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Leadership & Toxic Work Environments

I have read a tremendous amount of information over the last several months on the topic of toxic work environments. While these articles tended to stir the pot a bit, they were in my opinion mostly missing the mark. The articles should have been written on the topic of poor leadership. Toxic work environments can only exist where a lack of trust and respect are present, and this can only occur in the absence of sound leadership. Let me be as clear as I can – the phrase “toxic work environment” is code for bad leadership, becasue a toxic culture simply cannot co-exist in the presence of great leadership. In the text that follows you’ll find the truth about toxic cultures…

A toxic work environment thrives off of everything that great leadership stands in opposition to. The fuel for toxicity is conflict not resolution, ego not humility, self-interest not service above self, gossip & innuendo not truth, social & corporate climbing not team-building, and the list could go on. Toxic cultures occur where arrogance, ignorance, ambivalence, and apathy are present, but again, not where sound leadership stands at the helm.

It’s also important to understand that a toxic culture cannot exist if toxic people are not allowed to take up residence.  This is why a value based approach to recruiting is a key component when teaming-out the organization, and is especially important as you build a senior leadership group. Those team members who share the same core values will be predisposed to trusting one another at high levels. Those team members who share a commonality of core values will automatically assume “best intentions” in one another vs. assuming “worst intentions” or “motives/agendas.”

From my perspective there is no such thing as a toxic asset – toxic liabilities yes, but assets, no. Here’s the thing – leaders who allow toxic personalities to invade their culture put the health of their entire organization at risk. Toxic personalities will put a damper on morale, attempt to intimidate and/or manipulate co-workers for personal gain, and can even chase away a company’s best talent. Bottom line – toxic individuals kill productivity, and if allowed to run unchecked can have a much broader and deeper impact on an organization than one might think.

A bad attitude isn’t something good leaders take lightly. Smart leaders see themselves as protector of culture, defender of those under their charge, champion of brand, and steward of trust. Great leaders simply won’t tolerate a toxic team member – the risks are too great. Real leaders will quickly coach toxic team members to a healthy place, or show them the door – there is no third option.

So, what do you do if you’re not in leadership and find yourself in a toxic work environment? My experience shows you have four choices: First, don’t get sucked down into the toxicity – it’s bad for your health. Secondly, assess whether or not there’s anything you can realistically contribute to making an impactful change, and do it. Thirdly, If you cannot, or will not help to create positive changes then get out as quickly as you can. A fourth option is of course to do nothing. If you choose this option you have the certainty of remaning employed in the near term, but at what cost? The good news is in most cases poor leadership will eventually cause it’s own demise. I’ve often said that leadership not accountable to its people, will eventually be held accountable by its people.

As always, I welcome your comments below.

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    k4

    July 18, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Thank you Mike! I have recently resigned from a company because I felt my manager lacked good leadership skills. He was condesending, arrogant, and limited the teams growth, not to mention that of each individual. I tried to show him a more positive way of leading the team, but unfortunately he couldn’t grasp the concept of appreciation, positive encouragement and inspiration. I had to make the decision to leave the toxic environment and salvage what little self worth i had remaining. I now feel free and ready for growth!

      Mike Myatt

      July 18, 2011 at 10:12 pm

      Thanks for sharing your story. It can be a bit unnerving to make a principled stand, but as one door closes another always seems to open. Best wishes on your next adventure.  

    Thomas McDaniels

    July 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Yes Mike, employees that turn toxic steal momentum, create a huge distraction and steal morale and unity.  Your suggestions were stellar, get them healed or get them out.  Like you said; It is the only solutions.
    Tom

      Mike Myatt

      July 22, 2011 at 1:32 am

      Thanks for the comment Tom. I agree with your thoughts about stealing morale and momentum – good insights.

    Mads

    July 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Correct Mike, think most people would agree with you on that. 
    People with a bad attitude effect much more then just them self and their performance, but risk pulling the team down. 
    1 to 1’s, setting clear expectation for the expected behavior and give frequent feedback. 
    /Mads

      Mike Myatt

      July 22, 2011 at 1:34 am

      Hi Mads:

      I appreciated your insights, and am particularly thankful that you pointed out the importance of setting clear expectations.

    Stephen VamVaketis

    July 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Well stated and all good points. You leave me with nothing to add other than a nod of complete agreement. The only comment I will offer is one of both discouragement and opportunity.

    Throughout my 25-year career, I am amazed how poorly managed and dysfunctional I found most companies to be. Schools teach math, science, English and other standard subjects. Companies offer training on the topics safety, harassment, quality and a few others including leadership and teamwork. These tend to be built upon one 8-hour training course, if even that. Just about every first time supervisor or manager assumes their critical role with little to no training or qualification of abilities.

    When an animal is afraid or threatened, it becomes aggressive. Similarly, when an incapable supervisor or manager feels unsure or is put in an uncomfortable situation, he/she also becomes aggressive or dysfunctional in some way. Perhaps an oversimplification and a bit dramatic, but true nonetheless. Without any real training, attainment of skills or simply having the “right stuff” of true leadership, we revert to a common denominator when threatened. Too often, this relegates us to the muck and thicket of our ego and fears.

    The huge leadership gap in corporate America presents unending opportunities. As a human resources professional, I am committed to and thrive on helping organizations achieve excellence. As this process often begins with top management, the challenge is both significant and compelling. 

      Mike Myatt

      July 28, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      Hi Stephen:

      Thanks for your comment and the kind words. You said “The huge leadership gap in corporate America presents unending opportunities.” I agree! Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, has the potential to positively influence the future of corporate America more than improved leadership. Thanks for sharing Stephen.

    Softwareguy

    August 11, 2011 at 5:13 am

    Hey Mike,

    When I hear “toxic”, what comes to mind is a culture that is demeaning or condescending.  Can “toxic” also be a culture that a) avoids focusing on a few strategic/wildly important goals, b) one where execs avoid conflict/difficult conversations with one another even if it would help the company execute better? What do folks in your profession call that type of culture and what advice to you give to folks in that situation?

    Thanks

      Mike Myatt

      August 12, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment and questions. The scenarios you describe are more typically what I’d refer to as dysfunctional more than they are toxic. That said, dysfunction can easily become toxic over time when not addressed. Both “A” and “B” exhibit traits of leadership that is neither focused nor engaged. The best path to resolving this is to find out why…Does the leadership team have blind-spots, lack specific skills or competencies, or are they simply apathetic? Understanding the landscape, as well as the motivations behind the actions are two of the keys to finding a solution that will stick. I hope this has helped…

    HOLLY CIERVO

    August 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Unfortunately I am now I think the cause of the toxic environment. I have worked here for four years and I am told I am a great employee, however when advancements arise, I am never considered and they have even hired from outside. After the third time, I now feel like I have nothing to give any more. I have been searching for other jobs, however the economy is not helping. I don’t know how to keep a positive attitude when I am told one thing, but actions show something completely different.

      J Taylor

      March 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Holly, did you get a reply on this. This same situtation is happening at our office. It is so bad that I have watched stellar employees with awsome skills leave our company. How do you keep a position attitude when this happens.

    Mike Myatt

    October 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    You took the proper action by attempting to resolve the situation directly with your peer. That didn’t work, and now you have a decision to make – live with it, or do something about it. People tend to make these matters much more complex than they really are. You really only have a few choices. If you cannot or will not live it, then you can either take a final crack at revisiting the discussion with your peer, escalate the issue up the chain of command, or pursue other opportunities. To directly answer your question it is an issue of leadership. The person in question isn’t performing as a leader, your supervisors aren’t performing as leaders by allowing this situation to exist, and you have not done everything within your power as a leader to resolve the matter. Surfacing an issue is not the same as resolving it. Best of luck.

    Nite_angel_4u

    April 13, 2012 at 8:12 am

    We are currently investigating our toxic environment. Instead of leadership, which has allowed conflicts to fester to boiling points, taking responsibility in this, they have sent union leadership to resolve umongst members or face disciplinary actions. At this point every member of our team contribute, the stress level is unbearable, but seriously trying to make change, keep jobs which are few at this time, how do you move past it.

    Earl

    April 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Interesting article.  I’ve spent 17 yrs in the Military Police and am currently going through a medical release for shoulder injury suffered in 2007.  The unit i am winding down with after being there since 2005 was the perfect picture of this article for 3 years recently.  Undermining leadership of junior staff was a highlight of the training by 2 Lt. and Sgt.  
    Senior staff belittled, demeaned, held back the career progression of troops who excelled.  Anxiety levels increased while morale levels decreased.  Troops could not wait to transfer out.

    I’d like to quote your 2nd paragraph if possible 

      Mike Myatt

      April 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      Thank you for your service Earl. Please feel free to use anything that will help. 

    Michael

    October 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    I live in a rural community and every place I have worked as a paid staff person or volunteer has been a toxic enviornment. I have worked in plenty of different establishments that are found in a variety of industries and professions including human services and the business service sector. I refuse to continue to stay in a toxic environment since nothing often changes and improves under these conditions and the kind of unhealthy and toxic impact it has on my mental and emotional health, happiness, growth, destiny, and contributions.. The only way a toxic environment will improve to becoming a healthier working environment is if only the management is fired and replaced with better leaders who will create a positive and healthier environment. I know a lot about leadership because I have studied and read a lot about it and have lead some smaller groups working with children and teenagers which can be challenging but also fulfilling. My personal goal is to persue a Masters Degree in Leadership. I know more about and have a better understanding of leadership and what it takes to be an effective leader compared to those I have worked with who I consider bad and ineffective leaders. My dream is to lead and manage my own youth nonpofit which I have established, However, I am receiving no support and help from anyone and can understand why our community is also a toxic environment in which the majority do not support those who are mavericks and leaders and offer something new. I can see why our young people behave as they do and why some of them have shared with me the bad things adults have said and done to them, showing them a lack of support, encouragment and respect.

      Eve Onst

      June 14, 2013 at 12:28 am

      I recently moved from NJ to a more rural, regional city. My work environment is toxic here. It is stressful and exhausting. I am consultant for the state. My state supervisor is extremely passive aggressive and sabotages my work, as well as even the work of her own colleagues at the state. She inserts herself into my email conversations, tells people to talk to her instead of me and cancels my meetings. Then she is all smiles and sweet talk to my supervisor at the consultant firm. I cannot get my work done. She continuously hides the necessary information or obstructs it from getting to me. Since I work for her and for the IT firm too, I am being pulled in two by these two supervisors. The state manager won’t let me do my job. The consultant firm manager, who is an excellent leader, keeps asking me to be aggressive about getting it done. I set up meetings every week. Every week she emails the people to cancel them. I am a new consultant without supervisory status – but she has left me to talk for our team at her own accountability meetings with high level state administrators. She simply did not show up. Nor did she inform me I would have to take her place – which I would have had no problem doing, if I had known about it and prepared. The whole culture in this place supports her behavior. I was once part of a sex harassment situation and that work environment was much less bizarre than this one. In that case there was one bad egg. In this case a web of toxic “leaders” or actually adminstrative obstructors has been developed in this agency. There is no accountability for management here. The lower level people adapt to this fake environment and simply pretend to like the boss in order to keep a job. But they do nothing for hours each day. I had never encountered such people in the NY metro area. I used to complain that people there were too aggressive. Now I actually miss working with in-your-face people.

    Anonymous

    December 18, 2012 at 11:02 am

    I have been a professional for nearly 15 years and in that time I have only experienced some mildly toxic environments, typically localized around a handful of individuals, but much to my chagrin that all changed recently when I was forcefully educated about truly toxic environments, and people, for that matter. Until you’ve been in a truly toxic work place
    it is hard to understand how it can survive and what’s worse is that someone actually allows and promotes it. By the time I realized how truly toxic this place was it was too late, I had already been labeled
    a trouble maker and the toxic had already started my deconstruction.

    In the past, if I had run into any type of political situation, questioning my motives or integrity, I would simply take that awareness and focus it on producing. And 100% of the time my results would speak for themselves, speak to the leadership, forcing any and all toxic elements to steer clear of my vicinity. But in a toxic environment results are very relative to perception, a perception carefully controlled by the toxic. When leadership allows the agenda of a self serving few to manipulate the perception of anyone it quickly becomes obvious and manifest in feelings of hopelessness.

    In reading this article I was reminded that I saw every – single – toxic component mentioned, and even worse within a short time those components had become the status quo for a significant group. I simply could not believe what I was seeing. The only comfort I could take away from that situation was knowing that it couldn’t last, as I mentioned earlier I had seen much smaller versions of this behavior before and watched as it eventually imploded. My main regret is that I was “reduced” before I got to see it happen, and it did. Just after I was
    reduced the “Chief…” resigned, as he was known to do, just prior to
    a critical moment, and left behind what was easily described as a mess. And as his most trusted cohort attempted to take over she was exposed for who she truly was. Many of the other reduced dissenters watched from a distance as she was recently fired and the toxic castle came crumbling down.

    I hope some lessons were learned and the organization involved takes heed.

    Kellie Auld

    May 19, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Appreciate your post Mike, and I would agree. It really comes down to the commitment by the leaders to have policies that clearly state what expected behaviours are and then they have to lead by example.

    Annie chan

    September 11, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Amazing and intelligent article. You cut right through all the wish-wash and unearthed the true roots of toxic environments. I am in the midst of contemplating my future with my company because of this exact problem. I’ve come close to walking out the door without any notice or another job lined up which is completely out of character for me. There have been days when I’ve wanted to storm in on the executive meetings and scream “Open your eyes and do something!”. There are a group of us who feel this way. It seems it is the good and conscientious people who get shafted because they are the ones who care enough to see and are smart enough to know better. I believe we are are these people. Why do politics, lies and manipulation trump fairness, good sense and integrity? Am I asking for too much? I have done what this article suggests and try to help foster a positive environment but am finding myself feeling powerless, hopeless, and frustrated. I feel I need to make one last grand gesture of effort. I am thinking of pulling a “Jerry Maguire” move. Any advice?

    Rick D.

    June 15, 2014 at 7:01 am

    What we believe will have a profound effect on our health and destiny.
    If you believe stress is bad for you, it will make you sick but if you believe it prepares your body for the task at hand it will improve your health.
    The words we use will have a profound effect on those around us.
    Words have power, use them wisely.
    Do you want to build connections or destroy connections for your own amusement?
    When you build connections the greatest benefit may be to yourself.

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