Home Professionalisms What Makes A Workplace Toxic?

What Makes A Workplace Toxic?



by Paul White, Ph.D., author of “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace” and “Rising Above a Toxic Workplace

Susan, a competent young professional, looked worn and defeated. In talking about her workplace, she told us that bickering, criticism, and lack of support had spread through her organization – a workplace she used to love. Now, she said, “The tension here is so thick I hate going to work. Actually, right now, I hate my life.”

In our book,”Rising Above a Toxic Workplace“, we surveyed hundreds of employees (and leaders) from a wide range of industries and sectors. We then individually interviewed dozens whose stories intrigued us. From our research we discovered the three core components that contribute to making a workplace “toxic” – a work environment that is unhealthy, and even dangerous, to the well-being of its employees.

1. Dysfunctional Employees.

When we use the term “dysfunctional”, we are being descriptive, not just putting a condescending label on people. “Dys” means ‘problem’, and dysfunctional people have serious difficulties in functioning in daily life.

Dysfunctional employees tend to blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions. They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others.  They usually have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotion in spite of their inconsistent performance. And they are masters of creating conflict and tension within the workplace.

2. Poor Policies and Procedures.

A toxic workplace can feel like some combination of chaos, incompetence or anarchy. How anything ever gets done can seem to be a mystery.

Some organizations have incredibly poor communication. Communication between departments is sporadic and incomplete (or non-existent.)  A second variation is when there are no written, standardized ways of doing things (or the written version is so old, it is no longer applicable).  The third common expression is when people “go around” the policies that exist. The policies are there; it is just that no one follows them.

3. Toxic Leaders.

It is important to note that a toxic leader doesn’t have to be at the top tier of the organization – they can occur at a department level, or as a front-line supervisor.  We identified ten common characteristics of toxic leaders. To summarize, toxic leaders may be very competent (in a technical sense) but their motives are impure. They essentially are totally focused on their interests and achievement, and will use others to get what they want.

What to Do?

First, and foremost, employees must take care of themselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. (The organization won’t.) When individuals work in an toxic work environment, they put themselves at risk for physical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure, medical problems), emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger), and relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, loss of friendships). So keep important activities in your life – exercise, sleep, friendships, and hobbies that renew you.

Secondly, make sure you surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. We need others who can help us cope with the stress from work, and who can honestly tell us when we need to consider looking for another job.


Dr Paul White

Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, speaker, and consultant who makes work relationships work. He is coauthor of the book “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People“.