Anyone can spot the obvious signs of a toxic workplace –appreciation is absent, accountability is elusive at best, a raving lunatic of a boss, everyone’s on LinkedIn during work. But what if the signs of toxicity are more subtle? Might you be leading, working in, or about to enter an environment that is quietly rotting from the inside?
Leaders need to be able to spot toxic undertones of a workplace, so they can address them (unless they’re what makes it toxic). Employees need to be able to identify a corrosive environment, so they can avoid or leave it, or know how to contribute to solutions to fix it.
I’ve experienced enough workplace environments over a 30-plus-year career and interviewed enough uninspired employees (in doing research for Find the Fire) to know how to spot even the quieter signs of not-so-great cultures. Watch out for these eight symptoms, so you know what you’re getting yourself into, or what you need to get out of.
1. You find out people’s true thoughts in the meeting after the meeting.
This used to drive me nuts. You’d be in a meeting where a decision had to be made or something important was on the agenda. No one would say much, or they’d say a lot of nothing.
Then came the meeting after the meeting, where several people at the prior meeting huddled to talk about what they really thought, or to bash the decision they never spoke up about in the earlier meeting.
2. There’s too little dissension.
This one is related to the above, but specifically referns to when a boss is met with too little pushback. Do you know of any scenario where a team leader holding a soliloquy is a sign of a healthy team? Of course not. It’s a sign that people don’t feel free to speak their minds to an overbearing boss.
3. Only one type of person gets promoted.
Maybe those promoted are all cut from the same cloth as the boss, or maybe it’s only the shameless self-promoters who get ahead. Whatever the case, it’s a sign that bias runs rampant, the wrong things are valued, and that diversity is ignored.
4. Underperformers go unaddressed.
Few things kill morale faster than when an employee who’s a drain on the workplace can sit there without action taken. It might be because of a spineless or out-of-touch boss, but whatever the reason it’s sure to drive the high-performing workers (who carry their weight and that of the slacker) totally nuts. The bad apple will soon rot the whole orchard if it isn’t taken care of.
5. The talk is all about measures, not meaning.
Pay attention to what employees talk about. Is it primarily about whether goals, timelines, and success criteria are being hit — and the consequences if not? If so, it speaks to an underlying fear running through the organization, a fear of failure. This is as opposed to hearing talk about things like teamwork, coaching, respect, and trust — all the things employees find meaningful and motivating in a manner that sustains.
6. Energy is palpably low.
Sometimes you can feel underlying toxicity just by not feeling any energy. Is no one smiling, laughing, or talking with one another in the halls? Is it all heads down and frowns, all the time? Think about the opposite for a moment. When you’re in a great workplace culture, people can’t hide it; the energy seems to exude from the furniture itself.
7. Nobody asks for your input.
This is indicated by silos, small groups of people doing work within their own little world and keeping to themselves. A workplace with silos lacks a sense of openness, collaboration, sharing and “inviting in” the other. It’s a sneakier sign of toxicity.
8. There’s no clear vision.
Is no one able to articulate the big picture? Does it feel like things are being done without direction? This is a sign that no clear vision has been communicated to the employees. Without a rudder and a lighthouse, the organization is destined to sail in the dark right into the rocks.
So, if you spot too many of these subtle signs in your workplace, don’t be subtle about taking action. Flag it, fix it, or find the exit.