Five Ways Leaders Can Prevent a Toxic Workplace

Five Ways Leaders Can Prevent a Toxic Workplace

As Millennials and Gen Z have begun to make up much of the workforce, there has been an increased focus on recognizing toxic cultures in workplaces. In fact, research from MIT’s Sloan School Of Management found that around 30 million U.S. workers experience their workplace as toxic. This is a problem for organizations’ retention and productivity goals, as MIT’s study found that workers were 10.4 times more likely to leave their jobs because of a toxic work culture than to leave because of compensation.

What makes a workplace toxic? The same study from MIT conducted 11 meta-analyses that converged on the same three factors as the strongest predictors of toxic behavior in the workplace: toxic leadership, toxic social norms and poor work design.

Fortunately, there are actions that leaders – from senior executives, to front-line managers – can take to prevent a toxic workplace culture from taking hold within their organization. Below, we’ve identified five actionable ways leaders can prevent a toxic workplace.

Prioritize Employee Well-Being and Re-Align Responsibilities

When we think of employee well-being, company-sponsored events, in-office perks, and other employee benefits may come to mind. However, employee well-being in the workplace goes beyond flashy benefits packages and spans to the daily roles and responsibilities of employees. At minimum, employees should have a clear idea of their job duties and how their work drives the organization to reach its goals. T.A. Beehr and S. Glazer found that employees are more likely to find their job stressful and their workplace toxic when their duties are ambiguous, or when their job requires them to balance conflicting demands.

To really prioritize employee well-being, employers should start by gauging employee sentiment on factors including their work responsibilities, experience with team members, thoughts on organizational policies and other areas of the organization. From there, action should be taken to re-align employee job descriptions, reduce nuisance work, clarify role responsibilities and lower stress at work.

Encourage Employee Training & Development

When an employee first starts at an organization, they typically receive training regarding organizational policies and role responsibilities. Following this onboarding period, they may have some opportunities for development of skills available here and there, but may not receive much formal training once they are in their role. Similarly, managers may require support for developing leadership skills, though many receive none. A study from West Monroe Partners found that among managers who oversee one to two employees, 59% report having no training at all. Similarly, the same measure stands for 41% of managers who oversee three to five workers.

Employers hoping to prevent a toxic work environment should consider improving both their initial onboarding and training process as well as offering further development for current employees and managers. These initiatives not only will help align employees with the organization’s mission and provide them support for creating a positive workplace culture, it can also help impact bottom-line numbers such as retention and cost savings. 360Learning’s recent findings show that learning and development can have a big impact on employee attrition and reduce costs from employee turnover. Employers will likely see their return on investment when it comes to investing in the training and development of employees.

Create an Effective Recognition System

Recognition is a vitally important part of workplace culture and employee experience. According to a report by Workhuman and Gallup, when organizations have effective employee recognition, employees are five times as likely to see a path to grow in the organization, four times as likely to be actively engaged at work and five times as likely to feel connected to their workplace culture. However, the same report found that only 36% of employees stated that their organization has some sort of recognition system in place.

What makes an employee recognition program effective? First, recognition should be tied to performance. Organizations can create formal programs that identify top performers and adequately recognizes them for their contributions. Second, consider recognition for those employees who are helping build a positive and encouraging work environment that inspires others to perform better. Often overlooked, these employees can be the “difference makers” in creating a successful workplace culture. Managers should be encouraged and enabled to recognize employees for their work, but this may need to be set forth by senior management on a formal, organizational scale.

Involve Employees in Goal-Setting and Decision Making

An important step in preventing a toxic workplace culture is to first get an idea of employee sentiment of the current state of the organization’s culture. When employees are asked for their thoughts and opinions, it has been shown that there is improved performance and increased employee engagement. However, these opportunities may not be widely available to employees. A study by AllVoices found that 36% of employees either don’t have a feedback program available or aren’t aware of one at their company. Leaders can create opportunities for employees by asking for feedback in reviews, offering an anonymous submission form or sending out regular company-wide surveys.

Beyond receiving employee feedback, leaders should involve employees in decision making and goal-setting where possible. Not only does this help bring in new ideas and set realistic expectations, team decision-making has also been shown to increase employee engagement and enable collaboration and communication. Leaders can utilize team-decision making in goal-setting discussions to drive motivation and gain buy-in from employees. By giving employees a seat at the decision-making table, organizations can promote a positive and collaborative culture where everyone is on-board with the team’s goals and objectives.

Lead by Example

Organizational leaders are typically looked-up to by other employees in the organization. They often set a standard for what behaviors are expected and encouraged of employees. While leaders may talk about organizational values, they may not always display those in a way that other employees can recognize. When this happens, there is a disconnect between employees and their company’s mission, vision and values. In another MIT study, researchers found when leaders act consistently with their company’s core values, it is one of the most powerful predictors of how positively employees rate their corporate culture.

Beyond reflecting the company’s core values, leading by example can help increase employee trust and engagement. Leaders who follow this leadership style get involved with their teams, listen to understand, put their employees first and avoid micromanaging. While not every manager is perfect, increasing knowledge and training around leading by example can help create a culture where employees can easily understand what is expected of them and look up to leaders who exemplify their company’s values.

Toxic workplaces can hinder productivity, impact retention, drive negative employee experiences and more. By taking a proactive approach to work on some of the items listed above, leaders can prevent a toxic workplace culture from forming within their organization.