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Spoiler alert: Toxic workplaces aren’t just caused by ‘bad’ employees

October 14, 2020 | Strategy

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Peter Fleming, author of Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself, once wrote about a friend’s workplace turning toxic after draconian performance measures were imposed. Impersonal hierarchies multiplied and bullying became rife.

“Fear pervaded the atmosphere of the place. And then staff started to drop like flies, getting seriously ill,” he wrote.

We’ve probably worked in environments where the team dynamics were not always healthy. Often, workplaces like these suffered drops in engagement and efficiency. 

Troublingly, some “management experts” are recommending that companies fix the problem by focusing on individuals: Which employees are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their performance? If you have “toxic” employees – weed them out for dismissal.

This is a mistake.

By placing greater emphasis on the personalities of individuals, an organisation may miss the problems embedded in the management culture, systems and processes.

The reasons behind any perceived mediocre performance was likely to be much deeper.

Consider the whole

When companies focus on the impact of individual employees and ignore other factors, they risk missing fundamental structural issues.

Yes, individual performance and attitudes do contribute to an organisation’s output. However, it’s difficult to measure an individual’s performance against overall productivity – especially in a shared office or production environment. An organisation’s performance is usually dependent on other factors besides individual contributions.

A positive, smart and energetic workforce is not a cure-all either. It may mask major problems that suddenly emerge when “good” workers leave. 

As consultants, we had come across cases where good employees, frustrated that nothing was done to correct serious systemic problems, left. They were usually the ones picking up the slack. 

What causes toxic workplaces?

It is important to understand the factors shaping an organisation’s work culture before trying to determine the impact of a negative organisation culture. 

Some factors include: 

  • The organisation’s industry 
  • The organisation’s level of maturity or the stage of development 
  • The ownership structure and the management style – does the company have a promoter-driven or professional management style?
  • The organisation’s systems and processes 

A good example to illustrate this is how the work culture of a fresh start up in the technology space can be significantly different from that of an established steel manufacturing company. 

On the surface, neither work culture is necessarily good nor bad. However, certain elements can turn these workplaces toxic. So, due diligence is needed to ensure that this does not happen. 

For example, the freedom that employees enjoy in a start-up, when overdone, can result in a lack of direction and no sense of accountability. Similarly, if too many controls are enforced in the highly-structured workplace of an established organisation, it can inhibit employee potential, creativity and turn humans into robots. 

In both scenarios, the organisation’s performance is at stake. 

Toxic to thriving

Here’s a better and more balanced approach to improve workplace productivity and employee satisfaction: Focus on both collective and individual inputs. Give a fair and measured analysis of individual performances.

But first, a solid underlying framework of management systems and processes must be set in place.

In our experience, when the right set-up is in place, managers can better focus on employees whose contributions fall short of expectations and give them the support they need to improve.

Here’s how you can set up the right foundation for a healthy workplace: 

1. Put the right management systems in place

When right management systems are in place, employees will be able to excel at their jobs. This creates a positive environment where workers can realise their potential while ensuring that factors such as compensation and performance incentives are addressed. 

2. Create an environment of contribution

Strong performers can have a strong impact on a team’s overall performance. However, it’s not wise to over-rely on the skills of a few individuals – it can create an undesirable imbalance of power. Instead, give every team member defined responsibilities. That way, they can showcase their skills without getting overshadowed. 

Also, a team where everyone readily agrees to a view without much debate or deliberation is more likely to end up struggling. A healthy amount of conflict, without being overly confrontational, is always a welcome team dynamic. 

To create such an environment, leaders must encourage individual participation. 

3. Empower employees with the right tools to succeed

Most organisations have no trouble ensuring that a person’s qualifications, experience and strengths will be the right fit for a department. However, organisations that provide the tools and training to enable employees to succeed in their aspirations will be ahead of the pack.


Before putting the blame on individuals, it’s critical for organisations to perform a thorough analysis of their operations. Only then can they create solid management systems and processes that they need to prosper.

The key is to focus on creating and maintaining operations that will create an environment that can support increased efficiency and a happier, more productive workforce.

If you believe that your organisation can do better, contact us to do a thorough analysis of your operations that will help you build the foundation to succeed.

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