Toxic Work Environments

Toxic Work Environments Impact Team Building

Recent headlines, both internationally and locally are reporting grave concerns around toxic workplaces and burnout. A South Africa media outlet recently reported almost half of South African workers blame toxic workplaces and burnout as the reasons for leaving their employers, seeking healthier work environments.

Building your team and maintaining the health of your team should remain a priority, but a concerning trend is now the establishment of new teams and those very same resignations call for team building interventions. I met with author, clinical psychologist and associate, Flooris van der Walt as well as Michelle Ashen, a mental fitness coach to discuss the kind of support needed to navigate these perceptions and challenges that affect team performance and productivity.

This winter we explore toxic work environments with clinical psychologist Flooris van der Walt and Mental Fitness coach Michelle Ashen.

Simply put, a toxic work environment is a place where there are significant personal conflicts between colleagues. It is a place where employees find it difficult to work or progress in their careers due to a negative atmosphere created by colleagues, leaders or the company culture itself.

Michelle Ashen, mental fitness and professional coach writes:

“I think we have toxic work environments because at an individual level we are actively self sabotaging ourselves, we’re walking with the residue of childhood trauma’s and we don’t even know it. We’re taking our hurt out on others – hurt people hurt people.

We seem to be living with and from our survival brain and motivated by negative emotions like fear, shame and guilt. We are actively self sabotaging ourselves and I know this because we all do it, it’s the human condition. At school they taught us about physical fitness, they never taught us about mental fitness.

In leadership development training they often teach us self-awareness, but not trauma integration. We need to be trauma informed. Trauma integration at an individual and leadership level is a critical enabler to help us learn and open up our minds to the possibility that we are the cause – often through no fault of our own – but through self awareness and trauma integration – knowing better means we must do better. If we don’t shift from self sabotage to self mastery we will continue sleepwalking, contributing to results we don’t want to see.

Either we forget or we haven’t been told about the truth that the outer world is a reflection of our inner world. Other people’s perception of you is a reflection of them. Your response to them is an awareness of you. Toxic workplaces will cease to exist when we recognise control is an illusion and that we are all wounded to some extent.We must remember that ‘hurt people hurt people’ and that we need to be committed to our own healing and self development as a means to contribute to results that we do want to see in the world.

This in my view is how we build teams – at an individual level – where I know myself and I know the wounds I am walking with. This in my view is what brings compassion and humanity into the equation of success and growth in a team and throughout an organisation.

The best way to navigate toxic work environments is to empower yourself to see what it is revealing within you. If you cannot change a situation then you are challenged to change yourself. We are living with the legacy of apartheid in South African businesses and very little trauma integration, much less trauma-informed leadership development training has been implemented. We need to be more trauma informed – about our own and others – and how it affects what we do and how we show up in the world. The degree to which a leader is trauma informed is the degree to which his/her team will succeed. I honestly believe the more trauma informed you are as a leader the more you will be able to unlock the potential and productivity you have in your teams.”

Clinical Psychologist, Flooris Van Der Walt reflects on his 30+ years experience working with and supporting organisations all around the world with toxic work environments:

I have spent more than 30 years developing, researching and coaching individuals who have been a victim of toxic work envrionments and in some instances even been the cause of these challenging work environments. What I realised however is that one should never assume that these toxic workplaces are as a result of the leadership of an organisation.

Please you will help us create a business that is more humane?” said the outgoing CEO to me on his last day after being fired. As an introduction to the topic, we have to understand that all companies consist of people with personalities. The culture of a company is created by the behaviour and decisions of people and therefore people are the only “leverage” in the culture of a company.

Ever heard the saying a fish rots from the head?

It’s business jargon that means that when a company is struggling, the likely cause comes from the top, the leadership. It comes from the idea that when a fish starts to decompose and rot, the first area that ‘stinks’ is the head and then continues down the rest of the body. When there are issues in a company, it begins with the leadership – or so the premise goes. However in this instance, the outgoing CEO’s outgoing request was to help him bring more humanity into the organisation, so the head in this instance did not stink. Toxic workplaces are not always attributed to the leadership and may in fact be a symptom of a collective problem within teams.

It took me a while to get to a hypothesis. Personalities of narcissism or to the extreme, anti-social personalities (psychopaths), have a major influence on the culture of the company – and they are not necessarily the senior leaders of a business. We know that companies attract narcissists to top management, most probably because one does need a certain psychological insensitivity to stand up to and challenge a variety of biases when problem solving on the ladder to success. Sensitivity is just not appreciated nor will it survive the dirty street fighting that takes place as one ascends the career ladder. A lot of these “successful” leaders do not know anything other than fighting to keep their positions or to achieve a higher rank, and while one is fighting for external confirmation of what one is capable of, the feelings of others or humanity do not feature.

The ‘Self’ is being motivated by negative emotions as opposed to positive emotions such as curiosity, empathy and creativity. These mental patterns do not feature as strengths to be developed as strongly as they should in today’s challenging environment.

This picture brought me to the realisation that the culture has nothing to do with the fish, but rather the fact that narcissists or anti-social personalities are playing critical roles in the company and despite the fact that they deliver results, they are doing so at the expense of the organisations long term sustainability. Toxic workplaces challenge future proofing approaches by damaging social connections needed to achieve and collaborate to deliver organisational outcomes.

From my experience of 30 years in HR, I realised that one does not eat the elephant in one sitting (not to talk about addressing the elephant in the room), so it is better to identify parts of the company to start to address the issues.

The identification is normally not that difficult in companies that run regular engagement surveys or even satisfaction questionnaires. This is a clear and objective measurement and can indicate where to start. Other means are exit interviews or just a high personnel turnover in a division or a part of the company. Very often this is the easy part of the change one is looking for, though how to start the discussion to address the toxicity is where the challenge lies – also as mentioned earlier, due to the intertwined complexity of different personalities which keep such a culture intact.

Most narcissistic leaders would not be open to starting such a discussion as their security and position might be questioned and such leaders will block the discussion or project it onto someone or something else, e.g., “this company has to make clearer decisions” or “the strategy is not clear or understood and therefore I have to give a clearer direction”, just to justify their reason for keeping their control and lead with an iron fist – and kill anyone who disagrees with them – either physically by firing them from the company or killing their personalities or credentials by focussing only on the weaknesses of the person (which in my mind does not take much, seeing that all of us have our weaknesses!).

With the dilemma of starting with the person who is causing the toxicity and not going to agree with the assessment, one can start with the people who suffer from this toxicity.

The toxic leader will most of the time also welcome this initiative, because it confirms the notion that the problem lies with others. Now the question opens on what to do with the sufferers – and here comes the solution I am working on for the last 12 years: How to create a positive mental state in such a department, so that a critical mass can change the culture from toxicity to a higher engagement; which has a direct correlation with the financial success of the company (proved through research by Gallup).

Most leaders, even narcissists, are keen to increase the engagement of their area of responsibility because that reflects positively on them as leaders. Once one created a positive engagement with a critical mass (normally not less than 10% of the targeted population) the people of such a department can move the mentality from toxicity to a positive engagement, though the narcissistic leaders might fight this change because it takes the “controls” away from them and they cannot sustain the dependency they create with their employees.

Here lies the second challenge in how to coach the leader to use the new energy arising from the higher engagement and facilitate the new ideas for the betterment of the whole department, which will give the narcissistic leaders the positive feedback they need to cope with in life – they got it right – at last!

Toxicity does not need to be the end of it all, but it has to be addressed before it impacts the entire organisation and a starting point cannot be identified. It is also a challenge to enter a toxic company if the CEO is a narcissist and keeps the leadership team hostage. In such cases, the only entry to the company is through the board, though the CEO has to be informed and one has to make sure there will be no blockage of the process. The CEO might not be comfortable, though as long as there is no blockage of the process, the benefits might convince the narcissistic CEO that higher engaged employees are a better option for the CEO than the struggling non-engaged or even actively disengaged employees.

If you intend to increase the engagement of your employees and build teams who are recovering from toxicity – please email to see how we can support you!

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