Watch Out for These 7 Traits to Avoid Fostering Toxic Workplaces




  • — July 20, 2019

    In the last year, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles around toxic workplaces. Guidance on how to know if your workplace is toxic, how you can spot a toxic colleague, or strategies for coping. At effectUX we are lucky to work with data models that enable us to measure across workplace culture, leadership, employee engagement, and wellbeing. This gives us a unique viewpoint into how these areas intersect and the correlations between them. Our latest model, myEMQ, looks at how people think and behave as it relates to performance, impact, and fulfillment.

    The best way to describe it, is like in physical health, when you get a blood test and they look at a number of markers to tell you what’s wrong, EMQ is like that, but for the mind. It is an evaluation, from which the responses are analyzed for hundreds of indicators to show what is positively or negatively impacting productivity and happiness. Looking at the trends we are seeing there, combined with our data around culture, we are seeing some important patterns that emphasize the impact of culture on mental and emotional wellbeing.

    Here are 7 areas to think about, when creating positive and productive teams and cultures.

    1: Low Level of Leadership Accountability

    Accountable environments have people who take ownership of their actions, choices, and responses. Accountable behaviors lead to environments that are more open, honest, and where people feel safe. However, it is not as easy to come by as you would think. A Lee Hecht Harrison Study, in Partnership with HR People and Strategy, 2017, conducted a global study, across 21 industries and sectors. They found that in the USA, while 72% believe that leadership accountability is a critical business issue, only 37% were satisfied with the degree of accountability their leaders demonstrated. Globally, the numbers were similar, at 71% compared to 31% being satisfied.

    In our High-Performance Culture Model, we look at 14 factors, one of which is Leadership. Across all of the findings to date, the Leadership factor scores 3rd lowest in enabling a productive and engaged culture. When leadership role-models low levels of accountability, the behaviors trickle throughout the organization, leading to cultures where people may play the blame game or throw other teams under the bus. These environments lead to higher levels of stress.

    As a leader, at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, are you looking at your role in the outcomes? Are you assessing what actions you took and what actions you could have taken for a better outcome? Are you saying and doing the right thing?

    2: Continuous High Stress Environments

    The numbers around stress and burnout are quite alarming. The numbers are showing as much as, 80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress, and 40% of workers reporting that their job was very or extremely stressful. There are different kinds of stress. Of course, when you have that big deliverable that requires more effort than usual, you will naturally feel more stressed. There is also ‘good-stress’, the kind you feel when you are excited. Additionally, a little stress that triggers a response doesn’t take a huge toll when we identify it and return to a relaxed state. What we are talking about is continuous high stress. Environments in which people are always overwhelmed, are in a state of constant reaction (putting out fires, changing directions etc.), or dealing with toxic people.

    There are many impacts stemming from these environments:

    • People have less capacity as there is so much noise and distraction.
    • People are less open and less tolerant, as they do not have the capacity to listen, be aware of cues, or time to shift perspective.
    • There is less innovation, as people have no capacity to see options and solutions due to the narrowly focused state of their mind.
    • Collaboration and morale decrease as relationships are impacted. For example, people can be snappier or have a much more extreme reaction than is warranted.

    Start by asking yourself questions like, am I always feeling anxious or like I am not progressing? Am I constantly irritable? Do I feel stressed most of the time? If so then you may need to work on some strategies to combat it. Especially if you are a manager, as stress has a way of trickling down to your teams.

    3: Fear

    Sadly, many toxic workplaces have an underlying culture of fear. Employees can fear speaking up or taking action. Often, they are made to feel like they are lucky to have a job, when in reality, while yes, having a job is great, it is not an excuse for toxic behavior. Another trait is often extreme politics — the bad kind. While there are always environmental complexities and a level of organizational politics in the workplace, when it is the kind where people are not caring who they damage to get their way, behaviors are hurting people or their organization, or there seems to be no grounding in the core values, it can lead to a hostile environment where people are “walking on eggshells” rather than being their open, creative, best selves.

    You can ask yourself, do people speak up? Do people tend to just say “yes” to everything rather than offering their view point? Do people demonstrate behaviors that are creating hostile environments?

    4: Incongruence

    Many organizations go through the effort of determining their values, even writing them down, or putting them on mugs around the office. Sadly, in toxic environments, it is little more than some words. In reality, the values are not role-modeled or demonstrated. This leads employees to feel a level of incongruence, basically, to feel “off”. At the end of the day, actions have to match the words so that employees can feel it, see it, and believe in it.

    You can ask yourself, how am I demonstrating the values? If someone was observing my behaviors, how would they describe them? For example, if a value is respect, are you respectful in every interaction? With your words? Even in heated moments?

    5: Lack of Communications

    Communications is a huge part of building culture. In toxic environments, we see a lack of transparent and timely communications. Often, employees will feel kept in the dark, even hear of things from external sources before the company or leadership communicates with them. Clear communications around the vision, direction, and the reasoning behind decisions, increases employee trust and limits the unproductive, negativity-building rumor mill.

    In toxic environments, employees may also not get much feedback on their performance. When they do, it may be delivered in an overly harsh way, they may feel worthless, and it may lack the constructive part.

    As a leader, you can ask yourself, am I being clear in my communications? Is my language clearly delivering my intent? Am I communicating in a timely fashion? Am I making sure people know they can come and ask questions?

    6: Negative Energy

    Energy is contagious. One of the things we look at with myEMQ is the energy of people, how they are, and what they give out. When people are in a continuous state of negative energy, nothing is possible, they always have a reason why something can’t be done, and they exude a draining force, sucking the life out of those around them.

    There are many factors that play a role in people’s spiral to a continuous negative space. For example, they may be in a reactive environment or being pulled in multiple directions every day, which is limiting their sense of accomplishment. When you show up and give effort every day, but feel no accomplishment or progression towards an impact, it’s demotivating. It’s easy to wonder, what’s the point?!

    The good thing is that it’s changeable, it is not something that is fixed. You can start by noticing how you feel. That continuous drained feeling, irritable feeling, or continuously feeling like you are going through the motions. You can even look at physical symptoms too, like headaches or trouble sleeping.

    7: Controlling Managers

    In toxic environments we often find controlling managers. We find their behaviors almost always stem from a fear or insecurity. However, this does not make it acceptable. These are the bosses who lead by fear, do not listen to anyone, think it’s their way or the highway, or place unrealistically high expectations on people. They are the micro-managers, the ones who take credit for the good work but step far away from failures.

    They often do not provide opportunities for enhancement. Progression and growth are a human need. Feeling stagnant leads to unproductive and disengaged people who eventually see their day to day as pointless, feeding the negative energy.

    As a manager, ask yourself, how I am valuing, supporting, and growing my employees? How am I empowering them to bring their best self forward? How am I removing the roadblocks and enabling them to know what they do best?

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    Author: Sarah Deane

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