know. Which leads to the next major aspect of a toxic working environment.
Don’t share your information
Information is like love and laughter – if you share it, everyone has more. Imagine, you share an idea and someone in the group adds a certain aspect and all of a sudden your team develops a new product or service. Only because you add all the puzzle pieces in your heads. Amazing!
At the same time sharing information makes you vulnerable. People might oppose your shared knowledge – or even judge you for sharing that piece of information. Others might use the information to get ahead of you – or even against you.
Depending on the environment you are in, you will feel free and happy to share your information or you will hide and hold onto your piece of knowledge as long as possible.
Unluckily, if you are already in a toxic environment, ‘information hiding’ will be totally natural for you. You will read books and articles of company’s success factors and the key role of sharing information – but you cannot even think of how this could be done in your working environment. You might even think that you are sharing information – considering the 5% given in the last team meeting. But you think everyone who is promoting total transparency must be a total fool.
Considering the environment you are in: you are right. You are doing everything to survive. And you do it well. Congrats. But look around you: your team isn’t growing. In your team meetings is no laughter.
You might think “So what!?” – even if I am working in the a similar culture as described… I work in it every day. It pays my bills. I get along. Why even bother!?
The downside of a toxic working environment is that the poison never stops spreading. You probably start with a slightly bad atmosphere but without an antidote it will progress and influence your team and company. Over time you will see the effects in your attrition rate, then in your online reviews as an employer and at it worst it will be played back by your customers. And then it has true impact on your P&L.
If your teammates don’t trust each other, don’t even like each other, you will have weak customer interaction. The client will realize quickly whether your staff values one another. And why should the customer buy from you, if you wouldn’t even buy from yourself!?
What is the antidote?
Truth is: You cannot change people around you, you can only change yourselves.
So let me ask you this: Would you like to work for yourself?
Take your time. And think.
[these questions might support the reflection: Do you think that you promote an atmosphere of trust and respect? What behaviour of teammates let you believe that your answer is correct? What evidence do you have that you create a working environment in which your team thrives?]
I am convinced: You are the antidote. You can be the leader that creates that working environment people want to work in. But it needs your boldness to check on the status quo and the willingness to change if you see behaviour in yourself that is creating a toxic environment. As much as you are the solution – if your team/company is struggling, you also might be the problem.