3 Strategies That Help Prevent a Toxic Work Environment

Dr. Michael E. Frisina and Rebekah Williamson


If you are wondering why someone else is writing about toxic cultures again, the reason is that they still exist. Good people continue to be harmed by exposure to the dynamics of a toxic workplace culture, and organizations lose their functional viability and sustainability.

This reality begs a question: Since leaders are responsible for organizational culture, and toxic cultures are so destructive to people and the organization, why do leaders allow — and, in the worst case, create — toxic workplace cultures?

What Is a Toxic Workplace Culture?

Extensive research provides a working definition of a toxic environment as one that negatively impacts the viability of an organization and is destructive to its employees. The definition of a toxic worker, then, is a worker who engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including its property or its people.

When we talk about toxic cultures, it’s important to make a clear distinction between personality (who you are) and behavior (what you do). Behavior is observable and measurable. We can take a scientific approach to the study of behaviors that are conducive to high performance and the associated growth and development of people at work. We can also study the opposite effects of abusive behavior, which is disruptive to performance, disrespects and devalues the worth and dignity of people, negatively impacts retention, increases stress, and contributes directly to physical and mental illnesses and the associated increase in health care costs.

Manuela Priesemuth is an assistant professor of management and operations at Villanova University whose research focuses on destructive leadership, workplace aggression, organizational fairness and behavioral ethics. In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Priesemuth wrote, “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.”

Our own research validates that abusive leadership and toxic team members directly affect the three key areas of the engagement/burnout dynamic: exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of efficacy. Our conclusion is irrefutable: It is impossible to achieve the alignment between key objectives and individual performance that derives the results leaders desire when employees are working in a toxic workplace environment.

With millions of people working for ineffective and abusive leaders, top talent heading for the exit doors to escape toxic team members, disengagement and burnout affecting the health of so many people, and a significant number of organizations in death spirals, don’t you think it is time that leaders take a serious look at their workplace cultures?

Organizations should provide self-awareness and self-management education for leaders at all levels.

To that end, here are three key strategies that research indicates can assist leaders in creating a supportive and healthy work environment, fostering engagement among team members, and achieving results that leaders need to sustain the long-term viability of their organization:

1. Train Employees, and Hold Them Accountable

Every organization has a vision, mission and core value statements. The problem is that few organizations have created an integrated and systematic methodology for teaching employees what these statements mean and then holding them accountable to acting out these statements in their daily behaviors — especially leaders. The motto is far too often, “Do as I say, not do as I do.” We have seen senior leaders engage in abusive and disrespectful behaviors to their mid-level leaders in meetings where the core values of respect and dignity are hanging on the boardroom walls.

There seems to be a lack of self-awareness among many leaders, with the result that hypocrisy and duplicity contributes to disengagement, disillusionment and mediocre performance. As a result, organizations should provide self-awareness and self-management education for leaders at all levels. Along with this increased awareness should be standards of accountability that put “skin in the game” — a sense of legitimate self-interest for personal and corporate accountability.

Performance is about technical skill ability, but it is also about behavioral competence. It is imperative for leaders to make it explicitly clear that people will be held accountable in both performance dimensions, with consequences if they do not behave responsibly.

2. Create a Culture of Well-being and Performance

Second, along with increased self-awareness and self-management, organizations can ensure that an integrated and systematic methodology for creating a culture that focuses on well-being and performance includes a social awareness and social management dimension. Organizations should have a feedback mechanism in place that enables the identification of toxic leaders and team members. Leaders typically use employee engagement and 360-degree assessment tools to solicit feedback regarding the working conditions of their organization and the behavior of their leaders.

“Feedback and engagement platforms will continue to be an organization’s best defense against the toxic effects of poor culture, attrition and malaise,” says Andrea Lagan, chief customer and people officer of BetterWorks. “Be prepared and prescient, maintaining one organizational eye on today and the other on tomorrow to arm your enterprise, employees, and stakeholders against these challenges so 2021 can be a satisfying and productive one.”

3. Link Objectives to Performance and Results

Your integrated and systematic methodology must link objectives to performance and then to results. Typically, toxic behaviors are disruptive to conscientious team members. The “jerks at work” and their self-centered behaviors are a significant contributor to team members’ loss of focus. A staff nurse shared with us the additional burden it causes to have to be on shift with a proverbial jerk at work: “You have to always be guarded, and I do not feel safe,” she said. Can you imagine the amount of distraction this dynamic creates for her? What about the increased probability for a medical error or mistake to occur as a result of this distraction?

If you have a performance system that clearly defines roles, goals and expectations, aligns employees’ work to your objectives and key results (OKRs), and conduct regular coaching sessions with the people doing the work of the organization, you will be able to identify your toxic leaders and team members. Having identified them, you can begin to remove them from your organization.

To be clear, we are not talking about people with difficult personalities. We are talking about people who do not understand how to behave appropriately, respectfully and civilly. The spectrum of toxic behaviors runs the gamut from annoyance to illegal harassment and unsafe work environments, and the cost in human terms and real dollars is immeasurable. It’s time to create organizational cultures where people can grow and flourish, drive performance to the highest level, and achieve the results the organization desires.

It’s time to create organizational cultures where people can grow and flourish