Why leaders must take responsibility for ending workplace toxicity

Rianne Silvey | 9 May 2024

Toxicity at work damages both organisations and the people working there. Left unchecked, it discourages productivity and innovation. Last month, Google searches for “toxic workplaces” peaked, reaching their highest point in the past five years.

Principal leadership consultant Rianne Silvey explains the crucial impact that leaders have on tackling toxic cultures in the workplace.


Cultures of fear

In the past year, a number of news stories have shed light on “toxic” employers. The examples span a range of sectors, from the civil service through to celebrities – showing that any workplace can fall victim to toxicity. 

Psychological safety is a feeling of trust in a workplace. It means that employees feel that they can speak up to make suggestions or voice concerns without worrying they will face any negative repercussions for doing so. 

Professor Amy Edmondson, pioneering researcher of psychological safety, says that it “reduces the interpersonal barriers to failing well, so people can take on new challenges with less fear, such that we can try to succeed and walk away wiser when we don’t.”

Toxicity can be found in organisations that lack psychological safety, or have a culture of fear. 

This can present in many ways, such as people being scared to put ideas forward and lift their head above the parapet in a work context. When people are reluctant to be creative or take risks, it impacts innovation. This can damage the organisation itself, and lower morale for the people working there. Research consistently shows that worry and anxiety correlate negatively with job performance. 

Toxic cultures also erode the confidence and self-belief of employees. This damages productivity and makes it difficult for people to leave, with individuals feeling trapped in their role. Leaders play a key role in helping teams to feel safe or unsafe at work. 


Identifying toxicity in the workplace

It is a leaders’ responsibility to take ownership on the issue of toxicity. This should start with self-reflection. If there is any suspected toxicity in the workplace, employees are unlikely to feel safe enough to open up one-to-one, or provide direct feedback. 

Surveys are an option to gather crucial feedback from employees. They can capture insight on whether people are experiencing any toxicity or feeling unsafe at work. Leaders need to act on this feedback to rebuild trust and develop psychological safety.

Recently, a mayor in Canada made headlines by denying the existence of a “culture of fear” in the workplace, despite data from an employee experience survey suggesting otherwise. Instead, people need to feel they have been listened to. Leaders need to show they appreciate the honesty from employees. This is especially true when it may have taken a level of bravery to share their thoughts whilst feeling unsafe at work. Leaders should then actively use the feedback to understand and tackle any issues. 


The role of leadership

Leaders are fundamental to a toxic culture; they are either encouraging it to exist or failing to put a stop to it. 

Not all toxic behavioural traits are as easy to identify as aggression, micro-management, or bullying. It may be clear that leaders are acting in a toxic manner if they are often berating or belittling staff in private or public, or taking credit for others’ work. 

Toxicity often comes down to decorum in meetings and interactions in the workplace.  Behaviours such as interrupting others speaking, dismissing ideas, or even condoning these actions will add to the negative culture. Staff will feel undervalued and unappreciated, which impacts productivity and efficiency. When leaders engage in these negative actions, other team members may eventually begin to replicate the bad behaviour. 

Role modelling from leaders – positive or negative – has the biggest impact on what makes toxicity better or worse. So, it’s crucial that leaders provide a positive example of how to behave at work. 

Leaders can also eradicate toxicity by calling out bad behaviour from others and being open to receiving feedback in a public forum. They can even celebrate lessons that can be learned from failures.  


Learn more about how we can help with developing leaders, or if you’d like to speak to one of our consultants, please contact us

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