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Toxic workplaces and how to squash them

Strategies to rebuild a culture towards sustainable success


Real workplace change is built on the foundation of communication. (whyframeshot/Adobe Stock)

Short fuses have become even more common since the pandemic shrunk our worlds, living quarters and patience.

Our ability to manage our own reactions has been tested like never before and this is undoubtedly spilling over into work relationships.

That’s tough. Even tougher — in fact unbearable — would be facing skyrocketing strain while already working in a toxic work culture.

What makes a work culture toxic and how do you know if yours qualifies?

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Many employees gripe and complain about a boss or a colleague we just cannot mix with, but is that the result of isolated “bad personality mixes” — a phrase often used to minimize these conflicts?

Or are you stuck in a toxic culture that normalizes belittling behaviours and sows seeds of doubt and blame in individuals across the organization?

Leaders set the tone

I once worked for a company where leadership made a practice of failing to respond to specific employee questions and requests for approvals.

Left with no answers, no guidance, no backing and facing looming deadlines, employees were forced to use guesswork. Nothing would be said; but if your decision was perceived as wrong, you would be called out and taken to task for failing to get approvals.

It was a trap — a rigged system unfairly heaping accountability on employees and eroding their confidence. Exhausted with rolling the dice, I took my talents elsewhere.

Leaders model the cultures they want to create. They set the tone and standard and determine the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable.

There is nowhere to look but up because shaming, blaming and berating only become commonplace when leaders model it and/or permit it.

Earlier this year, we learned Julie Payette, Canada’s Governor General, stepped down in light of accusations of leading a toxic work environment, one that included harassment and bullying behaviours as outlined in a third-party report.

What our national governor-general saga taught us about background screening

Without the scrutiny faced by an appointee to a prestigious civic role, those leaders fostering and condoning toxic work environments are rarely uprooted and the damage to the organization is allowed to continue unabated.

High-value talent leaves in droves taking the pain with them, and the work of the employees that stay suffers, not to mention their health.

Rebuilding a culture usually progresses most effectively after the exit of the leader(s) who enabled the toxicity. From there — while it requires tremendous dedication — creating a healthy, constructive culture is relatively straightforward.

Here are the main areas to focus on:

Communication

Real change is built on the foundation of communication. Turning a blind eye or letting the rumour mill run wild is poisonous and creates an environment of suspicion.

Great culture requires great communication showing employees are trusted with information. Yes, it’s that simple.

Frequency matters, too — regularly sharing updates, talking about and revisiting policies, and expectations are the keys to connection and enable employees to perform with confidence they are informed, supported and can ask questions because openness is expected.

Transparency

Transparency is part of the repair of a fractured work environment. In the workplace, just as in our personal lives, once trust has been broken, secrets are corrosive.

If bad news is coming, find a way to talk about it without hiding it. Share the good news, bad news and everything in between with employees as quickly as possible to build back trust and neutralize the rumour mill.

And leaders need to be ready and open to receive feedback from their team members, considering it a valuable tool for improvement rather than a personal criticism.

Leadership accountability

Leaders set the tone and need to be really clear about what their expectations are: stop this, start that, and our culture doesn’t tolerate this, and we welcome that.

We often forget that leaders, while often experienced employees, also need training and guardrails to ensure they know the operating manual for the organization, when they can take liberties based on unique circumstances and how they can access support and guidance.

Clear policies

Lastly, healthy workplaces rely on policies that are clear, concise, anchored in the organization’s vision, mission and values, and transparently communicated.

When policies are understandable, working in tandem with your vision and values, and consistently applied, employees can rely on them with confidence.

Policy manuals aren’t glamorous but they can help propel the organization forward.

While simple, these ideas only work if adopted and modeled by leadership in every role, from top to bottom.

Conflict in a work environment may be inevitable, but it only creates a toxic culture when leaders fail to take action.

Crystal Hyde is a professional certified coach in Waterloo, Ont., and founder of Propel Leadership Coaching, which specializes in communications consulting and leadership coaching.

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