During a recent coaching session, one of my clients described the impact of having a dysfunctional working relationship with one of her colleagues (quoted with permission).
“She works really hard to make me feel like everything is my fault and nothing I do is ever good enough. Her constant emotional manipulation is driving down my self-confidence and drive to succeed. I am miserable, and the anxiety of trying to impress someone who never sees the good in anyone is getting to me. I am taking my frustrations home, and my family pays the price for all this unnecessary drama that has nothing to do with my skillset or the value I add to the organization. It's toxic.”
As my heart was breaking for a talented professional who did not deserve to suffer in this way, I thought, there’s that word again – toxic.
Along with fun terms like social distancing, herd immunity and vaccination mandate, the Pandemic also brought “toxic workplace” to the forefront of organizational culture. Working from home provided a break from the frustrating workplace dynamics most of us had grown accustomed to. With some distance granting us perspective, we collectively realized the inconceivability of returning to a dysfunctional workplace.
Across all industries and organizational levels, employees channeled their inner Twisted Sister, shouting, “We're not gonna take it anymore,” and left their jobs in droves. In total, more than 47 million Americans quit their jobs for greener pastures, sparking another pandemic-era term – The Great Resignation.
They didn’t leave due to compensation issues, job instability, or the pursuit of long-lost passions. They left because they were tired of being managed by toxic bosses, and working in a toxic corporate culture. The presence of a toxic culture was the biggest factor driving the Great Resignation, having nearly a tenfold impact on employee decisions to leave compared to other departure reasons, including compensation issues.
Donald Sull and his research team from the MIT Sloan School of Management decided to delve deeper into the driving forces behind the Great Resignation. They evaluated more than 1.3 million employee reviews on Glassdoor to determine the aspects of corporate culture that most correlate with perceptions of toxicity. Their findings were grouped into what is now known as The Toxic Five, providing leaders with a roadmap on what to avoid if they want to retain talent in their organizations.
The Toxic Five Defined
Now, I’m going to go ahead and assume that no one reading the textbook definitions of disrespectful, exclusionary, unethical, cutthroat and abusive behavior is going say “Yup, that’s me!” Few leaders will examine their behavior and label themselves as toxic. However, with a mass exodus of 47 million employees, we need to look a little deeper. Instead of solely evaluating leadership based on black-and-white judgments of toxic behavior, we have a valuable opportunity to pay attention to gray areas and address the risk of subtle behaviors that create perceptions of corporate toxicity.
Recognizing Subtle Forms of Toxicity
Some workplace behaviors are egregious and immediately recognizable as toxic, while others are subtle and challenging to define. We know when a colleague has crossed clear boundaries of acceptability, and we’re motivated to address such behavior when there’s a consensus on what constitutes toxicity. But what happens when toxic behavior falls into less certain territory?
We can describe disrespect in its most extreme form as acting without consideration, courtesy, and regard for the dignity of others, or we can consider more subtle manifestations of disrespect in the workplace. Essentially, leaders inspire feelings of disrespect when they communicate “What matters to you, doesn’t matter to me” in their decision-making. Disrespect can also manifest in behaviors such as:
failing to communicate or avoid difficult conversations (“Your development doesn’t matter”)
violating working hours with unnecessary communication (“Your time doesn’t matter”)
overloading employees with work that compromises the quality of work and life (“Your mental health doesn’t matter)
giving employees a hard time when they need time off (Your personal life doesn’t matter”)
When leaders engage in these behaviors, they communicate disrespect because they devalue what matters most to others. By repeatedly violating employees’ development, time and work-life balance, we expose our leadership behavior to accusations of toxicity.
Exclusionary behavior can fall along demographic lines where everyone on the team looks like you, or it can create an unspoken popularity contest with an “in crowd” that behaves like you. Either way, exclusionary behavior fosters a clear separation between those on the inside and those on the outside.
While no one intentionally creates an exclusionary culture, subtle decisions can reinforce a divide between those with influence and those who never get a seat at the table. Consider the impact of behaviors like favoring certain colleagues for projects (cronyism), siloed problem-solving and decision-making, forming office cliques, and publicly or privately criticizing workplace DEI initiatives.
When we fail to discern the exclusionary impact of cultivating some professional partnerships at the expense of others, we create a foundation for perceptions of toxic behavior.
If doing the right thing when no one is watching is the hallmark of solid ethics, then dishonesty, withholding, and noncompliance are the pillars of unethical behavior. Overt deceit and lies are one thing, but so are other unethical behaviors like hollow promises and/or overpromising and underdelivering, self-serving behavior that prioritizes personal gain over the greater good, and compromising company values when it's convenient.
Most leaders may never label themselves as unethical, but they engage in unethical behavior whenever they say one thing and do another, expecting others to follow what they say instead of what they do, or when they sacrifice the greater good for their own interests.
Take some time to reflect on subtle acts that may raise ethical questions. Excuses to delay promised promotions or salary increases, laying off frontline workers while executives maintain working conditions, and decisions that prioritize what the company can get away with over doing the right thing are examples of sacrificing the hard road for self-serving, short-term gains.
When we miss opportunities to carry out work in an honest, authentic, and values-driven manner, we add fuel to the toxicity fire. And when unethical behavior is rewarded with promotions, that toxic cultural fire becomes an inferno.
Tenured members of the workforce often laugh when they see cutthroat behavior listed among toxic traits because they accepted and even expected this behavior from high-performing leaders for most of their careers. It was a dog-eat-dog world, and most were just trying to survive in a culture that celebrated ruthless competition and backstabbing to get ahead. Today, cutthroat behavior encompasses a broader spectrum of behavior that communicates, “There’s room for only one at the top, and it’s going to be me.”
Working autonomously to claim all the glory, undermining a colleague’s reputation, politicking for the best projects, withholding vital information, and being generally uncooperative are examples of culturally sanctioned workplace behavior that borders on cutthroat.
It’s a fine line between a competitive environment where individual excellence benefits the group and the backstabbing, ruthless competition that leaves room at the top of the mountain for only one.
In the immortal words of newly minted billionaire Taylor Swift, cutthroat cultures make us “terrified to look down because if you dare, you’ll see the glare of everyone you burned just to get there.”
We’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who still believes abusive behavior is acceptable in the workplace. Hostility, bullying, belittling, and demeaning behaviors have no place in organizational culture and should not be tolerated under any conditions. Nevertheless, the definition of abuse leaves room for interpretation regarding what constitutes a hostile working environment. To avoid allegations of abuse and toxicity, we should consider expanding the definition of abuse to cover any aggressive behavior that disempowers those in a weaker position.
Think carefully about using sarcasm and mocking behavior, disparaging colleagues when they aren’t present, criticizing instead of addressing performance issues, or raising your voice to express frustration. Also, consider that abusive treatment can have a strong non-verbal component, such as eye-rolling, scoffing, ostracization, and other signs of contempt.
While we might believe these behaviors merely express frustration with underperformance, we are, in fact, leveraging hostility to make others feel inadequate. There is no faster way to cultivate a toxic workplace culture than engaging in practices that demoralize employees.
In a way, these subtle forms of workplace toxicity are more insidious than overtly toxic behavior because they tend to persist without anyone raising a red flag. Subtle toxicity thrives under the radar of clear-cut standards for unacceptable workplace conduct, amidst varying opinions of what is truly unacceptable. Employees bear the weight of subtle toxicity one gesture at a time, ultimately finding themselves languishing amongst unspoken rules on how to survive in a toxic environment.
In the long run, employees pay for workplace incivility with deteriorated physical and mental health, while organizations pay in the form of decreased productivity, disengagement, and higher attrition. Those who did not leave their toxic organizations during The Great Resignation “quietly quit,” and added yet another depressing term to the pandemic nomenclature. With such significant consequences at stake, leaders must ask themselves what they can do to avoid perceptions of toxicity in their organizations.
How to be a boss that doesn’t suck.
👉🏻 Be a Human First
Treat people how you want to be treated and make what matters to your team matter to you. Take the time to discover their priorities, whether it's autonomy, growth, flexibility, or work-life balance. Base decisions on these factors and show empathy from their perspective. Avoid excessive and repeated demands for concessions that matter most to them.
👉🏻 Prioritize Inclusivity
The best leaders understand that soliciting diverse perspectives leads to sound decisions. Prioritize inclusivity by consciously creating space for everyone at the decision-making table and encouraging participation from multiple angles. Be mindful of the demotivating aspects of a corporate culture with an "in-crowd" and refrain from participating in any internal us-versus-them dynamics.
👉🏻 Embrace Transparency and Authenticity
Cultivate an atmosphere of transparency, vulnerability, and authenticity by embodying these trust-building values. Create connections through behavior driven by values and acknowledge those who highlight opportunities for ethical business practices. Verbally express ethical considerations when making decisions and always appoint a devil's advocate to safeguard against justifying unethical behavior.
👉🏻 Differentiate Between Healthy Competition and Cutthroat Behavior
Be a leader who knows the fine line between competition that encourages everyone to excel and cutthroat behavior where only a small group thrives. Consider mentorship, talent pipelines, and incentives linked to team performance, and have the courage to remove high-performance, low-trust individuals (insert link) from the team. Evaluate employee contributions not only by the outcomes they create but also by the methods they use to create positive outcomes.
👉🏻 Zero Tolerance Policies
Mistreatment of anyone in a weaker or vulnerable position should trigger an organizational zero-tolerance policy and result in a swift, decisive response. Mocking, sarcasm, undermining, intimidation, and any other form of aggressive behavior should not be tolerated. Pay attention to behavior that reinforces the disempowerment of those in weaker positions, even when disguised as jest. Deploy a zero-tolerance policy for professional hostility.
This lesson aims to inspire leaders to recognize and confront subtle forms of workplace toxicity, as they often linger unnoticed and create a detrimental impact on both employees and organizations. By addressing potential sources of toxicity and averting the potential repercussions of toxic behavior, leaders can transform workplaces into productive environments where everyone thrives.
Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.
She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.