Putting a stop to the toxic workplace

a toxic workplace comes from dysfunctional behaviour


“Oh, he’s always been like that” is a phrase that makes me shudder. It means that dysfunctional behaviour has been part of a toxic workplace for so long that nobody notices anymore.

It means that dysfunctional behaviour has gone unchecked for enough time that people no longer care about changing it. They just consider it to be part of their weekly life. That’s a toxic workplace. It’s not a place you want your team to be in.

A toxic workplace doesn’t happen by accident

A toxic workplace doesn’t just happen. In productive, effective workplaces, leaders understand that continued bad behaviour leads to problems. So they address it – quickly.

Repeated dysfunctional behaviour happens because it goes unchecked. The dog who jumps up at people doesn’t do it because it’s a bad dog. It does it because it is a natural instinct which nobody has taken the time or effort to stop.

The dog learns that this behaviour is acceptable, because there have been no consequences so far. Read more about why consequences are so important.

When dysfunctional behaviour becomes part of the culture, you’ll get a toxic workplace

Team culture is a strong, powerful beast. Changing it takes effort on all levels, but this can’t happen without the focus of leaders. Which needs to be followed by adoption by team members.

When your team culture tolerates dysfunctional behaviour, to change it you are in for a long battle. One person can’t change a toxic workplace. Even if somebody is willing to fight against the dysfunctional behaviour, if nobody else supports this, then it will simply continue.

What’s worse is that often in teams that tolerate dysfunctional behaviour, even those who hate it will be forced to “live with it”, just to perform their jobs at all.

A simple example of toxic workplace behaviour

Let’s start with a trivial example. Someone in your team decided that it’s OK not to reply to emails within a reasonable timeframe (let’s say a day or two). This person works remotely, so face to face conversations aren’t always possible. “He’d better reply to my emails”, you think.

So when he doesn’t reply to your emails, you’ll ring him and ask him to respond to it. He’ll say that he’ll get to it when he can. Talking to other people about it, they simply say “Oh yeah, he hardly ever responds”.

Then you’ll try again. Same result. Eventually, you will either need to choose to fight this or to concede. The only problem is, you’re not just fighting against the dysfunctional behaviour. You are fighting against potential years of reinforcement from people not addressing the behaviour. This is what makes for a toxic workplace.

Before long, you’ll start to adapt your behaviour to work around the problem. You’ll contact other people who can satisfy your request, instead of him. After all, that’s his goal – to not need to respond so that he isn’t bothered. You will start to work differently, adjusting the way you work so that you don’t require any input from him at all.

Obviously, there are worse cases of dysfunctional behaviour than not responding to emails. But you’d be surprised how small things like this can destroy productivity and affect the ability of other people to simply do their jobs properly.

More examples of toxic workplace behaviour

Here are some more examples of accepted dysfunctional behaviour that I’ve seen and experienced. These form the backbone of the toxic workplace.

  • Being disrespectful to people by talking down to them
  • Deflecting blame so that it is always “someone else’s” fault
  • Arguments for arguments sake – bickering over issues to waste time
  • Repeated missed deadlines
  • Passive aggressive behaviour
  • Being late to or skipping meetings.

Why don’t people fight against dysfunctional behaviour in the workplace?

In my opinion, the number one reason why people don’t fight against dysfunctional behaviour is because it’s hard work and it takes persistence. It is uncomfortable to have those conversations and people don’t like being uncomfortable.

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Imagine, you are just trying to do your job. You don’t have time to continuously focus on the behaviour of others. When these behaviours occur, you might not be the direct manager of the person who is being a nuisance, so it becomes more difficult to address it.

Ultimately, people need to care more about working in a great place and doing a great job than the degree to which they’re uncomfortable with the difficult conversations.

When people don’t really like their jobs and aren’t motivated, then obviously they are never going to fight against dysfunctional behaviour. It’s hard enough just going to work every day, let alone needing to fight battles to get someone to stop doing something that is counterproductive.

Unfortunately, this is what leads to a toxic workplace.

How do you get people to fight against a toxic workplace?

You need to instil a sense of pride in your team. To get people frustrated at how somebody else’s behaviour is ruining how your team works.

You need to create a situation where this statement is true:

The amount people care > The discomfort people feel in speaking up

When people in your workplace don’t really care, you won’t get anywhere. If they just want to turn up to work and go home without investing much of themselves, then you’re out of luck. If being friends with everybody and not rocking the boat is more important than functioning effectively as an organisation, then you’re in trouble.

Unless you can show them a better way. Unless you can show them a vision of a workplace that functions better. A workplace that produces better quality work and that people can be proud of.

Then you need to point out how the dysfunctional behaviour is getting in the way of achieving that vision. If you can achieve this, then the team becomes an entity that fights against dysfunction without individuals feeling like they are going out on a limb to do so.

How to gradually dismantle a toxic workplace

The leadership need to set the tone for the culture of the team. Start by doing the following:

  1. Explain to the person behaving badly exactly how it affects the team and the impact that it has.
  2. Reach a compromise. Find a way to satisfy the person’s needs and operate in an acceptable way at the same time. After all, the only reason dysfunctional behaviour exists is because the person doing it is gaining something from it.
  3. Don’t back down. Involve the person’s direct manager as necessary. Try to enlist their support.

When people in your organisation stop caring, you are in trouble. Dysfunctional behaviour will flourish and will go unchecked, resulting in a toxic workplace.

You will notice that when bad behaviour goes unchecked for too long, or if leaders refuse to confront it, people will leave your organisation. They will often be good people, who want to do a good job, but feel that in the current environment, they are unable to.

What you will be left with are the people who don’t want to rock the boat and are happy with mediocrity.

By |2018-07-21T13:51:56+00:00June 3rd, 2016|Organisational Culture|


  1. Stefan December 24, 2017 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    Best article on the topic of dysfunctional teams I’ve read after reading about a dozen or more.
    If you’re looking for some explanation as to why you are feeling burnt out and trying to to decide if you should find another team or organisation, this is an excellent resource. It will help stop you blaming yourself if you are an A type personality and go a long way to help you understand why you are feeling as you are. I was especially intrigued when the author mentioned how we would use our energy just to deal with people who are no longer really there, instead of applying energy to the work itself.

    • Ben Brearley December 24, 2017 at 2:50 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the comment Stefan, appreciate it. I have seen a lot of good people become downtrodden in toxic workplaces, and it can be hard to stop that downward spiral.

  2. […] Being resilient does not mean putting up with poor working conditions, bad leadership and a toxic workplace culture. […]

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