Twelve One-Way Tickets To A Toxic Work Environment.


Hold on Goldfish… this is not your usual article. It takes a mind-boggling 15 minutes of your undivided attention to read this article cover to cover. This makes it by far the longest article published on Wisdom for Goldfish.

I promise you it’ll be worth your while.

If you think it’s expensive to create a pleasurable work environment, try dealing with the costs of a toxic work environment. Toxic work environments lead to reduced productivity, an increase in sick leave, a high employee turnaround, and a loss of talent.

Some companies might think this can be solved by hiring a barista and purchasing some bean bags and a ping pong table, but this is seldom the case. We don’t live in the Roman Empire anymore, it takes more than ‘bread and circuses’ to keep your people happy and productive.

When it comes to toxic work environments, in many cases it is more about ‘what NOT to do’ than it’s about ‘what to do’. So without further ado, here are twelve one-way tickets to a toxic work environment.

How many of these boxes is your company ticking?

1. Lack of a shared road map and vision.

Without a company vision, there’s no purpose. Without purpose, there’s no motivation.

If there’s no shared vision, it is likely multiple visions will arise from within the company. When one leader fails to show up, multiple others will fill the vacuum. When this happens, the company can get divided into several smaller empires, which have the potential to tear the company up from the inside.

One of the most important aspects of being a leader, is creating one shared vision and a clear road map that leads towards that vision. This road map should be created for the company, by the leaders of the company. It’s the only way to get full buy in.

Both vision and road map should be shared with the entire company, to make sure there’s no question on what it is that you’re trying to achieve as a team.

Set clear Objectives & Key Results (OKR’s) for direction and Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) to measure progress.

It’ll help the team decide how to prioritise work and can be used to measure the effectiveness of experiments, which is important for innovation.

Sharing the company road map with the entire company might seem radical to some, but it’s the most effective way to keep everyone focused on achieving company goals.

Hans Scheffer, CEO of Helloprint, shared how he gives everyone in the company access to key business results in order to get everyone focused on improving them. Even the company’s cleaners know when a certain team is having a hard time and contributes by giving this team the support they need.

This can come in the shape of a cup of coffee when the team comes in, extra fruit to keep everyone healthy in stressful times, ordering pizza for the employees that decide to work overtime and making sure the team has the office supplies they need to turn the ship around. 

Now that is teamwork!

2. Lack of performance management.

If an employee acquires 1,000 clients every year, but makes a mistake along the way, which costs the company 5 (equally profitable) clients, would it be wise to fire this person?

Not if results matter to you. Unfortunately, this is exactly what can happen if there’s a lack of performance management. Don’t isolate mistakes from the positive impact an employee has made. Measure their full performance – all the time.

An employee’s success is not measured by the amount of hours (s)he spends in the office. It can be measured by the output they delivered. However, an employee’s success is ideally determined based on the positive impact (s)he makes on the results that matter.

Once again, KPI’s are your friend. Every single person in the company should be accountable for a certain set of KPI’s, and investments should be made to measure these KPI’s accurately.

Leading vs Lagging KPI’s. Ideally an employee’s performance is measured by his/her impact on the KPI’s that are most important to the business (e.g. revenue). It can be hard to measure the direct impact of an individual on these business results, however, and more often than not impact is only shown in the long run. When a KPI only shows significant change over a longer period of time, this is called a ‘lagging KPI’.

Measuring an employee’s performance based on a lagging KPI might make that person feel like they don’t have an impact at all, which can lower morale.

In this case it makes sense to look at ‘leading KPI’s’ instead. Leading KPI’s are the KPI’s that an employee has a direct impact on. In addition, these leading KPI’s should be proven to positively influence lagging KPI’s.

For a Copywriter this can be the amount of words they published on the blog (leading KPI), which is expected to lead to more website visitors and an increase in revenue in the long run (lagging KPI).

Without performance management, performance is subjective and might lead to the wrong people being praised and promoted. This will result in resentment from the people that actually do the work that improves the company results. 

Hard numbers on the other hand, leave little room for discussion.

3. No clear employee growth road map.

In some companies quitting is the only way to get a raise. 

Much like a transparent company road map, there should be transparent road maps for individuals as well. Employees should be able to know in detail what gets them a raise or promotion. The path should be laid out for everyone to see. 

This doesn’t only encourage employees to develop themselves, but it also ensures that everyone showing equal performance is treated equally.

Personal growth as shown on this road map should be expected to have a positive impact on the growth of the company.

Without a clear employee road map ‘personal growth’ is subjective and employees that didn’t get the raise or promotion might conclude that favouritism is at play.

4. Allowing skillful people to be assholes.

No one in the company is an island on its own. 

The attitude of one employee affects the performance of other employees. The message you send by allowing people to be assholes, will cause other people to show asshole behaviour as well.

The team is bigger than the individual, without exception. The person that is not willing to accept it, should be sent home. It might cost you in the short run, but it protects the company in the long run.

5. Ownership of failure is met with severe punishment.

When taking responsibility for failure is matched with serious consequences, discussing human error becomes a taboo. In the long run this will lead to a toxic work environment in which problems persist. 

Team members will prefer to cover up errors and point the finger at each other instead of solving the problem, because of the risks involved. This will eventually lead to a lack of trust within the company.

Human error will always persist, it can’t be prevented by punishment. Doing so is like treating the symptoms instead of the disease. Being able to discuss human error openly will bring people together to find ways to improve processes and deal with these errors.

Ownership to failure should be encouraged. 

This starts by setting the right example.

6. Creating internal competition.

Internal competition is almost always a bad idea. To a certain extent this is likely to happen naturally, but it should definitely not be encouraged.

It gets people to work against each other, instead of with each other. It can stop the flow of information and knowledge. Create common goals for the team instead. Again, KPI’s are your best friend. If you want to praise individuals, do it person to person.

The only time internal competition might pay off, is when there’s no benefit in employees helping and learning from each other. This can be the case for short-lived projects, but is often not the case for long run collaboration.

It’s probably a good idea to stop handing out those awards at the years-end function! They often bring more trouble than good.

Praise teams, not individuals.

7. Lack of an open feedback loop. 

Every company should have a platform where employees can give constructive feedback regarding the people they work with without having to be afraid of the consequences. 

A comprehensive employee feedback questionnaire should be sent out twice a year at the minimum. In addition, every employee leaving the company should get the chance to speak up in an exit-interview. If there’s a moment in time you have the opportunity to get some raw unsalted feedback, it’s when employees leave the company.

I take comfort in the fact that most companies get this right. All too often, however, this is where it ends.

Gathering data without taking action on its findings is like picking fresh strawberries only to throw them in the garbage after. Analyse the feedback with an open mind and use it to improve the work environment.

When opinions can’t be voiced to the leaders of a company, they will be voiced in the back alleys of the company. Concerns should be addressed before gossip and murmurings take on a life of their own.

Bonus tip: Another great way to gather feedback from the floor is ‘caring by wandering around’. Leaders should show their face in all departments on random moments, sit down with employees and have a casual talk. It’s good for morale too! In my opinion, this is an integral part of the job when you’re a leader.

8. Key decisions are made top-down.

All too often, key decisions are made top-down without feedback from the people that will actually do the work. It invites sub-optimal decision making and frustration among the team.

In addition, top-down decisions often come with unrealistic deadlines. The amount of work something takes is often underestimated by the ones in charge. This way everything becomes an emergency.

When this happens, stress-levels go up and they stay up. There is such a thing as too much pressure. Too much pressure leads to sleep deprivation and a sharp increase of human errors. 

On top of that, people act more selfish when they’re under continuous pressure. They’ll be less likely to help each other, because they’re overwhelmed by the things they need to get done themselves. Continuous pressure undermines teamwork.

Setting impossible deadlines, is also a sure way to get people to cut corners and take risks (‘there’s no time to do things properly’).

You don’t want to be in this situation as a company. The time you save ‘getting it done’, will be paid back in time spent to fix the problems it comes with.

9. Lack of strong middle management.

Without strong middle management, it’s easy to turn into Kafka’s Poseidon (a continuously frustrated micro-manager, who refuses to give others any form of autonomy).

When the middle layers of the company hierarchy can’t be trusted, all pressure comes down to upper management. Even if upper management can handle the workload, it’s an invitation for sub-optimal top-down decision making. It limits the flow of information and takes away the capability to empower the company’s specialists.

Middle managers are the eyes on the work floor, they manage the flow of information between decision makers and the people that do the work. 

Strong middle management can make autonomous decisions, makes sure the vision of the company is at the center of all that the team does, and empowers the team to do what they do best. On top of that, they manage employee happiness, growth and productivity. Without strong middle management, employees lose their voice and get frustrated.

The same way the Parthenon wouldn’t still be standing if its columns were made of wood, a large company will eventually collapse if it’s built on weak middle management.

10. No effort is made to create a company culture.

Company culture isn’t created by a couple of bean bags and a ping pong table. It’s created by a set of shared values and beliefs. The larger the company, the more difficult it gets to manage this. It’s likely people from all walks of life become a part of the company.

This makes it important to invest in getting everyone aligned! 

When employees can’t agree on a mutual set of values, they’ll have different frameworks to determine what is right and what is wrong. This can lead to a lack of understanding, which in turn results in frustration.

Example of misalignment in values: in some cultures speaking up to a person higher up the company hierarchy can be taken as an insult. In other cultures, it’s encouraged to express your unfiltered opinion at all times. It’s important to get everyone in the company on the same page.

Values should be created for the company, by the company. Every single employee should have a voice and be involved in this process. Values that haven’t been decided on together, won’t be upheld within the company.

Ideally, company values are reevaluated every year. They should evolve as the company grows.

11. Lack of investment in recruitment and ON-BOARDING.

In most companies, recruitment and on-boarding don’t get the attention they deserve. When the time is there and the decision is made to hire someone new, the starting date is often ‘as soon as possible’. A recruiter’s success is measured by how fast a vacancy is filled by a person who seems to meet the minimum requirements. 

This is a recipe for disaster. Rather measure a recruiter’s performance on how the new hires are performing in their first 12 months.

To make things worse, candidates are mostly tested on hard skills. Some companies test on soft skills, but all too often these are seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ instead of a ‘need-to-have’.

Testing on hard and soft skills is not enough, however. Candidates should be tested on their values, to see whether they align with the company values. In addition, candidates should undergo a personality test, to see if the person is a good fit within the team they’ll be working (read more about the different personality types and how they work together here). Strong teams are diverse in both skill set and personality type.

Unfortunately, on-boarding is often reduced to signing a stack of non-disclosure agreements and a welcome tour around the office. It makes it difficult for new-comers to adjust to their work environment.

Invest in recruitment and on-boarding early on, or pay the price later.

I consider Lee Watts the master of on-boarding.

Within Travelstart he designed a one-week on-boarding program. Employees joined the company in monthly batches. In their first week, new employees weren’t asked to do the job they were hired to do. Instead, they joined consecutive 1-hour masterclasses from all leaders within the company. 

The CEO would introduce them to the history and vision of the company. HR would introduce them to the company culture and values. The Marketing Manager would tell them how they acquire new customers. The Head of Customer Service would talk about the challenges their customers face. You get the idea.

Not only did new employees learn how the business operates, they also knew who to contact when they had a question or an idea. It forced them to think further than the confinements of the departments they were working in.

12. Lack of inspiration.

Inspiration sparks motivation. It’s one thing to have a shared company vision, it’s another thing to make it reality.

People can only set out to achieve the impossible, if they believe that ‘the impossible’ is in fact possible. This can be achieved by sharing inspirational stories. Invite people that did ‘the impossible’ and have them talk about how they achieved it.

Make these stories last and come to life in the office.

A low morale is one of the key ingredients for a toxic work environment. Make sure to keep motivation up at all times!

As you might have noticed by now, all too often it’s the undervaluation of a happy workforce that creates a toxic work environment. 

It’s a choice to not invest more than the bare minimum in recruitment and on-boarding. It’s a choice to not invest in creating a company culture. It’s a choice to not invest in giving employees a voice and a growth path.

The other major driver of toxicity on the workfloor is a lack of trust.

Trust is at the center of a healthy work environment. It takes trust to share the company vision and roadmap for everyone within the company to see. It takes trust to empower middle management. It takes trust to not micromanage an entire company. And trust… well, trust starts with empathy.

Now you know WHAT NOT TO DO, you also know WHAT TO DO.

Keep the workplace a pleasant environment to work in. It’s your responsibility as a leader. It’s not something you do in addition to your job, it is an essential part of your job.

If you don’t do it for the happiness of your employees, do it for the business results.

The long-run ROI (Return On Investment) of a happy workplace is not to be underestimated.

Does your company tick most boxes mentioned in this article? Share it with your colleagues:

About the author

Wesley van der Hoop

Dutchman living in The Bahamas. I get excited about digital marketing, writing, traveling, surfing and learning new things.

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