How Toxic Workplace Culture Destroys Employee Engagement and Performance

June 25, 2024 thehrobserver-hrobserver-organisationsculture

Organisational culture significantly influences both employee engagement and their performance. A toxic work environment not only hinders productivity but also diminishes morale, leading to high turnover rates and poor organisational outcomes. Understanding the signs of a toxic workplace and addressing the root causes is crucial for fostering a healthy, productive, and engaging work environment.

The phrase ‘toxic culture’ emerged a few years ago and is now recognised as being a very real issue that can affect an organisation and all its stakeholders.

Research suggests that engaged employees are happier, more productive and committed to the organisation. However, the reverse side is that disengaged employees can be a drain on the organisation and colleagues within it. Fundamentally toxic workplaces can develop when there is unrest in the organisation about things that are taking place in terms of people and activities. There are different levels but at their worst they can be destructive for the organisation and everyone who is associated with it.

There is no single checklist that can be employed to confirm that an organisation is toxic but there are some indicators.

What does a toxic workplace look like?

  • People pulling in different directions and not aligning with the overall mission and vision of the organisation
  • Working conditions are not acceptable
  • Organisational values are being ignored
  • Little interaction between different departments and teams can lead to duplication of effort or the opposite when they are tasks that get overlooked due to lack of ownership.
  • Lower levels of productivity when compared to historical information or between teams 
  • Higher levels of staff absences which may also include people being signed off for stress or other mental health related issues
  • Employees are no longer going the extra mile and may be working strictly to the tasks shown in their job description.

There are also several different causes that can lead to a toxic work environment

Potential causes of a toxic workplace include:

  • Lack of effective management and leadership
  • The influence of one person or small group pf people who are disruptors
  • Lack of consistency in the application of policies by line managers
  • Misunderstandings about issues or activities
  • Perception of unfairness of decisions made
  • Internal politics
  • Improper behaviour
  • Lack of transparency 
  • Lack of training and/or advancement opportunities

What are some of the solutions to a toxic workplace?

Firstly, it is important to try and identify what the root cause of the issue is. In some instances, it is a specific person or activity and is therefore something that could be addressed fairly easily. However, establishing the problem can be challenging if it sits within deeper layers of the organisation’s culture. 

If the key issue can be attributed to one person or a small group of them, this can be a tricky issue. Whilst it may be possible to find some common ground or to identify a compromise, there may be issues that are of such magnitude that a divorce between the parties is the best outcome.

The nature of the problem governs what an appropriate response may be. There will be cases where a decision cannot be overturned for good reasons – in which case it is helpful to share the reasons why so that there is transparency. In these circumstances, the visibility of the leadership team is important. This doesn’t mean that every single decision the organisation needs to make should be treated in this way as it would not be practical or desirable.

Staff surveys may help highlight issues and, importantly, measure progress. If the production and analysis of a large-scale survey are prohibitive, other options are available, such as the use of focus groups.

There is an onus on leaders and managers to ensure that all employees feel that they receive the information they need to carry out their roles and understand how they are contributing to overall objectives and goals.

Where possible, it is good to consult with employees about future changes, but only when there is a genuine opportunity for their contribution to influence what takes place. It is important to recognise that in recovering from a period of toxicity, it would be valuable to support individuals and teams in regrouping and providing opportunities for social interactions and relationship re-building.

By acknowledging issues that are present, employers can send a strong message to their workforce. Where improvements can be made, this may positively impact on employee morale and retention as well as organisational performance. However, whilst you can’t ‘fix’ a culture overnight or treat it as a one-off activity, employee engagement should always be on the radar.

It is important to mention that addressing toxic culture is essential for improving employee engagement and organisational performance. By recognising the signs of a toxic workplace and taking proactive steps to foster a positive environment, leaders can enhance morale, boost productivity, and retain top talent.

Editor’s Note: To stay updated on best practices for creating a thriving workplace, subscribe to our newsletter and explore more resources on effective leadership and team management.

Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Related Posts