Are You Working In a Toxic Environment?

Feb 7 / Jim Benson
Toxic environments aren’t always obvious. Many organizations or teams seem functional on the surface but, in reality, are plagued by subtle problems which make it difficult for employees to succeed. Everyone can recall at least one job that was hellish and didn’t feel right sticking around in the long term.

The most painful part of toxicity is that it is often caused by alleged best practices in leadership, management, Lean, Agile, etc. The environment we are deploying simply doesn’t match the needs of the team, the individual professionals on the team, and the work being done. The resulting mismatch generates toxicity, but the response is often to double-down on the toxic behavior. 
This problem is so great that a recent study revealed almost one-third of workers are leaving their jobs due to toxic workplace culture.

Even with their best efforts and intentions, many companies fail to sustain thriving culture within the workplace. There are many factors that play a role. Whether they aren’t familiar with the do’s and don’ts of proper management or are actually trying too hard, the result is the same: a culture of professionals trying to produce work they are proud of in an environment that works against them.

Often, toxic environments exist because profits, productivity, and “achievements” drive planning and resource allocation at the expense of team members' wellbeing, learning, and professionalism. Attempts to improve the culture, processes, or product are stopped dead in their tracks because they don’t fit the metrics. This quickly generates a culture of “learned helplessness” where employees become unmotivated and uninspired to work (with cause).

This is painful to watch. You can see the lack of passion reflected in the execution of their job, because they are fundamentally not allowed to work professionally.

The success of your organization falls on the shoulders of the professionals within it and a lack of agency and respect is currently requiring them to hate their job. If you aim to prosper, you have to help teams create the right environment for employees to improve. With the right environment, professionals will naturally improve everything about the business.

Right now, that natural drive to make things better is being impeded.

A thriving space is one that recognizes toxic behavior and removes it. This is what improvement is. Having the ability to improve naturally leads to motivated teams which deliver better and more frequent value, producing higher ROI and company growth. A healthy and intentional culture is crucial to continuously grow and expand.

Signs You Work In a Toxic Environment

The worst thing about a toxic environment is that poor behaviors not only become normalized, but are required by the system you have created. Often, the structure you set up to be efficient, agile, or lean is stressful, negative, and encourages unethical or unprofessional behavior.

As Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” No one sets out to build bad systems, they almost always happen from neglect and laziness. We can easily identify some red flags that you’ve created a malodorous system, those are below.

The question is…what are you going to do about it? Will you demand people start to behave better? Will you write it into a performance improvement plan? Will you blame them? I hope not.

It’s our hope you’ll sit down with them and have a real conversation about the toxicity they are experiencing, its impacts, and how you might mitigate it. When you read through the following, don’t look at the behavior of others as something they are doing, look at it as something they currently can only do.

Poor communication

Communication is a foundation of a good team. Do people have the information they need, when they need it? Do they know what information other people need from them? Where is information routinely lost?

Real communication encourages collaboration and transparency. A toxic environment withholds, subverts, or corrupts information, often making it difficult or even impossible to know when or how to professionally respond to a situation. For example, there might be a lack of clarity about corporate priorities, missing details, unclear next actions, and situations where no one is able to take responsibility. This leads to confusion and poor execution of tasks and results in teams waiting to be told what to do.

In other cases, there is no communication at all. Commands arrive unexpectedly and dictatorially, leaving a disorganized and unpredictable workflow. Teams have no clarity or visualization to promote appropriate action. Teams are in the dark struggling to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing and how.

As teams and professionals become buried under vague work requests under an inability to impact the quality or structure of the work, they become isolated. They are often stuck at their desks keenly focused on their personal work. When others interrupt them with more requests, questions, or meetings, they rightly feel pressured. They’re working harder to professionally achieve less. 

This naturally results in passive-aggressive actions where people will use sarcasm, insults, and half statements to end conversations, get around potential work, or simply protect themselves. This makes the toxic environment even more poisonous. Team members can’t focus on the workflow because the under-defined system has forced them into petty high school drama that distracts them from delivering value.

Bad leadership

Leadership and management are seen as synonymous, which they are not. Leadership is a complex topic that is always oversimplified, leaving people with buzzword skillsets like   “active listener”, “empathetic”, or “servant leader”. Because we lump leadership and management into the same block, we create leaders who are simultaneously failing to manage projects and people. In these cases, projects win while people lose.

Healthy leadership is contextual. If someone has been physically or emotionally injured on the job, being empathetic and working towards a solution that allows the injured person to stay with the group is a key trait. If your organization is unsure what to do or how to act, you may need to be more decisive, setting a direction for the teams that they can then implement.

Sometimes leadership is increasing options, sometimes it’s limiting them, but it’s always facilitating the creation and maintenance of a professional corporate environment where the people whom you “lead” have the information they need when they need it and can act on it when it arrives. You are the agency generator.

Leadership becomes toxic when it’s confused with management and loses its humanity. Blame, micromanagement, believing you have all the answers or make the decisions, centralization of authority, the creation of unnecessary bureaucracy, complex reporting structures, siloization, arbitrary promotions or career paths, undervaluing cost centers or shared resources, work arriving without notice, radical changes of corporate focus without conversation, the inability of professionals to change the course of a project, alienation of product creation from the customer… The list just goes on and on. This is all poor leadership and all comes down to one root cause:

Despotic leadership. 

Collaborative management, where decisions are made by informed professionals throughout the organization, solves all these problems. Every single one of them. When the decision-making of the organization is shared by the diverse and professional minds you’ve hired, decisions are more robust, creative solutions are more thoughtful, and even morale is improved.

High employee turnover

We spend most of our time at work. No one wants to be in a dysfunctional space that drains their energy and affects all other parts of their life.

High turnover is a big sign of a toxic environment. It means there’s a lack of direction, organization, opportunities, and bad leadership. When anyone leaves, other people know why. When their grievances are shared, the people who remain will consistently operate at lower and lower levels of professionalism because your system has demonstrated (through the person leaving) that it does not care about the problems and is not inclined to fix them.

Burnout and stress

We’ve all had our fair share of burnout and stress. We know what it feels like and how it has impacted our personal performance and professional satisfaction. Toxic environments generate this stress. Lack of clarity or direct threats from leadership, the team, or our workflow leaves people uncertain or scared of what will happen tomorrow. They lose sleep, come to work less able to focus, and always devote a considerable amount of their cognitive capacity to fear instead of work. This is a reaction to the system, not a personal failing. Your system actively promotes this result.

No room for career growth and improvement

Professionals go to work to learn and improve. They want to make themselves and the product better. Career growth and personal improvement isn’t just a perk, it’s a primary requirement for professional satisfaction and should be a primary metric for the health of any team or professional.

Toxicity rears its head here by making career paths murky or outright disrespecting the value of professionals. We worked with one woman who saved her company over $2 million with improvements. They said thank you. Then when she asked to take a $1500 training class, she was told the company had other priorities. They let her know she was worth less than one-tenth of one percent of her investment in the company. She now works elsewhere.

The lack of a coherent career path plagues knowledge work and leaves companies open to all sorts of discrimination suits. When promotions or pay raises seem arbitrary, it’s because they very likely are. This means that people don’t know what they should do to gain recognition for their efforts, growth, and value to the company. The result of this simple system is that when people are promoted, others become upset. Again, this is not because they are overly emotional, it’s because they’ve worked hard and the toxic system has been arbitrary or worse has played favorites.

7 Elements of a Healthy Work Environment

The secret to sustaining high-performing teams is establishing a healthy work culture or  “right environment.” Organizations that prioritize long-term success must show that they care about their employees, whether their team members are on-site or remote.

Spoiler alert: This requires thought and work, not simply reading a list. Ready to learn how and dive in?

Lead by example

Leaders are under the spotlight, walking a fine line between partner and decision-maker. They need to be part of the team and represent the greater corporation. Teams need an inspiring figure to support them, work with them, clear obstacles and set direction when necessary.

Leading by example isn’t just about being super nice and smart. That’s a buddy.

A leader demonstrates commitment by:

  • being consistent, 
  • providing an expectation that professionals will have and exercise agency, 
  • keeping abreast of what is happening on the team and outside of it, 
  • going to lengths to not surprise the team with new directions (so that when it is necessary the team can accept it), 
  • being available when human problems arise,
  • seeing when teams are stuck in analysis paralysis and being able to either tie-break, make executive decision, or otherwise get the team unstuck,
  • ensure the team has the information they need when they need it, to be able to exercise their professional agency safely,
  • and choosing metrics and goals with the team that will show true progress and adjust them as needed.

Leading by example is not asking you to be superhuman, just humane. Involve professionals in their own success and leadership by example will be fulfilled.

Good onboarding experience

If you don’t understand your processes and visualize your work, onboarding will always involve a slow, painful system of teaching people the differences between the way you say you do things and the way they are actually done. Yes, you should probably tweet that so you’ll remember it.

Ineffective onboarding is a primary indicator that you have an incoherent system. There’s a revolving door of new hires coming into a company, becoming frustrated, and leaving. Information is hidden, expectations are vague, and negative feedback comes frequently and unexpectedly.  

New hires feel unwelcomed, confused, or left out because the way you work is specifically toxic. They feel that way because they are unwelcomed, confused, and left out. 

We have found that onboarding people into extremely complex environments can be greatly improved, even enjoyable when the systems are visualized when people understand the flow of work, when not only work but ongoing experiments are visualized and discussed, and when all people, even the new ones, can clearly see how they can help. The faster any professional can get in, know what is going on, and start to improve things, the more likely they will stay on and become a central part of the team.

Real training & events

Training without purpose is an intolerable interruption. While you may think you’re giving people respect by sending them to training or events, you are often sending them away from their families and their work to do something they see no value in.

Frequently, when companies send dozens of people to Modus Institute trainings, there are people who not only don’t want to be there but have never even been told what the class was about. They don’t show up ready to learn, they show up confused and angry. This is a clear sign that someone is spending their training budget or wants the class for themselves (toxic!).

Professionals want to improve. They absolutely do. But if you are going to respect their professionalism and their time in a non-toxic way, it would be very helpful if you asked them (1) if they want the training, (2) if they’d like to learn a bit about why it would be useful to them, and (3) what training they would like and why. 

Be Professional: Visualize Your Work

All other efforts will be wasted if the work is not managed properly and collaborative. By now you should know that if you can’t see it, you can’t manage it (and by “you” we mean the team, not you as a manager.)

If it can’t be seen, it can’t be managed.

There are many articles on the Modus Institute Blog and in our Collaborwocky video series about visualizing work and building Obeyas. They all rest on one key fact: professionals cannot act without information.

Simply visualizing your workflow is not enough. Your teams need more information than tasks floating across a kanban, in fact, the kanban will either not work or be extremely hindered if that is the only source of information your teams are getting.

You need to see the work, you need to see the experiments, you need to see the metrics, you need to see the current and future states, you need to see the plan. Visualizing that in one place, in an Obeya, is the first step of having a truly high-performing team in a non-toxic environment.

Collaboration and Communication are Non-Negotiable

Simple, straightforward, and honest communication builds a team’s foundation. It also creates community that will contribute to the group’s success moving forward. 

Provide real, practical, and active feedback loops within and outside your team. Build the Obeya to provide a foundation for real-time collaboration and communication: one place to go for all information.

Provide an expectation that professionals will provide feedback to each other in real-time when appropriate. No more letting things fester or going to your boss. People will actually talk to each other. This is made possible not by demanding that they do it, but by building a system where those conversations are safe and natural.

The team itself is a silo if it does not openly, actively, and constantly collaborate with other teams and customers. Silos are toxic. To avoid that, the team should have a good understanding of their real value stream where they have, as a group, explored their expectations of each other and other teams. Where there is overlapping workflow, expectations, responsibilities, subject matter expertise, etc., there should be intentional cross-team planning and collaboration. The absence of collaboration increases division and breeds toxicity.

Diverse Teams with Agency

Build a team of diverse, knowledgeable, and thoughtful individuals. Include as many different voices as possible. When faced with complexity or problems, diverse teams present interesting points of view that draw from their individual backgrounds. The perspective here is literal, each person approaches the problem from a very different worldview.

In addition, a rich set of talents and backgrounds contributes to better collaboration and a higher delivery of value. While pairing or planning work, different perspectives make it far more likely that individual professionals will spot a problem before it starts. Again, this builds an expectation that the role of the professional, as a team member, is that of colleague, always interested in their co-workers, the product, and a quality release.

Without the expectation of collaboration, agency always requires great effort to act on. The individual needs to first overcome the barrier: Is this worth mentioning? Will I get yelled at? In a collaborative environment, agency is simply part of the process. 

Professionals Just Wanna Have Fun

Every high-performing team we have seen has a personality. Every team personality manifests itself by doing something fun. We’ve never seen the same “fun” twice for teams that have a collaborative culture.

We have, however, seen tons of toxic teams go bowling. 

If you are building the right environment, the team will naturally make their work environment an exciting space to be in. You aren’t their cruise director, it is not your job to define their fun. This isn’t an eighth-grade class going on a field trip. 

We’ve seen dogs in construction trailers, team trips for burgers when something is successfully released (they were collecting all the burger places in Milwaukee one by one), board game nights, and people giving their colleagues cooking classes. It’s always been part of their agency to define and act on their own fun.

As long as it’s legal and less expensive than going into low-earth-orbit, let it happen.

Make Work a Better Place

You’re probably tired of people being held back and stressed, work being left undone, problems festering, and dealing with endless workplace politics. 

In very practical ways, organizations can learn, discuss, and discover ways to make work life better. Most importantly, they can address and fix stagnant work processes in order to deliver quality products to customers. These are two sides of the same coin, we can’t have good operations without good culture and vice versa.

At Modus Institute we focus on collaboration, on creating an engine that is driven by culture and operations simultaneously. Work is done by individuals in teams to create value. This means creating and maintaining the right environment is imperative. We created foundations of predictable work based on reality. There will always be interruptions, but they can be less stressful if you treat the work environment properly. 

Is your work environment thriving yet?