Are you working in a toxic environment?

Eleanor Gwiza considered herself favoured when she landed her first job as an administrator before she graduated from university. She was going to make a lot of money, take care of her family and do her best to climb the career ladder, or so she thought.

She had her career plan mapped out but it wasn’t long before doubts and fear crept in. Was she going to make it? A few months into her job, she realised her organisation wasn’t the place that was going to bring her dreams to life.

Her supervisor was a bully, aggressive and intimidating, she says. She also recalls him being the kind of manager who made everyone walk on eggshells when he was around.

“My colleagues and I would tip-toe and had to communicate in whispers whenever our boss was around. He would have us work till late and scolded us for even the smallest of issues,” she says.

Two years down the road, she threw in the towel, for she couldn’t take it anymore.

“I had to quit my job because that was not an environment where I would grow or flourish. No one can thrive in an intimidating environment,” she says.

Gwiza was in a toxic working environment. In most cases, a toxic workplace involves hostile leadership, putting others down, malicious gossip, manipulative work politics, among other factors, according to professionals.

It, therefore, goes without saying, how daunting and destructive this kind of environment can be to employees.

Debby Karemera, a peace education unit manager, says this kind of environment drives workmates to focus on personal interests rather than the greater good of the organisation, and that this can be portrayed through habits such as gossip, division and lack of cooperation.

A toxic environment can lead to frustration, anger, high employee turnover and in worse case scenarios, it could damage the image of the institution since people who are not pleased or happy with their work tend to talk negatively about the organisations they work for, she says.

Kenneth Agutamba, a chief strategist at Impact Communications Strategies, shares his view, saying that because an average working adult spends more time at their workplace than anywhere else, it is important the office is a warm and conducive place to be.

Working with friendly, open minded and supportive colleagues, and tools that aid you to do your work well, are factors that contribute to a great organisational environment, Agutamba says.

“The absence or inadequacy of those aspects can render a work environment toxic in a sense that instead of focusing on work, you’re distracted by the barriers,” he adds.

A company’s corporate culture will have an impact on the employees’ output, ultimately, says Agutamba. If a work environment is toxic, it means workers will resent coming to work every morning and when they do, they will reluctantly show up, they will work looking at the clock, waiting for the day to end so that they can leave, he says.

“You can be in a meeting and instead of concentrating, someone is thinking about how the big boardroom table managed to squeeze through the small door. That is how a toxic workplace will affect workers,” Agutamba says.

Business consultant Lillian Uwintwali considers a toxic work environment to be a setting which is not conducive and productive for work.

This may be due to poor management policies in place—a place where the rights of staff are not observed and the work place is characterised by conflicts and misunderstandings and oftentimes, lacks motivation and shared vision amongst staff and management, she says.

“Such behaviour can result into low performance and failure to fulfil the company’s mission and objectives which may result into financial loss.”

‘The tough boss’

Writer Monica Torres notes that in offices, toughness is a vague descriptor of strength. How the word is deployed depends on the boss-employee relationship. At best, it can be a synonym for assertive leadership that holds people accountable.

Toughness is not inherently abusive behaviour if the boss makes it clear that the employee is valued and cared about. However, she points out that there can be scenarios when toughness is an excuse for bullying.

“Bullying does not have a gender, and it is important to recognise when any self-proclaimed or otherwise “tough boss” is really just an abusive one. When colleagues do not feel supported by their boss, high standards can feel impossible to reach,” she writes.

Tough bosses may believe they have to unduly pressure their employees to get the best performance. But that backfires when employees feel too stressed by this pressure to get any work done. High work stress is linked to bad health outcomes and more turnover, Torres adds.

How can this be dealt with?

The writer goes on to highlight that toughness is not incompatible with being a good boss. It is possible to demand high standards and to still treat your employees with respect. One study found that when managers were fair to their team members, their teams got more productive. Being a good tough boss means making the process of working for you a collaborative, mutual learning experience that feels fair.

With the right policies in place, Uwintwali believes that toxic work environments can be detoxified.

“If the right policies are established and strictly observed then toxic environments can be detoxified. Organisations can also seek to engage with management and staff alike to have a shared vision, embrace it and own it, such that everyone in the company may have a shared passion to fulfil the mission of the company,” she says.

This is often achieved through efficient and effective communication and shared benefits of company’s successes for staff, management and shareholders. When the company has a common goal they serve their clients more happily, Uwintwali adds.

Karemera supplements Uwintwali’s opinion saying that this issue can be addressed through effective communication, induction for new employees and close follow-up of individual deliverables each employee is tasked to work on.

Companies on the other hand need to invest in an open and inclusive internal communication strategy that seeks and actually ensures that all employees are heard, seen and respected for what they contribute to the overall organisational objectives, says Agutamba.

When you create an employee focused workplace, the employee is likely going to appreciate and give their best effort to an organisation that they perceive to value their worth, he says.

“Build an intra-communication platform that encourages open but polite feedback sharing and allows people to speak up to express themselves on aspects they deem unfair.

Openness will reduce the risk of disgruntled employees having to leak company inside information to the press, as they seek an alternative platform to be heard. Create reporting lines that don’t put managers far away from those being managed; the smaller the gaps, the better the relationship,” Agutamba says.