Workplace toxicity has adverse effects on your entire organization, causing rifts and conflicts and lower productivity. When left unattended, top performers quit first (they have options), and your overall performance and productivity take a hit. Toxic behaviors critically impact employee well-being, which is already at an all-time low.

What is considered toxic?

Toxic workplace behavior is any behavior that negatively impacts an individual’s feelings, well-being, and goes against the company’s shared values. Examples of toxic behavior are passive-aggressive leadership, emotional blackmail, gossiping and spreading rumors, and bullying. Toxic behavior can be subjective, especially when company values are not clearly defined and reinforced.

Toxic behaviors not only affect those directly involved. Those who observe toxic behaviors are also negatively affected, as it is hard not to empathize with those who fall victim. Moreover, without clear action taken against bad actors, there is a real danger that these behaviors become a norm in the workplace — especially if the perpetrators are company leaders.

Toxic behaviors affect employee well-being

We studied employee well-being using the WHO-5 Well-being Index (developed by the World Health Organization) and awareness of toxic behavior by asking employees, “Are you aware of or experiencing any toxic behavior in our workplace?”

A total of 1,285 employees across 43 companies participated in both measurements. Well-being was studied in 3 groups: Good (scores between 76-100), Fair (scores between 53-75), and Poor (scores below 53). At the time of our study, we found that only 33% of respondents qualified as having Good well-being. Meanwhile, only 38% of employees responded that they were not aware of or experiencing any toxic behavior in their workplace.

“The majority of employees are or may be aware of experiencing toxic behavior in their workplace.”

While 56% of employees with Good well-being experienced or may have experienced toxic behavior, a shocking 72% of those with Poor well-being were affected. Those with Good well-being are 54% more likely to clearly not experience toxic behaviors compared to those with Poor well-being.

Toxic behaviors are challenging to eliminate because of their subjectivity and low visibility (especially in work cultures that are non-confrontational), and they exist in many different forms. The most common reported toxic behaviors are:

  • Blaming the ideas, sentiments, and opinions of others
  • Spreading rumors
  • Gossipping
  • Bullying
  • Lack of empathy
  • Unfulfilled commitments

Moreover, 15% of respondents who reported toxic behavior preferred not to answer when asked to describe their experiences. Low psychological safety is detrimental to toxic behavior; it provides the conditions for toxicity to thrive.

How leaders and managers can eliminate toxic behavior in the workplace

Leaders and managers must help and support a strong culture and eliminate or mitigate the toxic culture in the workplace. Here are our recommendations to minimize the reported toxic behavior:

  1. Hire for and develop soft skills
    Soft skills (especially communication, emotional intelligence, and empathy) determine how well people can maintain self-control and work with others in stressful situations. Employees with low well-being have less capacity for patience and understanding and are susceptible to acting out and hurting others.
    The State of Business Communication report indicated that the most frequent outcome of poor communication is higher anxiety at work, with teams losing about 7.5 hours per week because of poor communication. Leaders and managers are role models and must consistently set an example of effective communication, especially in times of stress and extreme challenge.
  2. Over-communicate your core values
    Company core values are your biggest assets as leaders and managers. They are tools that provide clarity on how work gets done and how conflicts should be resolved. Each time values are exercised, they get stronger!

    Leaders and managers should communicate company values at every opportunity and take immediate action to uphold values (no exceptions).
  3. Foster psychological safety
    Without psychological safety, your leadership and management are impaired. When employees are unable to speak out and confront challenging situations, toxic behaviors thrive.

    To no fault of your own, psychological safety may be low due to inherited social norms. Leaders and managers must go out of their way to foster an environment where employees feel safe to speak out without fear of negative consequences. Openly recognize employees who respectfully raise critical issues and uphold company values. Here are 5 steps to creating psychological safety as a leader.

Leaders and managers can help improve the state of employee well-being by taking responsibility for eliminating toxic behaviors in the workplace. Research shows that employees with Good well-being experience significantly less toxic behaviors at work. BMC Public Health also shows that psychosocial risk factors at work, such as anxiety, limited decision-making options, and bullying, significantly affect the onset of depression symptoms

Eliminate toxic behaviors by encouraging the development of soft skills (especially communication), over-communicating core values, and fostering psychological safety. These necessary measures can take time to take hold and are most effectively put into practice through role modeling.

How we can help helps leaders initiate meaningful conversations with their employees, foster relationships with recognition and appreciation among co-workers, and reinforce company core values and culture. Learn more about and book a call with us! | Engage and develop your teams and leaders to build a winning culture
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