Leadership & Toxic Work Environments

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

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.