For many people, what they do is core to who they are. But regardless of how much of your identity you tie up in your profession, only part of work is the tasks and responsibilities that make up your job. The rest—the parts that (hopefully) make you like working and want to stay—have to do with your workplace culture, specifically your boss and colleagues. That’s why it’s troubling that so many workplaces are toxic.
If you’ve ever worked for a toxic boss, you know what behaviors send you complaining to your coworkers and updating your résumé. Bosses aren’t solely responsible for creating workplace culture, but they do set the tone. Here are some classic toxic-boss behaviors:1. Taking credit and spreading blame. A leader’s success is measured by the people they manage, so when a project is successful, they should thank their team, not pat themselves on the back. On the flip side, when things go wrong, they should shoulder the blame, not point fingers. After all, the team’s success is dependent on good leadership.2. Yelling, criticizing, and punishing. If you’ve ever had a boss yell at you, chances are it sticks in your mind, even years later. That’s because negative interactions make a bigger impression. Toxic bosses let their emotions get the best of them and use fear of punishment in an attempt to motivate instead of praise. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.) Good bosses realize that mistakes are teaching opportunities.
A yelling boss who takes credit for your work is a pretty obvious red flag. But there are some workplace behaviors that are traditionally viewed as “good” that can become toxic when taken too far.Toxic productivity: Think “hustle culture,” which glorifies things like lack of sleep, staying late, and always appearing “busy.” In other words, it’s a culture that confuses working all the time with doing worthwhile work. Unsurprisingly, this attitude leads to stress, anxiety, and burnout.Toxic loyalty: As a leader, you hope your employees are loyal to your company. But this hope can be taken too far when employees are pressured to act immorally or to sacrifice their own well-being for the good of the company. Toxic leaders often demand this kind of “above all else” commitment to the company, which usually eventually backfires.Toxic positivity: This one may seem surprising. After all, isn’t being positive, well, a positive thing? But toxic positivity at work negates people’s feelings and experiences. If an employee is in a stressful situation, telling them to “look on the bright side” puts the responsibility on them to endure something that may be dysfunctional or broken. Healthy workplaces with good leadership approach employees’ problems with compassion and empathy and allow space for expressing negative emotions.
Detoxing yourself from your workplace
This isn’t a definitive list of the ways a workplace can be toxic, but if any of these elements sound familiar, there are ways you can safeguard yourself from enduring toxic behavior.
As Fast Company contributor David M. M. Taffet wrote, “toxicity cannot be killed with kindness unless it’s directed at oneself.” So make it clear what behavior you won’t tolerate. It can help to have a plan for when something toxic happens: “If this happens, I will do. . . . ”
As Fast Company contributor Nazan Artun points out, since anxiety stems from focusing too much on the future, pre-stage strategies can help.
If you are in a toxic workplace, chances are you will feel drained at the end of the day, so setting aside a little time to reset can help you not carry your toxic workplace into your home life. Then, it’s time to update your résumé and know what red flags to avoid at your next job.