10 signs of a toxic work environment (and how to address it)
The most obvious symptom of a toxic work environment is turnover. It’s conventional wisdom that “people don’t leave their job, they leave their boss,” and toxic bosses create toxic environments that drive people away. Of course, it’s better to catch problems before they get to that level, so keep communication open and make sure your team knows they can talk to you first.
2. TROUBLING BEHAVIORS OR BODY LANGUAGE
Body language indicates fear. Do people smile? Laugh? Engage informally? Do people ask questions for clarification? Do they challenge decisions? Any of these and other small behaviors can all be signals of a toxic environment. How can we ferret this out when many people continue to work remotely?
3. NO TRUST BETWEEN COLLEAGUES
Be on the lookout for the absence of trust between employees. This can translate into disrespect between team members, dysfunctional teamwork, and a lack of commitment to achieve shared goals. In high-trust cultures, employees are comfortable being vulnerable with one another, asking for help when needed without concealing their weaknesses, and providing constructive feedback that helps the team succeed.
4. LACK OF CONFIDENCE IN LEADERSHIP
Gossip can be a death knell to an unsuspecting company. It destroys faith in management and demolishes trust in other colleagues. It also undermines the confidence of the organization, drives a wedge between team members, and creates a toxic environment. Gossip is bad, and every leader should be keenly aware of it. Leaders must address the source and solve the underlying problem that it stems from.
5. INFLEXIBLE COMMUNICATION
For any team to thrive, open communication is key. Leaders must avoid being selective communicators. It’s an unrealistic expectation for leaders to communicate one way and expect employees to adapt to their style. Instead, use adaptable and diverse communication platforms to accommodate how employees address you, either verbally or in writing, in an effort to seamlessly connect with them.
6. DISENGAGED EMPLOYEES
Employee disengagement is a key sign of a cultural divide within the organization and should prompt leaders to reach out to team members. I also suggest scheduling weekly 1:1 meetings with more senior team members and monthly 1:1 meetings with more junior members. Spend time getting to know the individual personally and allow the conversation to naturally flow into business matters and any challenges.
7. NO TIME TO REFLECT
Team members aren’t openly coaching one another or running regular retrospectives, post-mortems, or after-action reviews when things don’t work out as planned. A good team takes the time to reflect. If they’re skipping reflection, I know we’ve got toxicity to sniff out.
8. TENSION IN THE OFFICE
A silent office can often be a sign of a toxic workplace. Sometimes a quiet office is required, but not all the time. If nobody is smiling, or people are keeping their heads down and saying everything is fine with no real constructive feedback or comments, something is probably off. You can just feel the tension and elephant in the room which both need to be addressed immediately.
9. NONVERBAL FEEDBACK
Look for nonverbal behavior to tell you what is really going on. Eye rolls, people not talking when you ask a sincere open-ended question, or the meeting after the meeting are just a few of the danger signs. If people don’t speak up to leadership when you think they should, then you might have a toxicity problem.
10. FEAR OF SPEAKING CANDIDLY
If what is said publicly in meetings is generally different from what is shared privately between colleagues, this is a clear indicator of a low-trust toxic culture that is lacking in psychological safety.