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How to Stamp Out Toxic Behaviors in the Workplace

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Posted by Rick Lepsinger October 31, 2018

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The workplace is fundamentally a social environment. When it’s a healthy one, employees can collaborate productively and excel as individuals without being dragged down by toxic behaviors that lead to mistrust, selfishness, and negativity. Like any other environment, however, the workplace is very sensitive. Without proper maintenance and care, it can easily become toxic, leading to declines in morale, engagement, and productivity. Left unchecked, these problems can undermine the entire organization, even posing a health risk to employees.

Successful companies understand that culture is crucial to their success. They recognize that when problems develop, changes are sometimes necessary to eliminate the toxic behaviors dragging them down. While identifying the symptoms and causes of a toxic workplace can be difficult, here are some strategies that can help organizations stamp these behaviors out and get their culture back on track.

Recognize the Toxic Behaviors

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said about the workplace. While healthy office cultures share a number of characteristics, work environments can become toxic for many different reasons. Here are just a few signs of a toxic workplace:

  • Excessive gossip and divisive social groups. 
  • Bullying behavior. 
  • Poor communication. 
  • Unrealistic expectations. 
  • Pervasive negativity. 
  • Lack of accountability. 
  • Harassment in the workplace. 
  • High absentee and turnover rates. 

This list is hardly exhaustive, and not every toxic workplace will exhibit all, or even most, of these signs. In fact, there may only be one or two issues contributing to an unhealthy environment. But the problem is unlikely to remain minor for long because a toxic workplace can quickly become a breeding ground for additional bad behaviors. By recognizing toxic behaviors in the workplace early, organizations can prevent them from metastasizing and causing more widespread damage.

Identify the Source of the Problem

Toxic behaviors in the workplace are very often a symptom of deeper dysfunction in an organization. It’s easy (and often comforting) to dismiss problems as the work of a few bad apples, but leadership is ultimately responsible for setting the tone and shaping the culture of the workplace. If toxic behaviors develop, it’s usually because leadership has either ignored the problem or contributed to it in some way. Here are just a few things that may support toxic behaviors in the workplace:

  • Secrecy or information hoarding. 
  • Discriminatory beliefs. 
  • Lack of positive feedback. 
  • Oppositional or aggressive leadership. 
  • Belief that employees are expendable. 
  • Persistent favoritism. 
  • Flawed hiring practices. 
Unless an organization can identify the underlying problems that support toxic behaviors, it will be impossible to turn the workplace around. For instance, if flawed hiring practices routinely select problematic candidates who aren’t a good fit for the company’s culture, just getting rid of the poor hires will only serve as a temporary solution because the people hired to replace them might very well be just as bad of a fit. The problem in this case isn’t the people, but the process. Until that can be remedied, the workplace will always be at risk of turning toxic.

Develop a Plan

In order to deal with toxic behavior in the workplace, organizations need to find ways to make everyone part of the solution. This means talking to employees and leadership about the problem, and giving everyone a chance to voice their concerns, grievances, and ideas for solutions. Whether through one-on-one conversations, team meetings, or anonymous 360 feedback, there are many ways to collect information about the scope of the problem that can then be used to develop a clear and actionable solution. This information can also be used to establish a benchmark that can be used to monitor progress and measure the success of your actions.

Simply acknowledging that the organization is aware of the toxic behaviors in the workplace and taking active measures to make changes can be a productive start because it indicates that someone is taking responsibility for the problem. Some measure of transparency is important here because a poorly-developed plan could actually make a toxic situation even worse. If employees believe that leadership is largely to blame for creating a toxic work environment, they won’t be likely to commit to a top-down solution that doesn’t take their concerns into account.

To implement change effectively you need to be clear and "name the behaviors" you want people to start or stop. Be specific, a change goal is a good start but not enough. You need consistent behavior across the organization and to do that you have to be specific about the desired behavior.

Implement the Plan

Once a plan has been developed that addresses both the specific toxic behaviors causing problems and the underlying issues driving them, organizations must make the effort to implement their solution. Like any other change effort, good leadership is essential to success. Effective leaders must promote the initiative by setting an example and actively working to secure employee buy-in. In some cases, leadership itself may need to make changes of its own, especially if much of the problem can be traced to toxic leadership. Even in these cases, however, it’s vital that leaders demonstrate their own willingness to buy-in to the change initiative so they can effectively advocate for it.  Leaders and employees should be held accountable for demonstrating the new behaviors by agreeing on due dates for deliverables, and establishing checkpoints.

Organizations should be prepared to accommodate some level of discomfort and disruption when implementing cultural changes in the toxic workplace. There is always the possibility of pushback, resistance, or exhaustion that contributes to a commitment gap after the effort is underway. In some cases, productivity and performance may suffer as employees adjust to a new set of expectations and circumstances. However, the long-term benefits of turning around a toxic work environment far outweigh the challenges of stamping that culture out.

Reassess

Like any other change initiative, a plan to eliminate toxic behaviors in the workplace needs to establish a benchmark of current behavior and identify specific measurable outcomes that can be used to assess whether or not the effort has been successful. While productivity metrics may be valuable here, direct feedback from employees will probably provide a better measure of success. It’s important to remember that change may come slowly or even sporadically; some issues may be resolved quickly, but others may require more effort in the form of time and resources.

If toxic behaviors persist or new ones develop, the plan may need to be adjusted accordingly. Good communication will help keep everyone informed on the status of the change effort, and occasional reassessments may be necessary to tackle persistent problems.

Taking direct action to stamp out toxic behaviors in the workplace is critical to creating and maintaining a healthy work environment that allows employees to be engaged, efficient, and productive. Regardless of the source of toxic behaviors, organizations must be on guard against them and move swiftly to eliminate them whenever possible. Left unchecked, toxic behavior can contaminate the workplace, leading to serious problems that can undermine performance and make it impossible for the organization to achieve its goals.

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Topics: cultural diversity, diversity and communication, toxic workplace, building culture, collaborative culture, workplace behavior

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