Not All Risks Have Signs – Exploring Toxic Workplaces

July 10, 2024

Lisa B. McNeill, PCC

In life, we live with risks. 

I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful place, but, even here, there are hazards. Walking through the woods and towards the shore one can encounter ticks, downed trees, coyotes, hunters and hidden stones. At the bay it’s rip tides, jellyfish, and even a shark on the rare occasion. Many of these dangers are marked with signage, like the one above, helping people set some boundaries for themselves and modify behavior, if needed. 

In the workplace, an equal number of risks exist – those emanating from other humans and the culture.  But sadly, none of them have signs posted.

When I walk, my thoughts often turn to my coaching clients. Sometimes the specific issue they face is a difficult or even a “toxic” environment.  These environments exist in every sector and industry.  Why? Because organizations are made up of humans, and we humans are imperfect. We bring all of our insecurities, bad habits, well-developed skills that we rely on (sometimes too often), and less-developed skills that we shy away from using.

Not everyone contributes to a toxic work environment of course. Quite the opposite. A leader can make all the difference in setting the tone and culture of a workplace.  And truly, a person at any level in an organization can decide what values and standards  they want to live by and are willing to accept from their team.  Often coaching work involves these kinds of issues.

In the coaching process, we assist a client in assessing the environment that already exists and setting some clear boundaries.  Sometimes a leader can build a team and can instill the values and positive attributes expected from themselves and their team.  More difficult is for the individual to join a team that is challenging or dysfunctional. As a team member, they have to decide what they are willing to tolerate and where they need to set some boundaries for their own wellbeing.

I hear from clients that harsh micromanagers provide the explicit or underlying message to their employees, “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t think you can do the job that needs to be done.”  This is exhausting for both the manager, who thinks they need to do everything themselves, and for the team members who are always looking over their shoulders and feeling a total lack of control.

Other leaders are intolerant of mistakes, setting the standard of, “It better be right, or someone will be in trouble (and it won’t be me).”  This can suck the creative energy out of teams who become more concerned with following the instructions rather than creative thinking, problem solving, and developing the best result possible. It can also create a “CYA” culture which can lead to distrust among team members.

Some leaders are unwilling or unable to delegate in an effective manner, not providing room for their staff to learn and grow.  I have seen leaders get overwhelmed by trying to do everything themselves, and staff that become disassociated and lax.  Leaders will sometimes say to me, “I don’t know why my staff can’t do more.”

And, in extreme cases, I have had clients who have experienced abusive screaming from either their direct manager or a peer, which has gone unchecked and been normalized to the point that they accept the behavior as “just part of the job.”  

The fact of the matter is, in any of these situations, toxic practices get normalized over time until the people in the environment hardly notice anymore. Leaders may think their behaviors are warranted because that’s how they’ve gotten to where they are, and they need to keep things on track. Team members think they need to put up with the behaviors to keep a job. Everyone is simply surviving.

Dysfunctional or toxic workplaces sometimes brings to mind the story from writer David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College about two young fish swimming along when an older fish swims by and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two younger fish keep swimming and eventually one asks the other “What the hell is water?”

Working with a coach can help you explore your own environment.  What are you aware of already and  what just seems like “the water” to you? What can you change and what can’t you change? If you can’t make a change to the environment, what can you change or develop in your own behavior to minimize your risk and improve your wellbeing while in the environment? And what are you willing to tolerate and where are your boundaries?   

Funny, today on my walk was the first day I truly noticed the sign at the bay that said, “Caution: Potential hazards in these waters may include: Rip currents, Heavy surf, Dangerous marine life…Use Area At Your Own Risk”.

If only our workplaces came with warning signs.    

Lisa McNeill is an ICF-certified coach and consultant who works with leaders in a wide array of industries as well as those in transition. Throughout her career, she has worked to build and develop strong teams in international and grassroots settings.

Photo credit: Lisa McNeill

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