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7 Ways Leaders Create Toxic Work Environments

Workplace culture is founded on the happiness, productivity, and general career advancement opportunities within an organization. 

Quality leadership is the backbone of a positive culture, but often negative leaders will create toxic work environments through unproductive and harmful practices. 

Constant negativity from leadership leads to low morale, constant stress, and mental health concerns. 

In 2019 43% of surveyed employees left at least one position because of a “bad” manager or leader. 

KeenAlignment demonstrates seven examples of how leadership can lead to decreased employee work ethic and breed toxic work environments. 

Our list is designed to help leaders like yourself recognize if they are currently walking on the path to bad leadership, or quickly heading in that direction. With this, you can identify areas to work on so you can change for the better.

1. The Appearance of Urgency – When Nothing is Urgent

As the leader of any size organization, we all know that effectively communicating urgency is important. After all, we have all had that boss that emails, texts, and messages repeatedly, no matter if what they need is actually essential. 

Unproductive leaders cause unnecessary turmoil when everything is urgent or an emergency. It’s expected that a manager will ask an employee to drop everything and work on a project. But bad leaders create toxic work environments where projects are started but never finished. 

Indecisive leaders also overextend employees on unnecessary tasks, making the entire experience stressful for often inadequate reasons. 

As a leader, are you: 

  1. Repeatedly contacting your employees until they answer you?

  2. Insisting on getting answers but always unavailable? 

  3. Have your employees expressed feeling overwhelmed by receiving so many hot items? 

  4. Do you insist on client communication immediately and promptly, but don’t offer it yourself? 

How do you handle workplace urgency? 

2. Nonexistent Coaching or Feedback

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. – Steve Jobs.

At some point, we have all had a leader step in and help us. 

Instead of providing coaching or feedback, toxic leaders will take over the work themselves!

High-performing employees will find this practice irritating, and it ultimately hinders everyone’s productivity. 

When employees cite the worst part of their jobs, 75% often say their manager. 

If you as a leader are taking these actions, instead of giving feedback, you may be creating a toxic work environment: 

  1. Not praising your employees, only offering constant criticism 

  2. Telling employees they are wrong or incorrect in their jobs excessively

  3. You taking over a project without explanation 

  4. Not offering credit where credit is due to your employees. 

Good managers know that coaching and feedback are integral to furthering good employee work ethic and morale – bad managers ignore this fact. 

3. Poor Communication 

Although communication issues exist in most workplaces, leaders that create toxic work environments take those problems to another level.

Over 70% – 80% of employees in the workforce said that communication issues are the number one reason they leave their jobs.

Managers that give employees little to no communication or excessive, unnecessary soliloquies disrupt their workplaces needlessly. Ineffective communication causes frustration, missed deadlines, and general problems. 

Some key questions to ask yourself when it comes to workplace communication include: 

  1. Are your employees constantly asking for clarity when you give instructions?

  2. Do you spend a lot of time on phone or zoom calls when your employees are swamped with tasks?

  3. Do you have too many unnecessary meetings?

  4. Do you have regular meetings to assess progress?

When it’s the leader who can’t communicate, inadequate instructions are passed down to their reports. Employee work ethic is fundamentally built on good communication. 

4. Micromanaging and Constant Interruptions 

We have all had, and are, those leaders who need to be kept in the loop a little more than most. We also have all had to explain our processes more than a couple of times. Workplace culture is always evolving and so are our processes and communication styles. 

Micromanaging, however, wreaks havoc with employee work ethic. It’s a highly ineffective leadership style that ultimately drives other leaders and employees crazy. 

As a manager, do you find yourself performing any of these actions repeatedly, throughout the day? 

  1. Constant messaging on Slack or other message services that goes nowhere? 

  2. Ignoring urgent slack or Microsoft teams messages? 

  3. Insisting on sitting on zoom calls with your employees when they have the call handled? 

  4. Directing client communication with a heavy hand? 

  5. Other behaviors that employees have noted making it difficult for them to do their jobs? 

One example of a common micromanaging technique is interruptions.

Pre-covid these interruptions ran the gambit from in-person office stops to inconvenient phone calls. Those working from home still receive those emails and phone calls, of course, but the problem can become compounded. 

No leader wants to be constantly interrupted during their day, so why are you doing it to your employees?

5. Dismissing Employee Thoughts, Concerns, and Opinions

Workplace ecosystems are not vacuums. Positive feedback is vital for employers and employees alike. In most businesses, employee work ethic and morale are tied directly to a positive feedback loop.  

In toxic work environments, however, leaders will outright ignore employee feedback or their concerns. In companies where HR does not exist, this can become a severe issue. 

  1. As a leader, is giving or receiving feedback a struggle? 

  2. Is giving employees the coaching they ask for overly difficult? 

  3. Do you find yourself unable to give positive, constructive criticism?  

  4. Are your employees coming to you repeatedly with issues you don’t think are important?

This could be causing issues in your workplace. 

6. Gaslighting 

Leaders who tend towards controlling the environment around them can create toxic work environments through gaslighting. Although many leaders don’t realize that they are participating in these behaviors, these are detrimental to employee work ethic. 

Gaslighting behavior starts out relatively simple, like challenging an employee’s recollection of an event. More severe instances are consistent insults to a person’s personality or shifting the blame on a significant failed project or client loss. 

Gaslighting is, unfortunately, a common occurrence, with 50% of employees saying they have experienced it in at least one position. 

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is classified as psychological abuse that creates undue stress and compounds unproductive power dynamics in the workplace. 

Here is one example of gaslighting in the workplace, which comes from Psychology Today:

Persistent Negative Humor and Sarcasm. Expressing hostility or condescension disguised as humor/sarcasm to tease, mock, belittle, and marginalize the gaslightee, often followed by “just kidding”.

Gaslighting creates multiple workplace problems, including: 

  1. Low morale

  2. Increased instances of anxiety and stress

  3. General confusion and second-guessing behavior 

  4. Socially isolating behavior 

  5. Feeling incompetent or worthless

  6. Questionable decision making 

  7. Defending or apologizing to their leader (abuser) 

7. Nuanced Or Completely Obvious Employee Turnover 

Turnover is a natural process in all workplaces.

Employees are always on the move, whether it’s a thirty-year veteran close to retirement or a just out of college graduate. This process harms the workplace culture when turnover becomes high and employees report leaving because of their manager.

In fact, 56% of respondents said they would turn down a raise to stay with a good manager

Signs of turnover in a workplace depend on the leadership structure, industry, and many other factors. In some businesses, the turnover is nuanced: a co-worker doesn’t show up for a few days, and then more start leaving. In others, an angry employee makes a scene in front of the whole office. Quiet or dramatic, employees begin leaving workplaces in large numbers, normalizing that routine as part of the workplace culture

Here are some signs that it’s your leadership that is causing turnover: 

  1. Exit surveys from high-performing employees indicate you as the issue

  2. Steady number of complaints from HR that are anonymous 

  3. Your employees are constantly mentioning your afforded and defensive tone in one-on-one meetings 

  4. Being told that you are unable to accept feedback or take accountability

As a leader in charge, if you are performing these actions, it could be a sign that yours is not a quality work environment

Break Through Toxic Leadership Patterns with KeenAlignment

It’s a demonstrated fact that toxic work environments always negatively affect employee work ethic. 

However, KeenAlignment believes that influential leaders can be taught! Our Leadership Development Program is a comprehensive program that will prepare your leadership team for future success. 

To learn more about the Leadership Development Program and break through the negative leadership habits occupying the workplace, contact us below.


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