Tessa West, psychology professor and author of “Jerks at Work,” writes about toxic workplace behaviors and their ripple effects on employee well-being and organizational health.

Toxic behavior in the workplace is contagious, spreading insidiously through teams and departments much like a virus. Once it takes root, it can quickly become part of the organizational culture, with the potential to lower morale, reduce productivity, and ultimately lead to higher turnover rates. During a recent conversation with Jacqueline Brassey, a leader at the McKinsey Health Institute, West discussed the disturbing findings of an MHI study. This study revealed a troubling statistic: one in four employees globally experiences toxic behavior at work, ranging from overt hostility to subtle undermining. Some employees suffer in silence, others lash out in frustration, and many simply leave, seeking respite from an environment where they feel powerless.

In high-pressure situations, where deadlines are relentless and the pace of work is unyielding, West notes that our capacity to handle interpersonal strife plummets. Stressed and overworked, employees find themselves in a precarious position where they are more likely to either contribute to or be affected by toxicity. Leaders, burdened with their own pressures, may fail to notice the havoc this wreaks on team dynamics.

Addressing this pervasive issue requires a multifaceted approach. West and Brassey emphasize the importance of being proactive rather than reactive. For those navigating these choppy waters, here are some strategies to foster a healthier workplace:

  • Enhance Communication: Encourage open and specific conversations about behavior and expectations. Leaders should regularly check in with their teams, not with generic inquiries like “How’s everything going?” but with targeted questions that invite honest feedback. “How did you like the amount of feedback I gave you on that last report you wrote?”
  • Foster Awareness and Adaptability: Develop training programs that help employees and managers recognize signs of toxic behavior and learn adaptive strategies to handle stress and conflict more effectively.
  • Create a Supportive Environment: Cultivate an organizational culture that values transparency and respect. This involves not only addressing toxicity when it arises but also actively working to prevent it by nurturing positive behaviors.
  • Empower Employees: Encourage individuals at all levels to speak up about their experiences with toxic behavior as soon as they arise. Provide them with the tools and support they need to express their concerns without fear of retribution. 
  • Expand Social Networks: Promote broader interpersonal connections within the company. This helps employees gain a more comprehensive understanding of the workplace dynamics and can dilute the effects of toxic clusters.
  • Lead by Example: Leaders should model the behavior they expect to see in their teams. By demonstrating emotional intelligence and addressing their own behavior, leaders can set a powerful precedent for positive interactions.

Through these concerted efforts, organizations can not only address the symptoms of toxicity but can begin to cure the underlying disease.