A 2009 survey conducted by Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, authors of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power, found that 64 percent of people were currently working with someone they considered toxic, and 94 percent said they had worked with someone toxic during the course of their career.
And the worst news of all? Toxicity in the workplace spreads like a virus. "Before you know it," explain the authors, "you have caught the 'infection' and find yourself acting in ways that complement or replicate the very behaviors that are making you angry, frustrated, and/or depressed."
One study estimates that toxic workplaces cost U.S. employers $23.8 billion annually in the form of absenteeism, health care, lost productivity, and more.
Based on many of the studies I've deciphered over the years, four classic examples of a toxic work environment really stand out.
Gossip in the workplace is common, and chances are you've engaged in it at one time or another. But relentless workplace gossip has damaging effects for both the individuals involved and the organization as a whole. Here are just a few examples of the cost of workplace gossip:
- Lost productivity and wasted time.
- Divisiveness grows among employees forced to "take sides." As a result, morale and trust are eroded.
- Rumors lead to an increase of anxiety, as people don't have a clear indication of what's true.
- Loyal employees and top performers may leave when gossip destroys the culture.
Watch for groups of disgruntled employees actively acting out their unhappiness. It's easy to spot them--they'll congregate in hush-hush circles around cubicles after meetings to put a negative spin on what just transpired.
They are quick to gossip, and even quicker to crucify leadership and company direction. They're basically corporate teenagers whose time with the company is about to expire, and who now rely on each other for strength and safety.
Keep a close eye out for their whereabouts; they may go out of their way to befriend new hires to vilify someone or something and spread their cancer.
While your gossiping peers or co-workers won't admit it, they enjoy that feeling of power and should be dealt with swiftly.
The effects of bullying in the workplace are huge and costly for businesses. Baird Brightman, a behavioral scientist, consultant, and writer, reports that "aggressiveness (both verbal and physical) undermines safety and requires people to divert resources from productive work into defensive operations such as fight and flight."
Babs Ryan, author of America's Corporate Brain Drain, says, "Only 1 percent of bullies are fired; action is usually taken against the [bully's] target. Your only choice may be to leave as quickly as possible -- especially if the company supports that bully repeatedly and has already exited several of the bully's targets."
In this age of knowledge workers, Greg Baer, author of in Real Love in the Workplace, has a different spin, stating that bullying is often directed at those with less knowledge. "The more we know, the more we can win arguments, put people in their place, and feel powerful."
In his book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, executive coach Ray Williams boils down toxic workplaces to the dysfunctional managers responsible for creating them.
For one, management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or on correcting problems, and rarely gives positive feedback for what is going right.
Second, Williams says there are too many levels of approval and management to get things done expediently and efficiently, and a singular focus on micromanaging employees where trust is absent.
Last, employees and departments are set up to compete internally, against one another, which is enforced by performance metrics that put the emphasis on individual performance rather than team performance.
As a result, Williams says people are considered objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness or well-being. As you may have imaged, they'll encounter high levels of stress, turnover, absenteeism, and burnout.
The Mayo Clinic defines narcissistic personality disorder as "a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings."
And a pathologically narcissistic co-worker could potentially be damaging to your career, according to professor and coach Preston Ni, author of How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. In a Psychology Today article, he describes 10 classic features of narcissist co-workers. Among them:
- They are conversation hoarders and interrupters, dominating meetings, presentations, phone conferences, and email discussions.
- They are spotlight hoggers, constantly wanting to appear important, with a blown-up and exaggerated sense of themselves.
- They tend to be disruptive and put others down. They like to make themselves as powerful and influential as possible.
- They have a lack of concern for others' interests, and an excessive focus on themselves, which interferes with the development of a positive and flexible culture.
If your narcissist co-worker is also a bully, beware of the double whammy. Joseph Burgo, author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age, says this person "often relies on contempt to make others feel like losers, proving himself a winner in the process. He will belittle your work product or ridicule you at meetings. When he needs something from you, he may become threatening. At his most toxic, he will make you doubt yourself and your ultimate value to your employer."
Some strategies for dealing with a toxic workplace
In dealing with gossipers, a good leadership team must protect company values and its culture by acting swiftly to curb the problem right away. Gossip will get out of hand quickly if it's not extinguished immediately, and it is every leader's responsibility to ensure emotional (and physical) safety among loyal workers.
As far as handling narcissists goes, Burgo warns against challenging them, as escalation will work to their advantage and only damage your reputation and work. He says if you can no longer bear the treatments of their attacks in silence, transferring to a different department or looking for another job is your best bet.
Robert Sutton, renowned Stanford professor and author of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt, offers up several strategies (which I wrote about) for dealing with brutes and bullies in the workplace. Some are predicated on common sense -- moving to a different part of your organization, or distancing yourself about 100 feet away from the toxic person. Others are bordering on the irrational: pretending you're a doctor or expert studying the behaviors of your toxic colleagues to make a toxic situation less upsetting for you.
But one strategy that both Sutton and Burgo are keen on is to understand the game and the players in order to set up a good offense and defense. Sutton says, "Your chance of winning [goes] up when you understand the power structure and dynamics, document the bullying, and gain allies."
Burgo says you must document everything, especially proof of your work product. Preserve all toxic emails and other communications and get witness statements from your co-workers whenever possible.
"If you understand the winner-loser dynamic that drives them, you can protect yourself and avoid exciting their most toxic behaviors," says Burgo.