The levels of workplace toxicity vary greatly from a mild irritant to a deadly cancer that threatens organizational success. The concern about workplace toxicity has never been greater, yet as it becomes more prevalent, people tend to accept it as normal. It needs not be accepted or expected, but in order to root it out, we must know the sources of the toxicity first.
I have three goals for this article:
- Identify the sources of workplace toxicity
- Give you tangible specific ways to prevent it or stop it’s spread
- Give you hope that the workplace can be a great and not dangerous place to be.
Before we can address any problem, we must know the source or sources of that problem. At a high level, there are two sources of workplace toxicity:
- Individual sources: People whose behaviors are toxic or lead to toxic responses from others.
- Cultural sources: A workplace where toxicity is widespread and is an accepted part of how people work together.
Both causes are real and can be addressed. But in order to make a change, you must first understand where the toxicity comes from. Once you see the source clearly, there are two questions to answer: How can I prevent the toxic behaviors before they start? And how can I reduce their impact once they are seen?
The rest of this article starts to answer those questions.
The old saying – “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – is appropriate here. Time and effort spent in prevention can have a major impact on the amount and impact of toxic behaviors. Here are three big ways to prevent workplace toxicity.
- Start with hiring. Be clear and recognize what types of behaviors you want to avoid, then consider those in your selection and hiring processes. For example, if you know you want to avoid or minimize the amount of gossip in your workplace, talk about that when interviewing, and ask about people’s past gossip behaviors when talking to references. The more specifically you can describe the behaviors you want to avoid, the better chance you have of preventing them.
- Make expectations clear. At hiring and throughout the team, make clear the behaviors you expect – and those that you don’t. Stating them and making them clear can go a long way to preventing unwanted behaviors. This clarity also helps with the solutions listed below.
- Be a role model. Make sure your behavior is modelling the behaviors you want, rather than the toxins you are trying to avoid.
But what if you already have a toxic environment, then what? While you can still work on preventions for the future, here are some things you can do today to improve the situation.
- Coach early and often. When you see a toxic behavior, you can’t let it go. The longer the behavior is accepted without feedback, the harder it will be to eliminate – for an individual or across the team. When you have set clear behavioral expectations, it will be easier to give feedback and coaching in this area. Remember that job success is about more than just technical expertise. If you want a welcoming and positive working environment, you must expect and coach to the desired behaviors.
- Reward the right behaviors. Acknowledge and encourage the positive, nontoxic behaviors you desire. The more people realize what is desired, the more likely their behaviors will adjust.
- Talk about it. If toxicity exists culturally, but no one wants to talk about it openly, it will likely linger. Bring up the topic and let the group talk about the toxins in a productive (not blaming) way. Elicit the team’s support and ideas for making the workplace less toxic and more productive. The group owns both their behavior and their workplace. So lead a conversation and it may become a crusade for a more effective and positive workplace.
Where are you? Consider the ideas you’ve just read as a starting point in your quest for a healthier, more productive workplace. If you are living in a toxic workplace, remember it doesn’t have to be permanent. And you can have a positive impact on how every experiences work. Give the ideas here a try and enlist others too – it is work worth doing.
If you are looking for a more complete way to build your skills and confidence as a leader and would like some unexpected ways to help you do that, join me for our From Manager to Remarkable Leader learning experience. This two-day session is packed with insights and opportunities to learn from your peers too. Learn more, find dates, and get registered here.