In our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, we surveyed hundreds of employees (and leaders) from a wide range of industries and sectors. We then individually interviewed dozens whose stories intrigued us. From our research we discovered the core components that contribute to making a workplace “toxic” – a work environment that is unhealthy, and even dangerous, to the well-being of its employees. When a workplace is toxic, over time its employees experience an increase in physical symptoms – weight gain, loss of sleep, high blood pressure, and overall, the rate of other medical issues spiral up. Similarly, on the emotional side, team members who work within a poisonous environment become more irritable and angry, agitated, discouraged, anxious and depressed. Higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse occur, which in turn increases the absentee and tardiness rates of the employees.
The 3 Core Conditions to Create Toxic Work Environments
We found that the most toxic organizations had the trifecta of three problem areas that, when combined, made the workplace incredibly unhealthy, unpleasant, and even dangerous to the well-being of those who work there.
When we use the term “dysfunctional”, we are being descriptive versus just putting a condescending label on people. “Dys” means ‘problem’, and dysfunctional people have serious difficulties in functioning in daily life. Being “dysfunctional” can express itself in a variety of ways (and this list isn’t exhaustive). A person may have repetitive problems in maintaining relationships. They may not be able to manage their financial life, always spending more than they make. Some may not be able to move forward in their career (or even hold a job) because of difficulties in coming to work regularly, on time, and completing tasks in the timeframe given. Drug and alcohol abuse and problems controlling one’s temper are dysfunctional patterns.
Regardless of how they are exhibited in daily life, dysfunctional individuals display similar patterns of behavior. Dysfunctional employees tend to blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions. They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others. These individuals usually have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotion in spite of their inconsistent performance. And they are masters of creating conflict and tension within the workplace.
How do you successfully manage dysfunctional employees? First, accept that you cannot change the other person. Then set boundaries about what you are and are not willing to do to deal with problems created. (Sometimes people must experience the consequences of their choices in order to learn.) Finally, talk with and get support from others whom you believe are functional.
Poor Policies and Procedures
One of the core elements of a toxic workplace is that it has significant problems in the area of poor policies and procedures. Foundationally, the workplace can feel like some combination of chaos, incompetence or anarchy. How anything ever gets done can seem to be a mystery.
Interestingly, there are different types of problems with policies and procedures. Some organizations have incredibly poor communication. Communication between departments is sporadic and incomplete, and often the information people need to know in order to make good decisions isn’t readily available. A second variation is when there are no written, standardized ways of doing things (or the written version is so old, it is no longer applicable). Some technical experts dismiss the concern with “No worries. It’s in our heads” and this becomes a platform for control or blackmail. The third common expression of problems in procedures and policies is when people “go around” the policies that exist. The policies are there; it is just that no one follows them.
When a company has serious problems in this area, they severely limit the company’s ability to grow, train new employees effectively, and the management has no clue what it actually costs to produce their products or provide specific services. Rarely will an organization like this last much beyond the lifespan of its key leader (who often is very talented and carries the organization on their shoulders.)
The presence of one or more toxic leaders creates serious wounds in an organization.
Although hopefully you aren’t a toxic leader, you may have unhealthy leaders within your organization. It is important to note that a toxic leader doesn’t have to be at the top tier of the organization. We have observed that a toxic leader often may be a long-term employee who “grew up” with the business (and may be a long-term friend of the founder), and they are now in a position where they are way over their heads in the ability to manage and lead those around them. As a result, they often become managers that others have to “work around” in order to get things done correctly.
We identified ten common characteristics of toxic leaders. It is important to understand that not all toxic leaders display all of the characteristics, but they typically display several in how they relate to others. We believe it is important to differentiate between toxic leaders and incompetent leaders. Unfortunately, there appear to be plenty of incompetent leaders, especially when you examine the leadership throughout an organization (managers, department heads, and front-line supervisors). Incompetent leaders either haven’t been trained well, or have been promoted above their skill level – but in either case, they tend to not be effective in leading others.
Toxic leaders, on the other hand, may be very competent and skilled leaders (in a technical sense) but their motives are impure. They essentially are totally focused on their interests and achievement, and will use others to get what they want.
Top Ten Characteristics of a Toxic Leader
1. They look good (at least, initially).
2. They’re extreme about achieving goals.
3. They’re manipulative.
4. They’re narcissistic.
5. They steal the credit for others’ successes.
6. They’re condescending.
7. They’re inauthentic.
8. They use others.
9. They won’t address real risks.
10. Before things fall apart, they leave.
How do you tell if a leader is toxic? First, look for an exodus (sometimes, over time) of previously solid, reliable employees. When good people are leaving, look for the rat. Secondly, pay attention to your own sense (or a trusted colleague) of “something doesn’t seem right”. Toxic leaders often present well initially, and sometimes too well. But eventually the facts don’t add up – reports you hear from reliable employees don’t match what the leader is reporting. Do not dismiss or ignore these subtle signs! They may be an early warning signal to investigate more closely.
What can be done with toxic leaders? Truly toxic leaders don’t change. Don’t expect them to (although they may feign commitment to do so.) First, do damage control. Protect yourself and the organization. Then, develop an exit plan for them as soon as you can. Any other action is a waste of time and increases your risk for serious damage.
One caution should be noted: Do not assume your organization is immune to the problems discussed above, even if your company is founded on Christian principles. One only has to read the news to see that there are many examples of Christian-led businesses and churches collapsing due to a toxic atmosphere or leader.
Toxic workplaces exist in every sector of the marketplace (unfortunately, including ministry). Since organizations are comprised of individuals who have weaknesses, deficits, and areas for growth, every company is at risk for developing unhealthy patterns of behavior. Fortunately, if the remaining leaders are able to identify core issues that led to “un-health”, it’s possible to take steps (both individually and corporately) to address the problem behaviors and become healthy again.