The fact that toxic workplaces are the fifth leading cause of death may not be overtly known by leaders, but many are starting to at least intuit that such a culture ain't good for health. An increasing number of empathetic leaders are actively trying to avoid being a contributor to a toxic culture--especially for Millennial employees who just aren't having it.

So the last thing we need is to have unspoken rules ruling the roost and quietly poisoning a workplace. Yet that's exactly what can happen to the leader caught unaware.

Here are the five most common unspoken rules that can run a workplace--in the wrong way. Flush these out and flush them.

1. You can't really speak your mind to the boss.

You know the deal. All the knights are sitting at the round (conference) table. Heads nod like they're on a pivot while the king (boss) doth speak. Seeming agreement. Seething behind silence. Every man and woman afraid to speak up for fear of getting beaten down. 

Then the meetings after the meeting begin. People saying what they really think, but everyone knowing that they can't say it out loud to the boss because he or she won't or can't hear it.


May I ask something at the risk of offending you? Might you be the king or queen in this scenario?

If you don't hear pushback often enough (or ever), understand that that's just not natural. Are you acting in a manner that would shut down others? Are you intolerant of dissent? Do you condemn rather than commend the opposing point of view? 

People need to weigh in before they can buy in, and if they don't feel comfortable expressing their opinions to you then you'll have zero chance of making the best decisions possible.

That silence you're hearing may not be golden, so take a hard look at if you're causing it. 

2. Only those with a certain style get promoted.

Take a look at whom you're promoting. Is there a common style to the promotees bereft of any diversity? Are they people a lot like you?

Always promote the most qualified, deserving person. Always. But, at the same time, be intentional about what the criteria really are for getting promoted and whether you're adhering to them without bias.

Believe me, everybody notices when someone gets promoted. Employees will almost involuntarily ask "Did they deserve it?" the instant they hear the news. Make sure the answer is yes, or you're adding acidity to the culture.

3. In truth, taking risks really isn't rewarded.

In conducting interviews for my book Find the Fire, a clear common theme arose among employees in the "insanely frustrating" department.  And that was environments where management talked a good game about taking risks, but when push came to shove, unsuccessful outcomes of taking risks were patently punished.

As a leader, you must establish clear rules of risk-taking: What constitutes a good risk? Who needs to approve the risk? What happens if a risk taken falls short? You get the idea. Celebrate when a risk taken pays off or when it falls flat. 

When we broaden our horizons, we narrow our inhibitions. You can't broaden horizons when people are afraid to stretch.

4. You have to get "airtime" in meetings.

Plain and simple, as the leader you need to cut off the blowhard. You can't send the signal that you reward talking just to be heard. 

Encourage people to speak up but to have something to say of value when they do. Allowing pontificators to continue unchecked is toxic. If people sense the unwritten rule is that in every meeting you need to just say somethingthen everyone will do just that. Meeting efficiency and effectiveness plummet, and it turns into a battle of senators trying to get time on the senate floor.

5. You have to toot your own horn to get ahead.

OK, I acknowledge there is actually a bit of truth to this in that you can't be a martyr or naive to the fact that at times you have to do a bit of self-promotion.

But, as a leader, you can't reward this behavior when it becomes standard--it will quickly devolve into internal competition gone awry.

Frankly, people won't feel the need to toot their own horn if you toot it for them. Be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Pull the shameless self-promoters aside and let them know that behavior isn't going to fly.

The bottom line is that unspoken rules shouldn't rule the day. Speak out against them through your actions--by banishing them.