In 2018, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer released a book, Dying for a Paycheck, where he revealed that a toxic workplace is the 5th leading cause of deaths in the US. As dramatic as this may sound, he said something even more dramatic in his book – according to Mayo Clinic, “the person you report to at work is more important for your health than your family doctor.”
Not only are managers in the best place to identify and resolve issues related to workplace toxicity, they are also uniquely equipped to reduce its impact on their team members. Being aware of toxic behaviors around you and resolving or defusing them becomes vital to building up your team, and keeping people engaged, motivated, and healthy. Here are just some of the toxic behaviors you can watch out for:
Warning signal 1: Poor communication
Daily huddles and weekly status checks have a big role in making sure that your team is fully aligned. However, if some members constantly miss these meetings, or join without being participative, it could be a sign that they have mentally checked out. This can happen even with high-performing team members who don’t feel the need to collaborate, or with team members who might have a lot on their plate and end up deprioritizing team cohesion.
Another warning sign to watch out for is when some voices don’t get the opportunity to be heard at meetings, or when some people’s ideas get shot down without being examined carefully. Persons engaging in such behavior could be disparaging of other team members, demotivating them, and causing them to underperform or be reluctant to share ideas.
Tackle this problem: Model the right behavior for your team, both at the physical workplace and the digital one. The author of Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan, shares four laws of digital body language: value visibly, communicate carefully, collaborate confidently, trust totally. And guide your team to partake in these values. Have one-on-one conversations with each person in your team to make it clear that being communicative about one’s work activities and staying aligned on goals is a vital value, as is being a good listener.
Warning signal 2: Ostracism and bullying
Do you notice one person from your team being left out at the lunch table, or being excluded from social initiatives at the workplace? Perhaps there are email chains they are excluded from? Or maybe their attempts to make social conversation are ignored? Are there opportunities that they are not aware of because their peers are withholding information from them?
Leaving out one person from work and social conversations and engaging in cliquish behaviors are a form of workplace bullying. Professor Sandra Robinson, who researches workplace ostracism, points out that such behavior leads the victims to “feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”
Tackle this problem: Make plans and processes that ensure that every person in your team feels included. Communicate often on official channels and messaging groups so that all your team members know about initiatives and opportunities that they can be a part of. Have one-on-one meetings with them to ensure that each person is seen, heard, and recognized for the work he or she does.
Warning signal 3: Favoritism (and perceived favoritism)
If you are in a managerial position, this might not be easy to spot. You may be unknowingly exhibiting the tendency to protect or promote team members who tend to back you more often or whom you connect with at a personal level. Or perhaps you are aware of your behavior, but you feel like you need that extra backing from a certain employee to maintain your authority within the team. It might even be that you are not playing favorites at all, but merely recognizing exemplary performance in a certain employee with more opportunities, but your actions are being perceived as favoritism. In all of these cases, though, your team would feel disengaged. In fact, workplace expert Lynn Taylor highlights that while favoritism can be fairly benign, it can turn into something serious and create a hostile environment for others in your team.
Tackle this problem: Check your actions often to ensure that you are not inadvertently offering preferential treatment to some of your employees. Also, ensure you communicate your rewards and recognition system to your team and explain why any of them is being given more opportunities, rewards, or recognition.
A final word: Watch out for the larger toxic workplace patterns that impact the team
Some toxicity issues creep in due to larger workplace processes such as not taking enough inputs or feedback from employees at periodic intervals, not having an extensive rewards and recognition system in place, or skimping on internal hiring opportunities. Such issues may not be fully controllable at an individual or team level. However, being aware of them can help managers check the impact within the team.