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First 7 Signs of a Toxic Workplace (and What to Do About it)

How high absenteeism may signal a toxic workplace culture


Negative workplaces don’t attract or retain the best people. No decent person wastes time in a toxic workplace with backstabbing, freezing out, bullying, passive aggressiveness, or apathy. If these signs of a toxic culture aren't obvious, look for absenteeism, high turnover, poor results, and wellbeing issues.

In a Beyond Blue study 46% of Australians working in a place they considered ‘mentally unhealthy’ took time off work because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. Does this sound familiar?

Then read on for our toxic workplace checklist for 7 telltale signs you’ve got a toxic work environment, and quick ideas on what you can do about it.

Why is Workplace Culture Important?  

Workplace culture is more than a laminated sign and a coffee machine. The word culture is from the Latin ‘colere’ meaning to protect or to cultivate. A healthy workplace culture is deeply caring for and cultivating your people.

Liz Wiseman (author of ‘Multipliers’) taught us that leaders with diminishing traits (talking behind backs, micromanaging, ignoring positives but never missing a negative, blaming the team, playing favourites) can wreck a workplace culture, even if the behaviours are accidental. (And don't miss Liz Wiseman live and virtual in October: Increase Your Influence, Leadership, and Impact at Work).

Put simply, leaders need to recognise how their behaviours can fuel a toxic workplace and how leadership development, builds a healthy workplace from the inside out. 

Free Download: 10 Leadership Qualities That Will Help Solve Challenges in 2022

First 7 Signs of a Toxic Workplace 

So to the signs of a toxic work environment. Toxic workplaces share much in common with fear-based cultures.

“When people work in fear-based cultures they tend to defend themselves – spending a good deal of time and psychic energy on finding reasons they’re not the one at fault.” – Gostick & Elton, 'Leading with Gratitude.' 

Distressed team members might lack enthusiasm, cover their mistakes, take time off work, appear confused or inarticulate, or be the subject of backstabbing and bullying.

Leaders must be alert to the first signs of a toxic workplace culture, which we list out below.


Enthusiasm and Morale is Always Low  

A broken workplace culture erodes trust, and this is toxic to enthusiasm and morale.

"If you do not have trusting teams, you have a group of people showing up to work lying, hiding, and faking." – Simon Sinek

Team members may bully or harass each other, exclude colleagues, complain, and criticise, or blame others for mistakes. Apathy and low morale are the result, so look out for these warning signs of a toxic culture. As Patrick Lencioni says, lack of trust is the foundational level of ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.’

“Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good and that there no reason to be protective or careful around the group.” – Patrick Lencioni

What to do about it

If you see low morale and waning enthusiasm, start communicating. Listen deeply, ask questions, and don't be defensive when faced with answers that you don't like. Thank people for their candour and ask more questions. Tell people why you appreciate them.

If you suspect a lack of trust between leaders and peers, or between colleagues, try these trust-building exercises from Patrick Lencioni:

·       Personal histories exercise: In a meeting, have team members answer a few questions about themselves such as number of siblings, hometown, unique challenge in childhood, favorite hobbies, best job, worst job.

·       Team effectiveness exercise: Have team members identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as one area they could eliminate or improve upon for the good of the team.

·       Personality and behavioural preference profiles: These can help people better understand each other. Pat’s 6 Types of Working Genius is a good start.  

Cynicism and Sarcasm Are Rife

Cynicism and sarcasm seen in hurtful comments and passive aggressiveness are the hallmarks of a toxic culture.

In our interview with ‘Dare to Lead’ author and researcher Brené Brown we learned that ‘armoured leadership’ hides behind behaviours like cynicism and sarcasm. These culture wrecking balls should not be underestimated.

“I’ve seen them bring down relationships, teams, and cultures when modelled by people at the highest levels and/or left unchecked.

“Cynicism and sarcasm are bad in person and even worse when they travel through email and text.”

 What to do about it

In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown says daring leadership requires:

·       Staying clear and kind.

·       Practicing the courage to say what you mean and mean what you say. Cynicism and sarcasm often mask anger, fear, feelings of inadequacy, and even despair.

·       Knowing that if it is despair, the antidote is hope. Identify a realistic goal, figure out a pathway (it may involve a Plan B), and have agency (belief in our ability to get there).


There is a Constant Fear of Failure  

Fear of failure is a sign of a toxic culture. Neuroscientists have shown how fear turns up in our brains.

“Threats to our jobs, our position in the world, or our esteem among peers [look the same] as a physical threat in our brains.” – Jonah Sachs, ‘Unsafe Thinking’

If we view our workplace as a threat we protect ourselves by going into our shell, fudging results, or minimising risks. In our interview with Professor Amy Edmondson on her book ‘The Fearless Organization’ she tells us that leaders must be self-aware about their impact.

"Many leaders don't realise that they're scary, right? Even if they don't see themselves as scary, the position they hold, the role that they occupy, may have a silencing effect."

This is highly detrimental to motivation, engagement, and innovation.

What to do about it

·       Leadership development is crucial to work on the soft skills needed to make a psychologically safe workplace. 

·       Set the stage. Set expectations around failure. Identify what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom.

·       Invite participation. Show humility. Ask good questions. Model intense listening. Create forums for input. Provide guidelines for discussion.

·       Respond productively. Express appreciation (listen, acknowledge and thank). Destigmatise failure by looking forward and offering help. 


High Turnover & Absenteeism  

A ‘toxic workplace’ culture is 10.4 times more likely than ‘low pay’ to contribute to an employee quitting, found a recent MIT Sloan Management Review cited in Forbes. Absenteeism is another sign of a toxic work environment.

“Just like employee turnover, absenteeism is a negative job behavior. While some absenteeism is normal for an organization, high levels of absence can indicate problems in the organization.” - AIHR

Absenteeism can include partial absences and any repeated or extended absence that doesn’t come with a good reason.

‘As a rule of thumb, any absence higher than 1.5% will most likely be caused by stress, burnout, lack of motivation or engagement, conflict with a peer or supervisor, or another reason other than physical ailments.” – AIHR.

What to do about it

·       Measure your absentee rate. Take the number of unexcused absences in a given period of time, divide it by the total period, and multiply the result by 100 to get the percentage of absenteeism over a month, a year, etc. (Bamboo HR) As a rule of thumb, a 1.5% absence rate is a healthy rate. (AIHR)

·       Leadership development for team leaders. Upskill your leaders to ensure they are creating a culture that is optimal for retention.

·       Leadership development for teams. Widening leadership development beyond the executive is proven to help retain today’s talent.  

Dysfunction and Confusion  

An inconsistent, chaotic, and confusing workplace isn’t a fun place to work. It’s also toxic to the attraction, engagement, and retention of team members.

If a leader can’t be crystal clear about their vision and expectations, they will struggle to hold that team accountable for not delivering on those goals. Employees will feel left out of the loop yet blamed for poor results.

What to do about it

·       Prioritise clarity. As Brene Brown says in Dare to Lead, ‘Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.’

·       Have everyone rowing in the same direction. Patrick Lencioni told our global headliner event Building High Performing Teams that the leaders at the top must be in lockstep with each other around 6 Critical Questions: Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is important, right now? Who must do what?

Bullying and Gossip  

Group performance depends on team members feeling safe and connected. When bullying and gossip are present, humans lose their sense of belonging. Belonging needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced in the workplace.

“Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost invisible cues: We are close, we are safe, we share a future.” – Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code.

Taking bullying and gossip away doesn’t mean losing all hard conversations. Daniel Coyle says high-candor feedback and uncomfortable truth-telling are needed for solving hard problems as a team.

What to do about it

Soft skills leadership development. Choose modules around self-awareness, empathy, psychological safety, communication, and building healthy cultures.

Don’t tolerate gossip or bullying. As Holly Ransom’s grandmother said, “If you walk past things that aren’t right, you tell the world it’s okay.”

Learn radical candor skills. Our 3-part radical candor workshop will give team leaders the tools and skills to hold hard conversations so they don’t resort to bullying or talking behind people’s backs.


Build a Stronger Workplace Culture and Team With Our Leadership Pass  

Leaders are facing uncertainty as they never have before. The pandemic changed the workforce that was already facing disruption. Relationships between leaders and teams are changing and employees have more power. The opposite of a toxic workplace is a place of love and belonging, safety and trust, and engagement and productivity.

A leadership pass takes team members at all levels on a leadership journey to improve their behaviours and grow their skills.  

Our Leadership Pass means you have unlimited access to 40+ of our inspiring live virtual events, masterclasses, and book club events, and our on demand leadership library - so you can learn the qualities of successful leaders.  

 See who's up next.

 References and sources:

 Speakers and authors from Growth Faculty live and live virtual events: Liz Wiseman, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, Simon Sinek, Patrick Lencioni, Brené Brown, Jonah Sachs, Amy Edmondson, Daniel Coyle, Holly Ransom.

State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia, Beyond Blue

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Work and Well-Being survey 2021.

 2019 EY Belonging Barometer

U.S. Dept of Labor survey results in ‘Leading With Gratitude’ by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

Donald Sull, Charles Sull and Ben Zweig, MIT Sloan Management Review report, as reported in Forbes

Photo by Headway on Unsplash  

Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash


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