Do you have a pollution problem? 20 toxic behaviours to watch out for

20 toxic behaviours that are polluting your workplace right now

You may not see most of your behaviours as toxic. You might continue until they become a routine or a dirty habit but under the surface, those behaviours could be poisoning your relationships and brewing distrust amongst employees.

That’s where we come in; we’re here to help you recognise, cleanse and manage toxic behaviours around you.

Get in touch if you want help with any of the topics covered here.


Do you have a pollution problem?


MIT Professor Edgar Schein defines company culture as “the unspoken rules that drive employee decisions” – and those unspoken rules can be deeply poisonous. During my recent travels, I’ve come across an increasing number of companies whose toxic beliefs and habitual behaviours are eating away at their culture, bit by bit.

Of course, the odd negative comment or knee-jerk assumption is inevitable. We’re only human, after all. But left to grow, any one of these small cultural germs can develop into a widespread infection.

The result of these toxic behaviours? Apathetic meetings. Creeping rumours. Buck-passing, finger-pointing and days that feel as exhausting as they are unproductive.

According to a recent study by Randstad, 38% of workers want to leave their jobs due to a toxic work culture or one where they feel they don’t fit in. An even larger group (58%) have left jobs, or are considering leaving, because of negative office politics.

Behavioural pollutants are a serious problem at work – and all the harder to fix because they’re so unquestioned and ingrained. The first step to fighting them, is exposing them.


How many of the following 20 toxic behaviours can you recognise?


  1. Gossip: We all hate the thought of people whispering behind our back. But be honest: how many times have you given your silent consent ‘in the room’, then participated in a good corridor bitch? Gossiping may feel good in the moment but over time it destroys motivation and trust.


  1. Sabotage: Healthy competition can encourage you to perform at your best. But when leaders encourage their people to succeed at all costs, the temptation to sabotage can rear its ugly head. Dramatic backstabbing isn’t the only culprit; look out for subtle, passive aggressive behaviours such as failing to speak up in support of a colleague, or shirking responsibility onto someone else.


  1. Narcissism: All too often, narcissism is cloaked in the characteristics most often associated with ‘powerful’ leadership. Narcissists tend to believe the rules don’t apply to them. They see no issue in demanding perfection from others, despite not meeting those high standards themselves. Slavish lackeys are rewarded, while disagreement is seen as disloyalty. No, you’re nota disruptive maverick. You’re just insecure and self-obsessed and that toxicity is polluting your workplace.


  1. Credit grabbing: Whether you’re presenting someone else’s idea as your own or failing to take responsibility when things go badly, you could be falling prey to ‘credit grabbing’. It may seem like a strategic way to get ahead, but in the long term it’s the people who feel like you champion them, will work hardest on your behalf.


  1. Fear: Here, is the ultimate culture killer. Fear stifles innovation. It slows down processes and can lead to smothering stress levels. If there is an absence of frank conversation and open dialogue in your organisation, if new ideas are met with silence and fresh talent is rapidly jumping ship, then you’ve probably got a climate infected with fear. Overbearing leaders take note.


  1. Loss of humour: A 2012 study from the Bell Leadership Institute found that when 2,700 employees were asked to describe the strengths of the leaders in their organisations, “sense of humour” ranked remarkably highly. When you’re under pressure, fun and laughter can seem like a distraction but in fact a lack of humour is a surefire sign of over-rigidity and defensiveness.Don’t mistake humour for sarcasm, though. That’s toxic through and through.


  1. Hidden agendas: Dirty intent can be hard to spot but when it does surface, it muddies the climate, destroying dialogue and ultimately relationships. If your behaviour is driven by a hidden agenda – to always protect and promote yourself, say – you’ll find it virtually impossible to unite teams and achieve collective success.


  1. Hypocrisy: Leaders talking the talk but failing to walk the walk are all too common. This is a trait of many organisations that score ‘superficial’ on the trust barometer, where leadership is a title, not a behaviour. If you say the customer is important but penalise people for spending too long on customers calls – for example – you’re caught in this toxic trap.


  1. Blame: Throwing people under buses, not owning up to mistakes, not holding poor performance to account, inter-department warring…sound familiar? In a blame culture, our primeval flight or fight response is constantly engaged, crippling clear thinking and resulting in constant conflict.


  1. Wilful blindness: When it comes to culture, leaders and managers get what they tolerate. For example, if mediocrity is allowed you will build a mediocre team that achieves mediocre results. When a climate gets toxic, we drag ourselves down to the lowest common denominator, and ‘the bystander effect’ means we often fail to intervene even if we know we should.


  1. Fault finding: ‘Tough love’ – otherwise known as relentless criticism – slowly strangles the life out of a culture. For a long time, feedback has been seen as the negative stuff, the stuff we don’t want to hear about or the stuff we avoid at all costs. Yet celebrating people doing things right is far more powerful motivator than catching them doing things wrong.


  1. Closed to influence: When we are open to what others think, how they feel and what they have to say, we usually reach higher levels of insight and success. When we reject all ideas that aren’t our own, we crush innovation and bodyslam morale. It’s vital to stay open-minded and display that behaviour… well, openly.


  1. Groupthink: This arises when voices that dissent from the commonly held view are directly pressured to conform. This kind of mentality tends to develop under a hands-on, controlling leader. It comes from a valid desire for consensus but lands teams in their own little bubbles, shut off from useful insight and fresh ideas.


  1. Myths and legends: Humans are hard-wired to  love stories. We use them to make sense of our unpredictable world. Sadly, this means that the wrong stories – negative, disempowering stories – can quickly become myths that burrow deep into collective brains and promote our toxic behaviours.


  1. Competition over collaboration: While many believe creating a culture of competition is motivating, you cannot ignore the counter-productive aspects of competition such as withholding information or resisting collaboration. Treat competition with caution or watch toxicity bloom.


  1. Nepotism: If people are getting hired because they’re related to the boss or for personal reasons other than being the best candidate for the job, everyone else wonders why they should even try. Lazy recruitment also damages performance and dilutes ostensible values.


  1. Micromanagement: Google’s Project Oxygen, launched to discover what makes a better boss and identified micromanagement as a major toxic behaviour. The resulting lack of trust and permission makes it very hard for people to use their initiative and do what’s best for the customer in the moment, as they don’t feel ownership over their work.


  1. Mistrust: If leaders want a more trustworthy organisation with more engaged employees, they have to behave in a more trustworthy way. They have to commit to building trust on an individual level before they can expect it to scale. Keeping promises, however small, is key.


  1. Incompetent leaders: How many of today’s leaders lack either the technical competence or the people skills to do what is expected of them? Sure, everyone should have the chance to improve; but too often, people work around their incompetence without admitting they need help.


  1. Mood hoovers: You know those people who have the startling ability to drain all the energy out of a room? They’re mood hoovers. Critical of everything, painfully dramatic and always stressed, these people are walking pollutants that drag everyone else down.


Are you seeing more than a couple of these behaviours show up in your organisation? You need to start a clean-up operation before they trigger a full-on climate collapse.

If you need some help, just get in touch.


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