Why managers are to blame for toxic work environments

Toxicity in the workplace is detrimental to an employee's attitude and overall work performance. Here's who is responsible, and how to fix it.

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Toxic work environments are harmful to employees, both mentally and professionally, according to a recent report and infographic from Resume.io. Being surrounded by toxicity for 40 hours a week causes extremely high levels of stress for employees, resulting in sickness, mental health issues, and a lack of motivation, the report found. 

SEE: How to manage job stress: An IT leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Warning signs of toxic behavior include situations in which "employees are territorial over projects; employees don't solicit input from peers" and when "employees aren't receptive to constructive criticism," said Paul Wallenberg, senior manager of technology services at LaSalle Network. 

These toxic behaviors typically result in high turnover and the formation of cliques, excluding others and reinforcing the toxicity, added Dave Denaro, vice president of Keystone Associates. 

Who is to blame?

As with communication and digital transformation initiatives, toxic work cultures typically start at the top. 

"If it is a toxic environment, it's inherently a management problem. Sometimes, managers are causing the issues, and other times, managers can implement changes to solve the problems," said Wallenberg. "They can't play favorites, and they have to seek input and feedback from their staff."

Even if the manager didn't create the problem, they shouldn't be the one to enable it either, Denaro said. 

"A people manager's job, the biggest responsibility actually, is to lead a team in a way that creates sustainable business results," Denaro said. "Creating or allowing a toxic workplace to form, will do the opposite and people in the environment will see the business degrade over time, as well as feel the effects of the abuse."

Should you stay or should you go?

The decision to stay in any workplace but particularly a toxic one depends on many factors, one of the main being how much interest you have in the work, Wallenberg said. If you love the work you do, and are able to look past the toxicity, then staying for the experience could be beneficial.

However, sticking around in a toxic environment may have some detrimental long-term effects, Denaro said. 

"I think just surviving is not an option. Staying in toxic environments really degrades your physical health and confidence as the word toxic implies. Not to mention affecting your relationships with others outside the company," Denaro said. "Get out while you are still intact. Unless you are an owner of the firm, why spend your time, energy and reputation trying to overcome toxic behavior when you can find a better role someplace else? Maybe when enough talented people leave and business drops off the leadership team will create a new environment, or leave themselves, and allow the company to recover."

How leaders can spark change 

1. Solicit feedback

Executives in all organizations should regularly ask for feedback from employees, that way they can hopefully stop toxicity before it starts, or stop it from progressing. 

"Host monthly or weekly town halls departmentally or team wide, and make sure the agenda items don't revolve around status updates," said Wallenberg. "Focus the conversation around how things are going, what needs to be improved, and where the best opportunities are."

2. Eliminate toxic people

As one would with a carton of eggs, get rid of the bad ones: "Simply exit the managers that created [the toxicity] in the first place. Separate the people forming the cliques," Denaro said. 

"Those actions alone will signal that the behavior will no longer be tolerated, assuming the leaders aren't fostering the toxic behavior as well. Although anybody can learn to change their behavior, some will choose not to," Denaro added. "While leadership sees which way the manager will go, the manager should be relieved of responsibility over people in a visible way so employees understand that the company is serious about changing the current conditions.

3. Reflect

Leaders must also have the self-awareness to consider themselves as the issue, Wallenberg said. 

"Leaders need to look in the mirror regularly and ask themselves what problems are they creating?" Wallenberg said. "What problems are they aware of and choosing not to do something about? What changes could they make to improve the environment, and what resources do they need to do that?"

For more, check out The 10 warning signs of a dysfunctional work culture on TechRepublic.  

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Matej Kastelic, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Macy Bayern

Macy Bayern is an Associate Staff Writer for TechRepublic. A recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin's Liberal Arts Honors Program, Macy covers tech news and trends.