A toxic work environment can hit any business with lethal force, driving up turnover rates, reducing productivity, and damaging reputation. Despite our best effort, toxic behaviors can often creep into our teams unnoticed. They can be subtle—even unintentional—but their existence will only solidify if they aren’t addressed. One of the most impactful things you can do to maintain a positive company culture and work environment is to address it consistently.
A genuinely excellent company culture is a bit of a rare thing. Most people have worked in environments where they were expected to show up sick, work long hours, never call out, and bend over backward to please a cranky manager. It’s even more common in specific industries.
The service industry is a perfect example of an industry that often relies on employees sacrificing their health and well-being to save their jobs. If an employee calls out sick even once, they can seriously damage their standing at work. Not only do their coworkers resent them for having to cover a shift, but their boss begrudges having to make last-minute calls to employees who weren’t supposed to work that day.
Bringing old baggage
Now consider a new hire who just came from that work environment. While their personality might be fantastic, they may have leftover baggage in the form of toxic behaviors they developed to succeed in their last position. So, what happens to these behaviors when that person gets hired at a new company? They don’t go away. While the person might have left the toxic environment, the behaviors they developed to succeed there can linger. And sooner or later, those behaviors will affect the rest of your team.
Despite a person’s best intentions, leftover toxic behaviors can significantly affect their approach to their job. Whether they developed these behaviors at their last company or whether they developed them while growing up in their family, it can be hard to rid oneself of them once they’ve been ingrained.
Here are examples of common behaviors stemming from leftover toxicity:
- Showing up to work when sick
- Working long hours unnecessarily
- Making excuses for not responding right away to an email or communication
- Not using allotted PTO
- Scrambling to come up with answers when a simple “I don’t know” or “I can find out” would suffice
- Bragging about how busy they are
This pattern of behaviors and beliefs stems from a desire to survive. The key is to help people recreate their understanding of what it takes to survive and thrive in their new environment.
Build a communal vision
Ask your employees to describe what a positive workplace environment looks like. Encourage them to get specific. Together, paint a picture of this positive workplace. How would people be recognized for their work? What type of boundaries would there be to protect their well-being? Ask them to discuss past work experiences they disliked and uncover what went wrong. Then ask how they would have improved the situation. Ask them what behaviors they would avoid.
By helping them put a voice to their desired work environment, you can help them build self-awareness around those behaviors that reflect a poor work environment. The leftover behaviors they’ve been carrying around will become easier to identify and halt.
Even with the best intentions and heightened awareness, some may still struggle to let go of their toxic behaviors. When this happens, leaders must know how to respond and redirect the employee. The components that make up a positive work environment must constantly be reinforced.
- Boundaries to protect work-life balance
- Clear expectations around communication
- Reasonable deadlines and manageable workloads
- Psychological safety
- Prioritized employee wellness
If an employee talks about how late they worked into the night, avoid praising them for overworking themselves. Instead, find time to ask them if they have too much on their plate or if they need help with their work. Remind them that working late consistently isn’t expected, nor will it help them advance in their career. Remind them that a well-rested employee with a strong work-life balance is more productive and valuable than a tired, burned-out employee. Take note of who they were talking to and reinforce that message to them as well.
The key is consistently showing up in the face of toxic behaviors with a response. As your team sees how you respond to toxicity, they will develop new behaviors that help them survive and thrive in a positive environment.
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