Toxic Workplace Cultures and How to Combat Them

toxic workplace culture

Toxic workplace culture can compromise an organization’s productivity and turnover rate. When the toxicity levels run high, employees may experience psychological disturbances such as anxiety, depression, and aggression.

According to a Harvard Business School Report, toxic workers who form these hostile environments “deliver on the numbers but do not have the right values, and while it is difficult to do, it was critical to remove such workers.” If left unaddressed, companies may risk their employees leaving the organisation for healthier workplace environments. 

Leaders should look out for the telltale signs that point to a toxic climate, which can jeopardise the company’s longevity. 

Lack of Enthusiasm in Staff


A healthy workplace environment fosters a sense of belonging and motivational drive among employees. As such, employees may initiate meaningful discussions that advance a project and express themselves freely. Additionally, staff may go the extra mile, potentially working beyond office hours (but be careful to maintain work-life balance) to fulfill their tasks and objectives. 

Toxic environments create the opposite effect. Staff will stare at their clocks and watches, raring for the minute to check-out and dash off from their workstations. Unenthused workers usually perform at their bare minimum, enough to keep them from being fired. The lack of motivation eventually spreads, creating burnout that results from an underchallenged workplace culture.

This spells trouble for the organisation in the long-run, cutting off opportunities to grow and scale. Ultimately, a toxic environment equates to a stale workplace that survives (barely) and never thrives. 

Malicious Practices


Malice is the most common symptom that an organisation is toxic. Communication will suffer as a result of the disdain and doubt sown among co-workers. Rather than having open discussions that breed trust and progression, workers may form cliques, silos and engage in other restrictive practices. Additionally, gossip and “cold wars” will become rampant and worsen without managerial intervention. In other cases, co-workers may normalise or trivialise verbal abuse, which is unacceptable under any circumstances. 


“Less popular” workers in a toxic environment might feel segregated, anxious, stressed, and experience burnout in its full flavor. Passive-aggressive behaviour is another common characteristic in a toxic workplace – the casual snub, side glances, and curt remarks that cause discomfort and dismay all work-year-long. 


In worst-case scenarios, co-workers may undermine each other’s work (taking credit that isn’t due), resulting in a culture of disharmony and contention. Information and instructions may get lost in motion, and miscommunications will abound. At the rate, quitting becomes an eventuality rather than a probability. 


Proliferation of Fear


Toxic workplace cultures will inseminate fear in the minds of workers, specifically, the fear of failure. Workers may stay rooted in their comfort zones to avoid further condemnation and disapproval from noxious colleagues and leaders. Prolonged fear leads to weakened responses towards growth and development, and workers may find themselves stuck in a career rut. 


Fear may assume various forms at work, from physical threats to the dread of having ideas shot down at a meeting. Either way, employees may eventually submit to the status quo and seek “greener pastures” in more inviting workplace environments. 

Lack of Direction 


Unhappy and unmotivated workers will work poorly together. The prevalence of miscommunication leads to frequent errors, misjudgments, and the misalignment of goals. In such cases, employees may struggle to identify with their respective roles and purposes. Teams and departments in toxic work environments lack the structure and discipline to function cohesively as a unit, with individuals steering off in their solitary work process. 


A lack of direction means that organisational leaders will need to spend more time ironing out details and rectifying mistakes, reducing overall cost-effectiveness. 

Sky-high Turnover Rate


A toxic workplace will eventually face high employee turnover. High turnover brings about a set of long-term issues for the organisation. These problems may include bad workplace reviews that reduce the organisation’s appeal (which deters future job applicants), increased recruitment and training costs, and the uncertain performance of new hires. 


Positive and conducive work environments will see employees staying for the long run and eventually assuming mentor roles to guide their successors seamlessly. 

Avoiding Toxic Workplaces 


Organisational leaders can reverse or prevent the damage of toxic workplace cultures through some proactive measures that involve the company as a whole. The goal is to make everyone feel welcome regardless of their position and experience. 

Prioritise Onboarding 


Build strong relationships from the onset of employment. Buddy systems can make a significant positive difference for new hires and in shaping healthy long-term work relations. Employees will appreciate the personalised orientation and learn faster with motivational support. According to a report by employee relocation expert UrbanBound, organizations with a standard onboarding process experience 54% greater new hire productivity, along with 50% greater new hire retention. 

Promote Team-building Activities


Team-building is a wide-spectrum solution to toxic work environments. Rather than limiting activities to boardroom discussions or workplace tasks, organisational leaders may consider external group programs like LEGO Serious Play, enabling participants to connect and build rapport among themselves. 

Lead by Example


Organisational leaders and managers play a significant role in shaping workplace culture. By ignoring or accepting toxic behaviour at work, leaders indirectly approve of the practice. Similarly, by engaging employees positively, leaders can foster a culture of trust, confidence, and collaboration among groups. 


On this note, sometimes employers may identify individuals who cannot adapt to the culture while attempting to “poison the well.”While it is never the best idea to let an employee go, it is crucial to isolate bad influences that threaten the overall workplace environment. 


Honesty Always the Best Policy 


Communication is a vital ingredient in every healthy organisation. Leaders should always encourage open-door policies that welcome the feedback of employees at all times. Additionally, leaders may hold occasional casual meetings where employees may air their doubts, fears, and grievances. Laying everything out in the open enables co-workers to address issues before they blow out of proportion while promoting undistracted teamwork. 


While a toxic workplace culture can cripple productivity at an organisation, it is highly preventable and reversible with the right intervention from an engaged leadership. 

StrengthsAsia has helped many individuals and corporate clients empower leaders throughout the region by enabling breakthrough experiences for both leaders and followers, fostering productivity and performance through creating positive workplace culture. If you wish to learn more about the Strengths Leadership Program, please reach out to us here.

A devotee at the altar of language and a celebrant of expression. Laurenzo has written for various SMEs, MNCs, startups and international brands over the last three years. He specializes in topics of psychology, lifestyle, employee management, and digital trends.

Maalikka is the latest addition to StrengthsAsia’s team of marketing and content extraordinaries. As an avid reader, writer and learner, she’s always on the lookout for new information online or interesting conversations to inspire her. Her other passions include gaming, Netflix and cats.

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