From government offices to well-known talk shows, reports of workplace toxicity have become commonplace. To mark both Zero Discrimination Day and Employee Appreciation Day, we explore the traits and potential causes of toxic workplace culture and share our tips on how an employee experience platform (EXP) can help to create and sustain a safe, inclusive, and positive workplace.

The environments around us shape our outlook, our attitudes, and our behaviors. A negative workplace – whether physical or digital – can certainly affect individual work and wellbeing, but it can also jeopardize the entire organization if productivity slumps, communication stutters, and commitment slips away. This is why it is so important to prevent toxicity taking hold and to recognize its signs.

Eliminating toxicity and nurturing a healthy workplace culture isn’t just the right thing to do, it is also crucial to attracting and retaining people, which matters now more than ever. A recent report by MIT Sloan Management Review uses employee data to reveal toxic culture as one of the top predictors of attrition during the Great Resignation.  

While it would be easy to infer that toxic cultures are all about negative emotions, toxicity can come in more than one form. In fact, unless it’s doled out sensitively in the right measures, positivity can be toxic too.

What is toxic positivity?

Telling employees to be positive instead of listening to what they’re going through can invalidate their negative experiences.

Toxic positivity is responding to somebody else’s negative experience with excessive optimism and bombarding them with positive sentiments. There’s nothing wrong with spreading positivity, but telling somebody to simply be more positive isn’t always a healthy or helpful response and can increase feelings of negativity and detachment. Telling someone to be positive can be perceived as harmful because it invalidates individual experiences and can lead to people feeling that it’s their own fault that they’re experiencing negative emotions.

There’s a mantra that suggests if you put positive vibes out there, you’ll get positive vibes back. The reality is that while positivity is the destination we all want to reach, simply being told to get yourself there without targeted help to find the way is not an effective resolution.

Over time, this can lead to employees feeling disconnected and further emotional turmoil. One impactful metaphor for toxic positivity is that it’s like being stuck in a burning building and instead of people trying to help you find a way out, they tell you to enjoy the heat; it’s being told that things could be a lot worse when the situation you’re in is already far from ideal.

If excessive optimism isn’t always the right way to help somebody having a negative experience in the workplace, what is?

Validation may be one place to start. Responses such as ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling this way’, ‘I hear you’, and ‘I understand what you’re going through’ are often more suitable responses for somebody experiencing negative emotions. These responses let the person know that the negative feelings they’re experiencing don’t make them any less of a positive person – it just makes them human.

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Has positivity become a dirty word in the workplace?

What should we call the desired state in the workplace when it’s clear that negativity and positivity can both create toxicity?

One way to approach workplace culture is to aim for a nutric work environment. The dictionary definition of nutricity is a symbiosis in which one organism is nourished or protected by the other without apparently being of reciprocal benefit. But a more understandable description in the context of workplaces and working relationships comes from psychologist George S. Everly Jr., who describes nutricity as supporting or fostering others’ growth and development.

Instead of enforcing positivity upon those who are having a less than positive experience, nutricity means helping both those who are the unwilling recipients of toxicity – and those who may be the source of it – to find their path towards overcoming negativity.

The signs of a toxic workplace culture

There are various red flags to look out for when it comes to identifying a toxic workplace culture.

A toxic workplace may not always be easy to spot. It’s hard to get a gauge on how every employee is feeling which is why frequent pulse surveys are so important as these allow your people to discretely report back on any negativity they may be experiencing. However, there may sometimes be tell-tale signs that can help HR professionals and communicators identify that while your workplace culture may seem fine on the surface, there may be issues simmering below.

These are some tell-tale signs that commonly recur within toxic workplaces:

  • Chronic low morale
  • Reduced productivity
  • Lack of engagement with internal comms, especially from previously active community members
  • Tension between teams and co-workers
  • Increased, unexplainable employee turnover

A toxic organizational culture isn’t something that can be easily fixed overnight and the elements that cause toxicity in the workplace can be unique to different organizations. However, learning about the common causes and understanding how the software tools you have available to counter them can help to reverse a toxic workplace culture, or prevent one from developing in your organization.

Potential causes of a toxic workplace and how to fix them

Stress, poor communication, and feelings of exclusion are common causes of toxic workplace culture.

Stress and burnout

It has been widely reported that stress and the risk of stress-induced burnout have been heightened by the pandemic and are a significant issue for many employees. We know that stress is also exacerbated by poor communication, so one challenge that internal communicators face is how to improve the flow of resources to help manage stress (and create a nutric workplace) without also creating further anxiety about the need to behave or respond in specific ways. 

Feature-rich employee experience software with the right combination of tools and features allows communicators to reach and engage with every employee across several different channels, which allows for different communication strategies and effective A/B testing. Content analytics data also allows comms teams to measure how people are engaging with their communications. This can help to ensure employees aren’t feeling bombarded by messaging and that crucial messaging around stress and burnout is being well-received.

With some consideration of data, pulse survey responses, and company feeling, communicators can also develop different personas and tailor messaging to each of those personas. This could ensure the right tone, wording, channels, and timing and be chosen, ensuring a personalized experience that is more sensitive to each workplace.

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Failure to promote diversity

The MIT Sloan Management Review report mentioned earlier highlighted failure to promote diversity as one of the leading elements contributing to a toxic culture. Not only will promoting diversity better mean people feel better about the organization they’re part of – there is evidence from McKinsey that reveals diverse teams perform better together.

Although meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is complex and requires serious input from an organization, communications also plays its part. One step to promoting DE&I in the workplace is making sure that communications aren’t one way.

It’s important that everybody is given the opportunity to be heard, which can be implemented by something as simple as providing a intranet homepage that encourages individuals to comment on company posts. This may help as part of a raft of measures to open up debates.

Some organizations encourage employees to start discussions on anything that is meaningful to them, which gives others the opportunity to engage in those discussions too. A platform that supports dedicated spaces that can be linked to on the home page, as well as spaces for employee blogs, discussion groups, and forums may help to develop a richer, prouder, and more diverse company culture.

Poor perception of leaders

Organizational culture is set by those at the top, but in the digital workplace it is harder for leaders to lead by example when they aren’t as visible as they would have been when work took place in one location. If employees don’t have clear visibility of their leaders and the good work they are doing to continually evolve the corporate culture, the effectiveness of leaders can be quickly called into question. Similarly, if employees don’t feel as though they are able to engage with leaders or don’t feel acknowledged by them, this can lead to feelings of resentment.

Your intranet homepage may feature regular updates from leaders, providing visibility on what’s taking place at the top, celebrating the achievements of teams and individuals, and sharing important business updates. Modern intranet software should allow these posts to take a variety of forms, including blogs, vlogs, and timeline posts. These don’t all have to be lengthy endeavors – a little can go a long way when it comes to improving the visibility of your leaders.

As previously mentioned, a historic problem with internal comms and communications from leadership is that they can often feel staunchly one-way. It’s important that employees at all levels are able to engage with leaders’ posts, and it’s equally important that leaders respond personally to comments and questions from those engaging with them.

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Lack of respect

Workers feeling disrespected is another key element that contributes to a toxic workplace according to the MIT Sloan report. In the dispersed hybrid workplace, there may be feelings of resentment from those who don’t feel represented or recognized by co-workers with different working arrangements.

This can be true of all employees, whether they work in a corporate space, at home, or a mixture of the two. For example, employees who have to work on the shop floor, or in warehouses and factories may experience feelings of ‘us and them’ as their clerical co-workers opt to remain at home. Similarly, there may be office workers who have maintained their in-office status throughout the pandemic who are feeling resentful towards their at-home colleagues.

Conversely, those who work remotely may feel resentful towards those who can easily work on-site. Proximity bias sees remote workers feeling excluded and isolated by those who are able to make the most of workplace perks and develop the closer interpersonal relationships that can take place in the physical workplace.

Bringing everybody together in one space and encouraging interactions is a highly effective way to break down the negative perceptions that co-workers may have of each other, or may believe others have of them. For hybrid organizations and those with dispersed locations, this is difficult to do in a physical space, and this is where intranet software once again proves its value as a worthy employee experience platform. A social intranet is one form of employee experience platform that effectively operates as your organization’s own internal social media platform, encouraging communication, collaboration, and the sharing and celebration of both work-related and personal news and achievements.

Striving for nutricity

A nutric working environment focused on support and balance will help employees feel happy and be genial towards one another, something that most organizations strive for. However, this can be difficult to create – even more so in this age of dispersed hybrid working.

Ultimately, this often comes down to the skills of communicators, HR professionals, and their colleagues. We think that digital workplace software can also play a key role though when it comes to communicating the right level of positivity to upgrade a workplace.

Comms inspiration from high-performing companies

How do leading brands do their internal communications? Learn this and more in our free download of internal comms case studies.