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Top signs of a toxic workplace and how to deal with it

November 14, 2021
Borderless Leadership

“Toxic” has become an increasingly popular term to describe anything that could be psychologically unhealthy for us or encourage negative patterns. Unfortunately, this word is particularly applicable to the workplace. If business owners and managers aren’t careful, the organization and work culture they worked hard to build could spiral into the kinds of conditions that make their employees dread turning up to work every day.

Yet precisely because owners tend to be proud of their companies, they can be blinded from what’s really happening on the ground. If you’re asking yourself the difficult questions, you’re already doing better than most, but here are a few top signs of a toxic workplace and what you should do about them.

Signs of a toxic workplace
Spotting the signs of a toxic workplace is tough when you’re observing from up above and not down below — especially when so many of them are subjective and about how people feel rather more concrete metrics. Possessing good emotional intelligence helps with this, but here are a few more signs to look out for.

Incentives to stay in the office

Google offices are known for having some of the craziest offices going, from ball pits to crazy golf to pool tables. But is there something sinister going on behind all this? Let’s face it — no matter how much you genuinely care about your employees and their well-being, there’s an ulterior motive behind excessive efforts to keep them happy in the office.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the healthiest workplaces are often those where work isn’t packaged as play or “one big family” or making the world a better place — it’s simply work.

Lack of employee privacy

A lack of transparency in a company is often stated as a sign of a toxic workplace, but the other side of the coin is rarely discussed: a lack of employee privacy. Do you allow employees to submit anonymous feedback about workplace culture or does everything have to be sent in with their own name? Do you ask people on your team personal questions in front of everyone, putting them on the spot?

Just because someone works for you, it doesn’t make them your property. Respect their privacy by giving them the chance to reveal their honest opinions about their role or the company either anonymously or in private.


Most people would nod their heads in agreement with the notion that micromanagement is a very bad thing. But how many of them have the awareness to notice when they’re the micromanagers or spot the micromanagers in their organization? It’s far too easy to excuse excessive employee monitoring or instruction as “training” or “support,” but even if you can justify something rationally, it’s still micromanagement.

If it’s normal for employees in your organization to send every task they do to their manager for approval, it’s time to face some hard truths.

How to deal with a toxic workplace
Anyone can point the finger at a toxic workplace or co-worker, but finding a solution is something that even the most experienced business leaders and owners struggle with.

Beware here — sometimes, what can seem like a “toxic” workplace is just an environment with mismatched values. As a leader, you have the responsibility to cut through the noise and figure out what’s going on beneath the surface rather than getting caught up in the constant arguments and tensions.

Understanding values

A solid understanding of how values differ helps with that. There are a few different frameworks that explain values in different ways, but one of the most popular is the Spiral Dynamics theory popularized by Clare Graves and Don Beck, which says that human values follow the following trajectory:

  1. Basic survival needs like food and safety.
  2. Tribalistic beliefs like mysticism.
  3. Strength, rising to power and beating the competition.
  4. Order, rules and traditions.
  5. Individualism, success and rationality.
  6. Community, peace and dismantling hierarchy.
  7. Systems thinking, nuance and learning.
  8. Holism and universal spirituality.

The first two stages no longer have much relevance in the modern world, and you’d struggle to find any kind of group where stages seven and eight are implemented. But most businesses have a workforce made up of a variety of stages three to six, and that causes serious friction.

What do you think happens when you get a manager with stage three values leading a team that aligns with stage six values? A toxic workplace. What’s viewed as reasonable by one person will be seen as a personal affront to another.

To overcome this problem, get your workforce to communicate their values and how they link with their ideas about how to run a workplace — if possible, try to get people with similar values to work together.

Other solutions
Although mismatched values are a common culprit behind toxic workplaces, they’re not always responsible, which means that sometimes different solutions should be implemented. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Ensure a good work-life separation.
  • Allow employees to submit anonymous feedback.
  • Have one-on-one meetings where employees can express their feelings openly.
  • Let employees handle small tasks on their own and only offer feedback or instruction when they’ve finished.

Ready to purge the poison?
The first step towards stopping a workplace from being toxic is accepting that it’s toxic in the first place — and as simple as that sounds, it’s a hurdle that many business owners never manage to cross.

This won’t be an overnight process, but as you gradually encourage more honesty and communication, you’ll see some improvements. And nothing is more valuable than a workplace with motivated, happy employees.

By Tim Madden


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