Toxic workplace cultures are rife with hostility, cliques, gossip, mistrust, and selfishness. They’re a breeding ground for dysfunction due to poor communication, power struggles, negativity, and abusive leadership. Due to this, collaboration, productivity, and innovation falter while fear, manipulation, and blame grow. All of which reduces employee loyalty and leaves them feeling emotionally drained.
It’s no surprise The Great Resignation and cancel culture is growing around the world. Now, more than ever, unhappy employees are quitting without another job lined up. To them, the risk of staying in a toxic workplace weighs more on their mental health than being unemployed. According to SHRM, 58% of employees quit a job due to a toxic workplace culture and the annual cost of culture-related turnover is $223 billion.
While there are various different types of toxic workplace cultures here are five toxic cultures that are quite common.
Hustle culture is one of the most normalized cultures in the workplace and oftentimes, micromanagement is at its core. This profit-driven culture is known to exploit workers by having them work longer hours with little in return. Being a workaholic has been glamorized making employees believe that the more hours they put in the more productive they are. As such, they sacrifice their mental health, personal life, forgo breaks, and resist taking PTO. Consequently, this results in employees being stretched thin which causes them to eventually burn out.
Hayley Albright, senior brand and customer experience manager at Xena Workwear, said, “employees often feel the need to put in long hours due to tight deadlines and work that’s piling up due to the labor shortage and excessive online meetings. They’ll start by answering emails at late hours and move on to work outside of normal office hours and through holidays. Eventually, this schedule takes a mental toll. Businesses need to set work boundaries and help employees not feel guilty for unplugging.”
Blame And “Every Worker For Themselves” Culture
A blame culture stops at the top. When leadership refuses to take accountability by placing place, it establishes a precedence that mistakes are bad and unwelcome. Thus, nobody accepts responsibility for fear of being reprimanded, losing their job, or looking bad. In a blame culture, “that’s not my responsibility” is a common attitude. Not only does this harm a workplace environment, but people prevent committing to deadlines or expectations so they can easily place blame or shift accountability.
Matt Erhard, managing partner at Summit Search Group, explained, “success is viewed as a limited commodity and mistakes are seen as personal failures rather than learning opportunities. For this reason, employees cover mistakes up or deflect blame instead of putting their effort into fixing the problem and preventing it in the future. This creates an “every person for themselves” mentality, with coworkers viewed as competition rather than collaborators, and leads to gossip, backstabbing, undermining, and other toxic behaviors.” He added, “trust bonds are then broken and employees become so desperate for positive attention that they’ll resort to underhanded methods to get it, like taking credit for someone else’s work.”
A clique culture is the opposite of an inclusive culture as it creates an environment where people aren’t comfortable being their authentic selves. This is due to a lack of protection from management and HR in regards to inappropriate jokes and comments being made around race, religion, gender, weight, age, country of origin, how one identifies, social injustice issues, and more.
Anyone who doesn’t operate with the same mindset as the members of the clique are excluded, made to feel invisible, and often targeted by way of bullying. This leads to employees feeling isolated. Cliques undermine the team and prevent connection, unity, and collaboration. Often, high-performers or those in a clique are held to lower standards than everyone else.
Suzanne Wylde, coach and author, explained, “exclusion from an invisible inner circle is a common form of toxicity in groups. It may be that one team member is purposefully left out of certain emails or meetings, not asked for their opinion, or never invited out socially. It may be obvious or very subtle, but it may also be a form of scapegoating – sacrificing the wellbeing of one person to appease the egos of others. This exclusion can be deeply psychologically harmful to people and is a kind of bullying.”
Another commonly known type of clique is the “bro culture”, where white male employees are seen as superior to women. As such, non-white men and women are blocked from being involved in decision-making. This “bro culture” exists not only in tech, but in other industries such as politics, banking, and finance. This leads to women fighting to feel valued and accepted thus putting up with belittling, sexist and misogynistic comments, discriminatory and inappropriate behavior, pay disparity, and being ostracized. All of which leads to a hostile working environment for women.
Power and control are at the core of an authoritative culture. As such, bullying and discrimination run rampant. An authoritative culture is filled with favoritism, nepotism, and “yes (wo)men.” Jean Holthaus, LISW, LMSW, stated, “in this type of culture, employees are punished for honesty either overtly or covertly.” She explained, “the person who speaks the truth is labeled as the troublemaker, or the employee who dares to question the wisdom of their boss’s new proposal is passed over for a promotion because they’re not a team player.”
In order to maintain control, leadership asserts its hierarchical power. Hilda Wong, founder of Content Dog, said, “in authoritative cultures, leaders don’t respect the opinions and ideas of employees, making them feel less valued and dejected in the organization.” They keep employees out of the loop because they feel those in non-management positions are inferior with nothing of value to offer. It’s not until changes have already taken effect, or through the rumor mill that employees learn about what changes are coming.
In healthy workplace cultures, employees are encouraged to respectfully challenge processes, procedures, and anything that isn’t working. In a fear-based culture, employees are silenced by intimidation, abuse, gaslighting, and domination. Logan Mallory, VP at Motivosity, said, “a fear-based culture is one of the most toxic workplace cultures because it creates a harsh working environment. Employees will do everything they can to avoid punishment, including not taking risks or cutting corners.”
In a workplace where fear overpowers trust, employees’ anxiety is heightened due to frequently worrying about consequences they may face or potentially losing their job. This leads to
- Employees afraid to tell the truth or report bullying, harassment or misconduct
- Being too focused on their daily goals rather than the bigger picture
- Doing whatever it takes to appease their boss and avoid blame
- A rampant rumor mill that appears to be more credible than what’s conveyed from management and leadership
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