95. Toxic Workplaces: How to See the Signs (& How To Deal With Them)

Workplace culture is created by the people on your team, your leaders, and the written and unwritten rules that guide behavior. When these “norms” result in feeling psychologically unsafe or they get in the way of your being effective, it is toxic.  

Adam Grant says there are two fundamental tensions in organizational culture – the tension between results and relationship and the tension between rules and risk.  When these tensions are out of balance, it leads to a toxic workplace.

Grant says the first sin of a toxic workplace is bad behavior – or toxicity. What we are talking about here is disrespectful, demeaning and abusive behavior, people who are non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat or overly competitive – and of course the list goes on.  The workplace where these negative behaviors occur prioritizes results over relationships.  This kind of behavior in the workplace is one of the drivers of the great resignation.  

If a workplace goes to the other side and flips the focus from results to relationships, we have the second sin, which is mediocracy. These workplaces value relationships above results to such a degree that people are not held accountable.  There is no incentive to do a good job because whether you do a good job or a terrible job, the rewards are the same.

The third deadly sin of the toxic workplace is bureaucracy. Bureaucracy helps up manage risk – and that is good. If a culture is focused on rules and procedures to manage risk, then there is no creativity, no change and no risk.  As with mediocrity, there is no reward for efficiency, innovation and collaboration.  

The other side of bureaucracy is anarchy, the fourth sin of the toxic workplace.  In a culture of anarchy, there is all risk and no rules. Anyone can do whatever they want, strategy and structure be damned. No one learns from the past or lands on the same page. It’s pure chaos.  Interpersonal relationships are difficult in a culture with no or few rules because everyone is on their own.

Grant has some questions to ask before you take a job to determine culture – and these are great questions for us to ask ourselves about our current work situation:

Tell me what happens here that does not happen in other places?

Tell me about a time when people did not walk the talk here?

Tell me a story about who gets hired, fired and promoted?

Learning about workplace culture is vital before you take a job.  For those of us who are currently in jobs, these questions can help us discern our discomfort and take action to address it – whether that means leaving a job, changing our attitudes, accepting what is – or even just getting affirmation that our discomfort is valid.

Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture

Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation