How to spot toxic behaviours in the workplace

two businesswoman arguing in office, toxic behaviours in the workplace

It is rare for a workplace not to have someone whose behaviour is toxic.

Sometimes, the use of these behaviours has become the norm so that people do not recognise how awful and painful they are for recipients. People use toxic behaviours indirectly and cleverly, so you could miss them.

Toxic behaviours tend not to be utilised in public settings, making it harder to spot them. The person who uses these behaviours has a good sense of when to utilise them so that there are no witnesses or observers. Rarely, they will feel powerful enough to apply them, for example, in a group meeting.

Walking into an organisation where there is toxicity, you sense that something is not quite right. You may see unhealthy communication, people using email rather than talking to each other either remotely or face to face. Some may avoid meetings with certain individuals or groups. There are likely to be cliques with an in-crowd and out-crowd. The ‘outsiders’ will not be invited to social work gatherings.

Relaxed discussions in informal settings will be rare. There could be an atmosphere of intimidation, especially if there is mobbing. We will see very little compassion or respect. People may just focus on doing their job as quietly as possible and then go home. Loyalty and motivation will be absent.

You may see favouritism and nepotism, but there will be few repercussions. Mary was part of an interview panel for a senior post. One candidate could not answer the questions. However, one of the panel members said that they thought this person was the best candidate, and their sister-in-law. The panel appointed the candidate.

Toxic behaviours may have become the norm. While there may be no official acknowledgement, there could be high levels of sick leave and staff turnover. Having to work in toxic environments was the most cited reason for resignations in COVID and post pandemic.

What can we do?

What we do as individuals will depend on who we are. If targeted, then we can stay silent, opt to speak to the person using these behaviours, take formal action or leave. The option we choose will depend on what we think of the organisation’s willingness to address toxicity. The amount of inner strength we have, and the quality of support, will also make a difference. Staying silent takes as much strength as lodging a formal complaint. They will need help to recover once the toxicity recedes.

We can also be passive if we are observers of these behaviours. This may be self-preservation and not wanting to be the next target. We should advocate for the targeted while being mindful and protecting ourselves. This will benefit all, including bystanders, because toxicity affects everyone’s psychological well-being.

Managers will need help to be strong enough to work with staff who have showed negative actions. They may need coaching to become better at the discussions. Managers may need support themselves as they aid individuals with negative behaviours to adjust and change. These staff may need special help as well.

Leaders rarely pay attention to toxicity or ignore it. It is unusual for a leader to address negativity, even though is massive research proving that it exists in most sectors. Isn’t it time to do something? If we don’t, then we are not fulfilling our duty of care. The first step is for leadership, executives, and non-executives to decide, with courage, to act and reduce the incidence and prevalence of toxicity. With the evidence, have discussions with staff on what is positive and what they need to address toxicity. Some staff will be distrustful, but it is important to persist and give them time to appreciate that you want to improve the organisation.

Build in collective accountability, allow and facilitate praise and open discussions and opportunities to name, talk about and address the negative. Have support mechanisms for those who have used toxic behaviours and for people who have been the recipients. Make sure that there is a functional internal justice system. Review your HR policies and procedures and take steps to have them used in a fair way.

Toxicity is just that. Poison that is hurtful and painful, especially to recipients. Isn’t it time we took action to change the legacy so that future employees work in healthier organisations?

Anna EliatambyAbout the author

Anna Eliatamby is Director of Healthy Leadership, CIC and co-author, with Blueprintforall of the Decency Journey pocketbook series.

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