9 signs your workplace culture is toxic and bad for you

Do toxic bosses thrive in toxic cultures or do they create it? Do they enable each other? Here are 9 signs that your workplace culture is toxic.

toxic workplace culture
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You were right! When I published my article on toxic bosses, many of you shared your stories and wrote to me about the nexus between toxic bosses and toxic workplace cultures. Is there an unhealthy alliance between toxic bosses and workplace cultures? Do they enable each other? Do they multiply and compound the adverse impact on an individual who is trapped in the throes of the brewing storm? Do toxic bosses thrive in toxic workplaces and vice versa? As I reflected on the many stories, my own and my colleagues’ experiences, I realized you were right. 

The world of work is fascinating. There are great organizations with a phenomenally constructive culture, who may have pockets of toxicity. It is equally true that there are toxic workplaces with pockets of brilliance and positive momentum. The difference is Leaders. 

Leaders have an immense impact of creating the culture.

Constructive cultures

Before we talk about toxic cultures, let’s take a look at what truly constructive, positive, progressive workplace cultures look like:

constructive cultures

Toxic Workplace Cultures

Here are the 9 key signs to look out for: 

A culture of Gossip & Rumors

toxic workplace culture gossip

Gossip, and rumors add toxicity to any workplace. The 3 critical ways in which this exacerbates toxicity are: a) spreading fake news that is harmful, and usually negative and trust eroding, b) divides people into haves and have nots, as information percolates to the chosen few, and c) creates a vicious cycle of negativity. While gossip exists everywhere, a truly toxic workplace is one where the Truth resides in the Grapevine, and in these situations, as you listen to the shared jokes and gossip in the office, and see the pattern, you start to get a glimpse of what lies beneath. 

A Passive Aggressive Culture

toxic workplace culture passive aggressive

Passive aggressiveness is the hallmark of toxic cultures. It exists in many shapes and forms, from unwarranted resistance, to passive sabotage by not doing what is required and placing obstacles to progress, to holding onto a victim mindset and not being part of the solution, or in many situations avoiding responsibility and finding others to blame. When we see more of these behaviors in an organization than constructive behaviors, it is a red flag.  

Hyper Powerpoint Culture

toxic workplace culture hyper powerpoint

The cornerstone of a Hyper-Powerpoint culture is Style over Substance. The key signals are a) lack of relevant metrics that measure milestones of execution and ensure that the end outcome aligns with goals, b) beautiful Powerpoint presentations that are rarely finally executed, c) employees are rewarded for the ideas and Powerpoints, without waiting for execution, and d) bosses rely on superficial criteria to assess their people. As you can imagine, an idea is only as good as its execution and final outcome. So this tendency causes irreparable damage to an organization’s ability to execute on their strategy effectively.  

‘I’ over ‘Team’

toxic workplace culture I over team

Every organization has to strike a balance between the importance of individual goals, versus team based common shared goals, as we strive to tread the fine line between collaboration and individual accountability. Many lose that balance, and can become extremely individualistic. This shows up in many shapes and forms, the 3 key signals are a) Self serving metrics of performance; an environment where you are recognized for achieving your goals even if your team doesn’t, b) Team goals / Functional goals do not add up to the organization levels, and c) Working in Silos and lack of collaboration. When we see more of these behaviors in an organization than constructive behaviors, it is a red flag.  

‘Hero’ today, ‘Zero’ tomorrow

toxic workplace culture hero today zero tomorrow

The biggest red flag for toxic cultures is the inconsistent assessment of performance and potential. This is the ‘Hero to Zero’ phenomenon that we see in these workplaces; one day you are hailed as the savior, and the next day you are forgotten. When you feel that the standards are different, criteria are unclear, inconsistent, and subjective, the logic for promotions and assessments are puzzling, and not obvious, and you can’t figure out what it takes to move ahead because the roadmap isn’t clear, it may be time to listen to your gut. This inconsistency results in ‘Decision-based-principle-making’

Who is more important? Boss or Customer?

toxic workplace culture boss more important than customer

Every organization has a Vision or Mission statement articulating their Customer-centricity. The Customer is the one who grants us our future, so this makes a lot of sense. However, while the Customer is voting with her wallet, she is far removed from the day to day performance assessment and progress of employees. Your boss is the one who does that. Good organizations work hard to maintain the balance so employees can be customer centric. Toxic workplaces however, are significantly more boss centric and demand loyalty.

Hard to get things done

toxic workplace culture hard to get things done

It is incredibly hard to get things done in a toxic workplace. While there are many obstacles that get in the way, the most damaging ones are a) too many approvals, b) lack of risk taking by leaders, c) significant duplication of effort due to lack of trust, d) bureaucracy, and e) legalistic and compliance approach to simple things, again denoting a lack of trust. When we see more of these behaviors in an organization than constructive behaviors, it is a red flag. This causes irreparable damage to trust and ownership of our people. 


toxic workplace culture politics

Politics is another hallmark of toxic cultures. Surprised? There are mountains of books that suggest that organization politics is good, and that political savvy (aka organization agility) is a critical business skill. And while there is some truth to that, there is a dark side. As with government, politics is about retaining power, in the hands of those who have it. If you have ever worked in a place where your colleagues talk about bosses having their chosen ones, where who you know is more important than what you can do, where the underground network of connections determines your career, you know exactly what I am talking about. 

Values for the wall, not life

toxic workplace culture values on wall

Organizations take pride in defining and living into their Values. It serves as the touchstone for all we do. When you see organizations use their Values for better optics, but not live into it, it is a red flag. The lead indicator is a lack of alignment between their Values and everything else; they don’t do what they say, they don’t align their policies, processes, ways of working and the leadership style of their leaders to their Values. This breaks trust of their people.  

If you have enjoyed reading my article, or had a good laugh at my lack of artistic ability, I would love for you to:

  1. Share your story and the factor that resonates the most with you, 
  2. Share other signs of toxic workplaces,
  3. Like and share this with everyone who needs a smile in their day

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