How to Identify and Improve a Toxic Work Environment

It’s no secret that work doesn’t come without stress. There will always be hectic days, differences in opinions, and unsatisfied customers. In fact, surveys from the American Psychological Association find each year that money and work are the top two sources of significant stress for adults, reported at 67 percent and 65 percent in 2015, respectively.

Leading a company compounds that stress, placing all of the responsibility of achievement on your shoulders. But what if the stress you are feeling from work is more than normal works stress? How can differentiate between typical everyday job stress and a workplace that is slowly turning toxic?

As your company grows, you can become so focused on aiming higher that you don’t realize when an issue moves from simmering benignly, to boiling over. Maybe when you think about a toxic work environment, you conjure a certain picture: disgruntled or incompetent employees, the entire staff calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays, or a crumbling office space. But often, it is more subtle than that.

The problem is that we can’t always see when our current environment is harboring negativity because we aren’t aware of what toxicity actually looks like in its early stages.

So what do you need to keep your eye on to ensure your company isn’t transforming into a place that harbors negativity?

See the signs: Red flags that Your Work Environment is Becoming Toxic

Sign #1: You’re hearing complaints over solutions

In the beginning, you probably won’t receive any direct complaints, but instead, your employees will begin complaining to each other—about each other, about customers, about company leadership, and eventually, about everything from company dress code policies to the way the lunchroom microwave operates.

Complaints mean that your employees are adopting a mentality of defeat regarding their surroundings, rather than feeling empowered by your company culture.

What do you want to overhear instead? Solutions. When workers believe they can change any problems that arise, they take action to alleviate issues instead of passively complaining. When a company focuses only on what is wrong, it serves as a source of destruction for everyone; however, when the focus turns to what is going well and what can be done better, it becomes a source of positive growth. 

Sign #2: Decreased input from employees

Feelings of autonomy, purpose, and fulfillment are some of the major reasons that employees offer their best work to their companies. Your employees are your greatest asset, especially when it comes to company growth.

When company leaders don’t ask for input, employees will believe they aren’t valued, leading to decreased productivity and contribution. When employees are afraid or uninterested in offering their expertise, your workplace will lack the creativity, innovation, and drive that it needs to thrive in your market.

Sign #3: Employees blaming and eschewing professional responsibility

There is no toxicity in a workplace worse than that which is derived from growing animosity between employees. Of course, it’s a given that your employees won’t necessarily be best friends. However, all employees should be expected to complete their job responsibilities and collaborate with staff and customers in a courteous manner.

When your staff members withdraw from their own professional responsibilities and leave other members picking up the pieces, it sends a blatant message of disrespect to both fellow employees and the company as a whole.

The Results of Toxicity

If perpetuated, toxicity and dysfunction in the workplace can creep in quickly. The results?

For one, spending eight – or more – hours a day in this kind of atmosphere slowly begins to affect your attitude, your work ethic, and yes, even your health. Negativity is stressful, and that stress can impact your body physically in both minor and significant ways.

Then, there is a financial cost. High potential and high performing employees may take positions elsewhere, possibly with a competitor. Costing you more money in hiring and training. In addition, negative working relationships ultimately affect your customers’ overall experience and thus your bottom line. When customers recognize these issues it can make interactions with employees feel tense and uncomfortable. Because of this, they may choose to move their business to a company that will offer a more positive experience.

These actions can cost you, in ways that build upon each other. Higher turnover rates mean more time spent training new employees, which is much more expensive than retaining high-quality staff. More turnover coupled with losing quality employees diminishes output and productivity, which ultimately cuts into your revenue.

How to Improve and Prevent Toxic Work Environments

The good news is that improving company culture starts from the top. The bad news is that it, well, starts from the top. Why is this bad news? Because change can often be difficult and it requires a time commitment which can be hard to come by. Creating a company culture that also aligns with your company goals will benefit not just your employees, but it will help you achieve your business goals.

Make better culture happen with change

The first step toward eliminating workplace toxicity is having the courage to change and the discipline to implement these changes. Culture changes aren’t an accident; a thriving work environment must be built and cultivated, and it’s the responsibility of the leader to ensure that everyone understands and believes this.

Develop a strong culture strategy with your employees

A critical component to any company’s success comes from outlining a purpose and vision. While most organizations have mission statements, many haven’t taken the one step further to define the values of the company’s culture.

When, for example, Zappos was in its first few months, the employees came together to define the core values from which they developed their culture, brand, and business strategies. With points such as “create fun and a little weirdness,” the input from Zappos’ employees was the most valuable component in creating the kind of positive and encouraging work environment they were excited to be in.

Align your company values to your company goals

Doing such will be a guide not only for your current employees but it will attract the type of of talent that can help you reach your business goals.

Coach your problem employees

Probably every office has at least one person that the whole company points to as “the problem.” This doesn’t come from a mentality of blame, but rather from acknowledging that a person with a negative attitude and poor work ethic truly does affect daily operation and stunts company growth. But what can be done about such a person, short of firing them?

In his book Taking People With You, YUM! CEO David Novak shared about an employee who constantly wanted to cut costs at every opportunity – rather than adding value – and turned every meeting toward a negative direction. Novak didn’t want to let him go, so he had a frank chat with this employee – who, with constructive feedback, began to adjust his attitude to the betterment of the whole team. “I still believe in replacing people who are getting in the way of progress, but you need to be a coach first before you can make the right call,” Novak wrote in his book.

Share in exceeding expectations

Lastly, a great way to boost morale among the whole company is to implement a focus on exceeding expectations for everyone you come across during your day. Employee to employee, manager to employee (and vice versa), employee to customer – each interaction should have the emphasis of going the extra step. Not only is this good for business, but in doing so, it provides consistent positive exchanges for everyone involved. These shared experiences make everyone, customers and employees alike, feel like they are a part of something important and meaningful.

Recognizing Improvement and its Impact

It can be easy for your company to start sliding downward as negativity seeps into your culture, particularly when you are focused on growing your business and working through all of the duties that mount up each day. You may be so tasked with your website redesign and your new employee orientation and responding to your inbox that you didn’t realize how strained your employee relationships and attitudes are becoming.

Once you recognize the signs of toxicity, the first step is being willing to instigate a change and to assume responsibility for a company-wide transition. As the leader, you set the tone for the entire operation.

Once you develop the self-awareness of your work environment, begin to have the hard conversations among your leadership team and your staff, and make it a priority to affect the culture change, you will start to notice incremental breakthroughs – first in your people, then for your business.

When you are working in and running a thriving professional environment, you’ll notice that employees are taking ownership for their actions and attitudes. You’ll see your entire team collaborating on projects and offering suggestions to solve problems. You’ll recognize your employees taking pride in their work and their contributions, which leads to a company filled with purpose and meaningful output.

The most beneficial result? When your employees feel valued, they give loyalty, dedication and just plain hard work to your company. These steps become a cyclical effect of upward movement that will propel your company toward new ideas, increasing productivity, affirmative mindsets and growth in company revenue.

How to Identify and Improve a Toxic Work Environment