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What Elements Make Up Toxic Working Culture?

Last month the topic of discussion was Working From Home and I said it was a phrase used so often that the original meaning is sometimes lost. But another phrase often used, especially in the last couple of weeks is Toxic Working Culture or Environment.

I have often heard this used when people explain why they hate or left their job; “It was a toxic working environment and I need/had to get out”. But what constitutes a toxic working culture?

I posted polls on LinkedIn and Facebook. Over 120 people voiced what elements they believes make a working culture toxic.

There was a definite pattern and the results may come as surprise, especially to businesses. But I think employers should also look very closely, as what they think employees consider is a toxic environment may not be the case.

Micromanagement; the Number One Element of Toxic Working Cultures

I’m not surprised people considered this to be a toxic working trait of a workplace. Initially though, I was perhaps a little surprised at just how many people considered it to be the main element of toxic workplace culture.

Almost a third of the people who voted (31.4%) said that they felt that micromanagement is the largest contributor to making a working environment truly toxic.

It makes perfect sense; micromanagement oozes toxicity. Because it demonstrates one of the most de-motivating things an employer can show; a complete lack of trust.

What is micromanagement? It refers to a superior who will constantly seek to oversee, control and direct every aspect of your work from tasks important to minute.

In other words they don’t trust you to do the job correctly, or at the very least don’t trust you to do it as well as they can.

Of course this can come in all shapes and sizes. Constantly checking on you, giving direction on a task you have performed numerous times, strictly regimenting and monitoring your day, breaks, lunch etc. But it all comes down to trust.

And what person feels valued, motivated and confident in their job when you know that your not trusted by the higher ups? This is made worse when you know the person responsible has no business micromanaging aspects of your work they themselves don’t know

This happens far too often and to put it simply; we as employees don’t need that rubbish. You have employed us to do a job, now trust us to get on with it unless there are serious causes to do otherwise.

The alternative is businesses lose good talent. Who could have added so much more value to the company if they had been trusted to do their job.

Management Politics

I hadn’t originally intended to have Management Politics as an option on the poll. Simply because it didn’t spring to mind.

Until I was doing some market research on some businesses on glassdoor. I found that for a couple of businesses Management Politics was a big source for negative critique and was even the cause many former-employees listed their reason for leaving.

It had the second highest votes with 22.3% voting it as a main element of a toxic workplace. Which was quite the considerable number.

What is management politics? In this sense it is used to describe managers putting their own professional or personal agenda over the actual work/team.

For example a manager may wish to gain favour with their superiors by showcasing cost efficiency. The result of this could be a refusal to take on more staff that are severely needed and over-tasking a skeleton team. Another example could be blaming another colleague or department for their own mistakes to avoid reprimand.

But like with micromanagement, management politics can come in all shapes and sizes, but why does this create a toxic working environment?

That can also be a number of reasons, for one; as an employee I want to come to work to do my job, not to be used in a politicking chess match. It is also incredibly de-motivating when a manager puts themselves before their team.

Talk about the original meaning being lost; a manager is meant to be a leader, ensure the team is giving their best performance. That includes taking responsibility for when things go wrong. Standing up to customers and even upper management if their team are treated unfairly.

Inappropriate Behaviour (Sexism, Bullying, Racism etc.)

19% of voters said that inappropriate behaviour is the main element of a toxic working environment.

Racism, Sexism, Homophobia etc. all of it can sadly take place in the workplace. The range of this is massive; it can be anything from full on harassment in these areas to feeding into stereotypes.

The battle is ongoing to eradicate this from not only workplace culture but from society in general. Sadly we see stories where people still feel these behaviours exist and effect their careers.

Some of this can be attributed to unconscious bias or ignorance. While some of it may be more deliberate and underhanded.

Bullying is a highly toxic trait in workplace culture and this still goes on. Let’s not beat around the bush, sometimes, people take a disliking to each other for one reason or another. The results of this are often never good.

Bullying could come from a person with authority, singling a colleague out. Giving them more than their fair share of work, coming down harder on them than other team members or even showing appreciation to everyone else but them.

Cliques also form in the workplace and these seldom lead to anything good. They can also lead to bullying if a number of people decide a fellow colleague is not to their liking.

It can honestly feel like your back in highschool when this type of bullying takes place and it can often go unnoticed. This is especially the case when members of management are part of said clique.

Then the members can feel as though they have a certain level amnesty and can get away with inappropriate behaviour towards others.

Blatant Favourtism

It could be argued that this is a form of management politics, but I do believe it is separate to that. When discussing bullying, I had mentioned that sometimes people take a dislike to each other, the opposite is also true.

How does the old cliche go? It’s not what you know it’s who you know. I never realised before the negative implications behind that saying. But there is certainly truth to it and is it a toxic trait within the workplace?

9% of voters believe it to be a toxic element and I can agree with them on that. Favourtism is never a good thing and going back to clique conversation, even if it doesn’t lead to bullying it can lead to favourtism.

Why is that toxic? Because this can often result in people getting opportunities simply because the manager happens to like them. Whereas staff more deserving off these opportunities, the people who have the talent and work themselves hard, get overlooked.

The reason this toxic is because it builds up a culture of not how hard you work but who you cosy up to. And that is not environment in which talent can thrive. It also doesn’t say much for management that operates in this way either.

Other Toxic Workplace Elements

The above elements are the ones that were the most voted for. However there were several other elements the people believe contribute to a toxic working environment.

Some of the other elements people voted for included; overloading staff with work, blame culture, expected to work any and all shifts put to them. Some of these are aspects of traits already discussed, although they also stand alone.

Overloading Staff with Work

This refers to the extreme of staff expected to take on more work than can be coped with.

This can come from taking on more work due to a lack of staff. Or taking on work that is beyond their job description and even their skill level.

It’s worse if there’s pressure on staff to try and get too much work done within an impossible time-scale.

This pressure can have an effect on staff morale and effect employees mental health. At that point it becomes a toxic working environment.

Blame Culture

Colleagues throwing each other under the bus when things go wrong. Everyone looking out for themselves rather than working together as a team.

This was touched upon within management politics. Although managers blaming their team is certainly part of it, blame culture refers to everyone across the board.

This creates an environment without trust. A backstabbing culture. There would be no motivation or loyalty in a place like that.

Expected to Work Any and All Shifts

There are still businesses out there who expect staff to be “fully flexible”. Or expect you to “work to the needs of the business”.

That’s code for; your life outside of work is irrelevant to us, you will work however we decide, don’t like it? There’s the door.

I’ve lost count of how many times in my previous employment I was told that anytime anyone took issue with a shift. It’s one step removed from zero hour contracts.

So it is understandable why this could be considered an element of a toxic working environment.

How to Change a Toxic Working Culture

When it comes to eradicating a toxic working culture, the only way to really change things is to treat the root cause.

Often that root cause is a lack of self-awareness, unconscious bias or even ignorance on the part of the employer. They may not even know they have a working culture that is toxic.

However, there are telling signs; high attrition rates, staff feedback, low productivity etc. This signals there is a problem even if an employer doesn’t know exactly what is causing it.

In any case, it’s up to businesses to reach out to consultants. Or take notice when a business is reaching out to them due to these issues.

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