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Work Shouldn’t Hurt: The Cycle of Toxic Work Cultures

Toxic culture starts with leadership and then seeps into organizational culture.

Key points

  • Toxic cultures do not transpire overnight but are an outgrowth of a toxic environment.
  • Toxic cultures incite deviant behavior, as employees succumb to low morale and adopt the behaviors modeled by leadership.
  • Toxic cultures drive out the best employees as highly ethical innovators seek out new jobs, leaving the worst offenders in charge.
Source: Den/Pexels

Work shouldn’t hurt.

Toxic cultures grab onto high-performing and passionate employees, dampen their spirits, hijack their autonomy, and thwart their organization’s mission by placing roadblocks on the paths marked fulfillment, innovation, and joy. Such cultures, however, do not transpire overnight but are an outgrowth of a toxic environment that evolves over time and are fed by leadership who, by commission or omission, puts self and optics over people and purpose (Matos, O'Neill, & Lei, 2018).

Toxic Cultures Begin With Toxic Leadership

Toxic leadership advances the ego and agenda of the leader through the manipulation, abuse, and forced compliance of subordinates. It is characterized by a lack of transparency, impenetrable hierarchy, and top-down decision-making, in which the voices of those impacted are neither heard nor considered (Leymann, 1996). It is often masked by cordiality, charm, and toxic positivity in which employees are asked to smile and be thankful for the crumbs (Kessler, 2020; Pilch & Turska, 2015). In toxic cultures, restrictions are placed on employees with the intent of achieving specific goals without consideration for the people doing the heavy lifting.

Those subjected to a toxic leader often describe her style as inflexible, demanding, prescriptive, manipulative, and devoid of diverse voices. Employees acquiesce to her demands out of fear, not buy-in. In such relationships, the purposely orchestrated power imbalance silences employees’ voices and makes them hesitant to speak out (Wiernik & Ones, 2018). These toxic environments are often described as hypercompetitive with win-at-all-cost cultural norms (Matos, O'Neill, & Lei, 2018). Tragically, those who push back on the abuse are often quieted, publicly shamed, and used as an example to discourage additional dissent. These environments tend to have high turnover rates, with the same positions vacated repeatedly (Pilch & Turska, 2015).

Poor Leadership Leads to Mistakes and Deviant Behavior

Poor leadership diminishes employee morale by breaking the implicit employee–supervisor, give-and-take social contract. Instead, the relationship becomes purely transactional, where the leader makes demands, sometimes withholding the necessary resources needed to achieve success, and the employees are charged to simply “make it work” (Hassan, Bashir, Raja, Mussel, & Khattak, 2021). This win-at-all-cost without sufficient resources may result in employees incurring traumatic stress and subsequently making unintended mistakes on the job, such as giving a patient the wrong dose of medication (Clegg, Cunha, & Arménio 2016; Hobfoll, 1989; Yang, Zheng, Liu, Lu, & Schaubroeck, 2020). Moreover, other employees will start to mirror the deviant behaviors modeled by leadership when they perceive a lack of administrative care and support and witness the rewards associated with unethical actions and decision-making (Sarwar, Naseer, & Zhong, 2020; Wiernik & Ones, 2018).

Deviant Behavior Is Contagious

Toxic leadership is an invisible virus, spreading molecules of ill will that attach to bystanders, transforming employees' kindness and productivity into spite and vengeance, intent on dragging others down. When employees see bad behavior going unchecked or rewarded, they will often adopt similar ways of being. It is like a snowball, starting with one toxic snowflake and then rolling down the hill, grabbing everyone in its path. Before long, toxic behavior is no longer relegated to an identifiable few but becomes a cultural norm across the organizational structure (Michigan State University, 2016). The few employees who resist the temptation to follow the mob, over time, become mentally fatigued as they attempt to negotiate this new culture devoid of trust and goodwill. This tiredness ignites a sense of unbelonging, making them reluctant to support the organization and give of themselves (Feijó, Pearce, & Fassa, 2019; Samnani & Singh, 2016).

Good People Leave

Once this toxic snowball reaches epic proportions, top employees, devoted to high moral standards and excellence, begin to throw up their hands in exasperation. Moreover, if an organization lacks an effective bullying report system, one that will protect employees from retaliation and take their concerns seriously, those fed up with the abuse will look for the exit door, frustrated by the lack of recourse, leaving the worst offenders in charge. Consequently, those perpetuating the harm will amp up their digressions, no longer fearful of negative repercussions (Samnani & Singh, 2016).

Some Employees Are More Susceptible to Toxic Cultures Than Others

Toxic cultures impact employees differently. Those with a high core self-evaluation, defined as a strong and positive sense of self, are more traumatized by toxic leadership than chameleon employees, who easily adopt cultural norms, lacking a personalized and solidified code of ethics and moral conduct (Booth, Shantz, Glomb, Duffy, & Stillwell, 2020). Employees who are experts in their field or thought of particularly highly may too be targeted disproportionately by toxic leaders, who are jealous of their accomplishments and social capital (Smith, Merlone, and Duffy, 2016). Curious employees also experience toxic leadership more profoundly, as their propensity to ask questions and innovate is discouraged and shut down by leaders who value compliance and uniformity (Loewenstein, 1994). Fortunately, all is not lost; there is hope for organizations who diverted from the path but are willing and eager to work toward positive transformation.

Changing the Cycle

We know what works. Toxicity dissipates and hope floats overhead when leaders invite and make space for employees’ diverse perspectives. Employees will re-engage with environments that have pushed them out when they are empowered to initiate projects that speak to their passions and have ownership over the process. Employees will be eager to dive into solving long-term, institutional problems when their voices are heard and they are provided with the necessary resources needed to meet with success.

Moreover, when leaders abandon the tools of blame, shame, and sanctions for achieving results, and instead encourage intellectual risk-taking, accepting occasional failure as part of the growth process, employees become willing to dedicate their time to exploring new ideas. And, when problems arise, as they naturally do, leaders who come from a place of curiosity and vulnerability, instead of dictating the next steps for achievement, begin to reclaim employees’ trust. These new lenses offer fresh perspectives, transforming obstacles into opportunities and cubicles from jail cells to welcoming spaces that foster ideas and relationships, breaking the cycle of previous workplace abuse (Slemp, Kern, Patrick, & Ryan, 2018).


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