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Is My Leadership Unwittingly Creating a Toxic Work Environment?

October 16 2017 - by Kiesha Farnum, Consultant, Inter-American Development Bank

What is a toxic environment? No, we are not referring to the air quality but rather the culture of the workplace. Words like dysfunction, discord, frustration, unproductive and unhealthy often go hand-in-hand in describing a toxic workplace. No leader actively wants to create a toxic environment but sometimes we may be unconsciously nurturing, perpetuating or allowing a dysfunctional environment to flourish under our watch.


As leaders, we can be more aware of our leadership footprint and sphere of influence by being mindful. Janice Marturano (2014) in her book Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, defines the mindful leader as someone who cultivates empathy, creativity, clarity and focus in the service of others. Mindful leadership is a perceptible quality that necessitates a wholistic non-judgmental attention to what is happening in the present. Mindfulness is not only an intrinsic quality of the leader but manifests itself extrinsically, as the leader influences those around them.

As mindful leaders, the first step to solving the problem is being able to clearly identify and articulate it. Let us examine five (5) indicators of toxicity:  


  1. If any mention of work-life balance is either openly scoffed at, considered a lack of commitment or implicitly classified as unrealistic and unimportant, toxicity is present. When such activities as, working late and/ or on weekends, exceptionally long hours and copious amounts of accumulated vacation leave are venerated, toxicity is present. These activities signal very strongly that your staff may be working hard but not smart. Is there a spoken (or unspoken) rule that around-the-clock availability for work communication, prioritizing work over family and community, and not taking vacation is rewarded either verbally or otherwise? Ask yourself, am I creating or perpetuating a culture of work that is unhealthy in which persons feel compelled to be unbalanced in order to be recognized and get ahead? 
  2. Pitting employees against each other like gladiators is a major sign of toxicity. Suggesting either explicitly or implicitly that persons need to outperform each other creates an unnecessarily competitive environment. This may manifest itself in simple actions, such as, unfairly comparing staff against each other with the intent of embarrassing an individual into action. It may also be formally institutionalized in an organizational performance assessment system that is focused on individual performance only rather than the performance of the team.
  3. An environment that views empathy as a weakness, where individuals are considered and used in the same manner as physical assets is one that is highly toxic. Ask yourself, am I cognizant of the concerns, job satisfaction and the well-being of my team. The mindful leader would ask him/her self, is my workplace characterized by high absenteeism, frequent illness, high turnover of staff, elevated levels of stress and burnout?
  4. Bureaucracy is often largely institutionalized particularly in certain sectors such as the public service. However, as leaders are we unnecessarily reinforcing bureaucracy by creating additional levels of management and approval or by myopically micromanaging? As a mindful leader, do I have a problem delegating tasks and approvals when I have the room to do so? Do I try to closely supervise every single activity when there is qualified and reliable staff available to do so?
  5. Bullying is not a phenomenon solely reserved for school age children. When present in the work place it can have a debilitating impact on staff morale, self-esteem, mental health and productivity. There have been many documented cases of persons committing suicide after being subjected to prolonged bullying by a supervisor or fellow team members.  Bullying can take many forms and as a mindful leader one needs to be aware of its sinister creep. Bullying can include malicious (or idle) gossip, sabotaging a person’s work product or relationship with other team members, undermining authority, insubordination and disrespect. Other more insidious problems such as racism, classism, ageism, generation and gender bias may also manifest itself as bullying. The signs are always there but it takes a mindful leader to identify and address it.

Canadian Executive Coach Ray Williams and author of With Eye of the Storm discusses in his book how mindful leaders can identify and employ powerful strategies for transforming a toxic workplace.  As leaders, as we strive to create healthy work environments, we can start by assessing our level of mindfulness, which will create a space for effectively evaluating the toxicity of the spaces we influence.




Janice Marturano (2014) Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership

Ray Williams (2015) Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces

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Nadia Spencer-Henry - Reply


The unfortunate thing is that those generating the toxicity are never aware.  Your blog raised a question for me. How can I thorough my influence help them to become aware?


Carole Houlihan - Reply

Great Blog Kiesha. Leaders must take responsibility for the workplace culture they create. And an important part of that culture is the  attitude towards work-life balance.  

Lois Parkes - Reply

Lots of food for thought in this blog. I also suggest that  leaders take the plunge and invest in having an external party/consultant conducting a 360 assessment on their leadership. This requires openess and a willingness to digest and address the feedback provided. However if handled with maturity and a willingness to change, can reap tremendous rewards. 

Judy - Reply

As usual, you are on point. Reading this blog immediately one organisation came to mind. Unfortunately though there are others out there.

Good job

Maribel Mara - Reply

Kesha, I enjoyed reading the article  and it's very true. I can definitely relate to it bc the position under my former boss was very toxic. Even till this day with her new assistant, she exhibits the same behaviour. I find that most people in leadership positions are not mindful of their role in authority/managing. I believe there is a responsibility when overseeing staff. In most cases it's just worker bees to make them look good. It's unfortunate.

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