How to recognize and detoxify a culture affected by workplace negativity

how to recognize and detoxify a culture affected by workplace negativity
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Diya is a junior marketer at a small marketing company. 

During work hours, her colleagues shift blame to her, stack sudden responsibilities on her, and openly mock her choice of clothing.

Every night after work, Diya gets home – usually with a headache – and counts the hours she has until she has to go back.

She also usually checks job listings online.

Diya is experiencing intense workplace negativity, and she isn’t alone. A recent study found 87% of employees have experienced a workplace where a negative atmosphere made it difficult to work or progress in their job.[1]

Workplace negativity is a much bigger problem than many companies think, and if a negative workplace is left unaddressed, it can cause burnout, disengagement, and massive employee turnover.

In this blog, we discuss the effects, signs, and causes of workplace negativity and what your HR department can do to overcome it.

What is workplace negativity?

Workplace negativity is when your company’s work atmosphere is discouraging, toxic, and harmful. This can range from eye rolls and complaints to full-on harassment.

Negativity in the workplace can be a massive detriment to your company because of its effect on employee morale, productivity, and retention. 

This toxic atmosphere not only brings your employees down, but it also spreads – if a worker sees rampant negativity, they may start to act negatively, too.

Examples of negative behavior in the workplace

Negative behavior in the workplace comes in many varieties, from snappy comments to screaming and abuse.

The larger forms of workplace negativity are obviously the worst, but even small toxic comments can make employees dread going to work.

To give you an idea of what to look for, here are a handful of examples of negative behavior in the workplace:

Employee

Negativity example

Brad, 29-year-old account executive

Brad shoots down a colleague who is proud of an achievement, telling them they’re just “trying to make everyone look bad”

Fatima, 35-year-old web designer

Fatima groans and rolls her eyes at every meeting, claiming this project is too hard and the client is “impossible”

Jaden, 22-year-old customer service representative

Jaden never takes accountability, shifts blame, and consistently makes excuses for every mistake

Dima, 41-year-old content publisher

Dima frequently completes tasks that aren’t his due to a lack of trust and because he simply “doesn’t like” one member of the team

And here’s an unfortunate real-life example: Bill Murphy stayed at his new job for a surprising one day because of a poor work culture.

The people weren’t overly aggressive, but the company had a dreary, negative atmosphere. Bill says it was “sad” and “oppressive” when every employee announced how long they had until retirement during orientation.

A negative workplace culture has far-reaching effects. Even if an organization’s culture isn’t outright abusive, negativity can sour moods and cause turnover.

Why is negativity in the workplace harmful?

Let’s cover the main ways workplace negativity impacts your organization. 

Toxic behavior affects employees and employers, so we’ll take a look at each party.

To employees

A negative workplace culture impacts employees in many ways, but these are the key areas:

  • Workplace trauma: Workplace trauma is an emotional response to work events and can lead to anxiety, depression, and poor mental health. Note that this is different from external trauma.

  • Decreased teamwork and morale: Workplace negativity causes employees to feel a disconnect from their job, causing a major hit to teamwork and morale.

  • Decreased engagement and burnout: A negative culture in the workplace is a leading cause of employee burnout and disengagement. Many employees simply can’t handle the negativity and “shut off.”

Toxic negativity in the workplace hurts your people, affects their performance, and ultimately leads to them leaving.

And even if the employees remain, they could be burnt out and suffering.

To employers

Workplace negativity is a detriment to your company as a whole:

  • Decreased productivity: A negative workplace culture has been shown to mentally fatigue employees and decrease overall productivity.[1]

  • Quick quitting: Quick quitting is when an employee quits a company before they’ve been there for a year. The main cause of quick quitting is a negative workplace because increasingly more employees are prioritizing their wellbeing.

  • Quiet quitting and quiet firing: Both quiet quitting and quiet firing involve doing the bare minimum at one’s job, usually to cope with a negative atmosphere.

  • Brand company image and a damaged culture: Workplace negativity is a huge red flag for potential employees, and organizations with notoriously toxic cultures have a poor brand image.

  • Increased turnover: This is one of the biggest detriments of a negative culture in the workplace. Toxic environments drive employees out the door.

Let’s discuss that last point in-depth due to its importance.

According to a study by MIT Sloan, a toxic culture is the number-one driver of attrition, ranking 10.4 times higher than compensation issues.

A separate report found workers who rate their work culture poorly are 24% more likely to leave than the average employee.

Workplace negativity causes a massive amount of turnover. One study estimated that US businesses lose $3bn per year due to the turnover and absences caused by workplace negativity.[2]

Signs of a negative workplace culture

signs of a negative workplace culture

So how do you spot negativity in the workplace before it gets out of hand?

The effects of negativity permeate the workplace, so let’s take a look at the tell-tale signs:

Sign

Description

Decreased productivity

Employees are getting things done late, their task output is lower, or they’re logged on at odd hours

Unhelpful criticism

Employees give each other snappy, negative feedback that isn’t applicable or actionable

Frequent complaining and moaning

Employees complain often, making others uncomfortable and creating a negative atmosphere

Low employee engagement

Employees are less engaged, attending fewer non-mandatory events, and don’t show an interest in being a part of the team

Excuses and blame games

Employees show low accountability, pushing problems off on others instead of taking responsibility

Yelling and screaming

Employees get in heated conflicts often and don’t practice healthy conflict resolution

Negative workplace gossip

Employees engage in gossip often, talking about others behind their backs and forming exclusive groups

Unclear job roles and boundaries

Employees do each other’s tasks, either because of a lack of clarity or because of a lack of trust

Bored employees

Employees

lack morale

and spend a lot of time spaced out or on social media

These signs show two main things:

  1. Employees are doing whatever is necessary to get by due to toxicity

  2. Employees are perpetuating negative workplace culture because it isn’t challenged

Whether your workers are surviving the negativity or reinforcing it, something needs to be done.

Causes of a negative attitude in the workplace

It’s time to examine the root causes of workplace negativity. Let’s figure out what’s going on and why your employees are showing negative behavior in the office.

Here are the top causes of negativity in the workplace:

  • A loss of workplace flexibility or autonomy: Modern workers demand flexible schedules, so lacking one can be a source of frustration. This is especially an issue when a flexible or remote work schedule was suddenly taken away (like when pandemic restrictions were relaxed).

  • Burned-out employees: Employee burnout can cause anxiety, listlessness, depression, and a generally negative attitude. This not only impacts the employee in question but their team members, too.[3]

  • Excessive workloads or unrealistic deadlines: Overwhelming workloads can cause high amounts of stress and anxiety. One report found 41% of workers cite their workload as the top cause of stress in the workplace, making it the top reported reason.

  • Feeling misunderstood, unrecognized, or unvalued: Recognition is crucial to an employee’s performance and attitude, and lacking it causes negativity and a toxic attitude.

  • Poor compensation or benefits: Workers are doing this job to take care of their livelihood (and possibly dependents), so poor compensation can negatively affect their work.

  • Personal issues: Outside stressors can cause stress and anger, and even employees that try their hardest could have external factors affect their work. 

  • Negative employees: According to MIT Sloan’s recent report, three of the five main causes of a toxic workplace are cultures that are disrespectful, cutthroat, and abusive – which points back to negative employees.[4]

  • Poor leadership: How leadership enforces culture and handles events matters to employees. If senior leadership doesn’t support a healthy culture, it instills a loss of confidence in their leaders.

  • Unresolved conflict: Conflict can’t always be avoided, but ignoring it only causes lingering anger and hurt.

  • Lacking upskilling and development opportunities: A desire for career growth is one of the main drivers of the Great Reshuffle, and modern employees may grow restless and negative without learning opportunities.

  • Perceived unfairness: Inclusivity is crucial in modern companies, and if employees believe others get preferential treatment, it can lead to bitterness.

  • People being left out of decisions that directly affect their work: Employees want work autonomy, and having a lack of control is frustrating. 

These hurt your work environment, but there are ways to avoid these issues and promote a healthy, happy work culture.

9 ways to overcome workplace negativity and instill a positive, inclusive culture

Minimizing workplace negativity should be a priority, and there are actionable steps you can take to promote a positive culture and improve your organizational health and wellness.

The top ways to overcome workplace negativity: A summary table

Strategy

Description

Identify the root causes

Ask your employees through surveys and 1:1s to discover the underlying causes

Listen to your employees and take action based on their feedback

Act on your employees’ feedback to quash negativity and to make them feel valued

Address negative employees privately and directly

Delve into why negative employees do what they do and see if you can help

Give employees more control over their jobs and schedule

Grant employees more autonomy and flexibility through flexible working arrangements

Promote employee and peer-to-peer recognition

Build a culture where recognition and praise are more common than bitter comments and criticism

Invest in development and training for staff

Show your employees you value them by offering career growth opportunities

Encourage non-violent communication and open-door workplace policies

Create a psychologically safe workplace where employees feel free to ask questions and make mistakes

Create a transparent, inclusive, and fair environment

Promote inclusivity and ensure all employees are treated equally

Hire employees who value positivity and are motivated to get the job done

Recruit new employees with skills tests to make sure they promote a positive culture

1. Identify the root causes

You can’t fix negativity in the workplace if you don’t know the underlying causes.

Here are a few ways to find the underlying cause:

  1. Talk to employees during 1:1s

  2. Send out pulse surveys

  3. Use feedback channels like a dedicated Slack channel

3 ways to find the underlying cause to fix negativity in the workplace

Communicating with your people through direct discussions or surveys helps you discover the source of workplace negativity. And it’s imperative to find out if the negativity stems from certain individuals or the entire team.

This tells you if it’s simply a problematic employee or if it’s an issue of widespread negativity and a toxic culture. This is linked to the concept that an individual can’t make a team, but an individual can break a team.

Encouraging your employees to communicate not only helps you identify the cause of a toxic culture, but it also promotes a culture where employees share their experiences and aren’t afraid of speaking out about negative events.

2. Listen to your employees and take action based on their feedback

Once you start to hear from your employees and identify the cause of workplace negativity, it’s important to take action based on their feedback.

Employees want their voices to be heard, so pay attention. When you take action on feedback, it boosts positivity in two ways:

  1. The act itself combats negativity (i.e., the feedback was that a colleague was harassing the employee, so talking to the colleague helps spread positivity).

  2. Listening to employee feedback is a positive act that improves your company culture.

Taking feedback seriously instills a powerful trust in your company. This act makes employees feel valued and heard.

At the same time, it helps you gradually combat negativity, taking steps to address poor behaviors as they arise rather than react once everything is worse.

3. Address negative employees privately and directly 

So you’ve received overwhelming feedback on a particular employee. They’re definitely causing a stir and stressing out their colleagues.

How do you approach the situation?

Speak to negative employees personally and try your best to understand their motives.

Take the time to privately check in with these employees in 1:1 meetings and ask them why they behave the way they do. Give them a chance to explain, listen, and be eager to help where you can.

The underlying cause of negativity is often innocent, such as poor working conditions, unreasonable deadlines, someone else being negative to them, or even personal problems like financial issues or health problems.

Regular 1:1 meetings aren’t only an excellent part of a coaching program to help employees overcome negativity – they’re also a healthy practice to boost open communication and employee growth.

4. Give employees more control over their jobs and schedule

Modern employees want flexible work. 

Flexibility is one of the biggest drivers of the Great Reshuffle, and countless employees are shuffling from company to company searching for flexibility in when and where they work.

Many workers are simply happier with higher autonomy, but flexibility doesn’t just improve workplace negativity because of the autonomy it gives employees. It also provides schedule flexibility to people who need it to work at their best.

For example, burnout and exhaustion can cause workplace negativity when employees are trying to work a standard 9 to 5 after being up all night with a sleepless child.

Certain people don’t just benefit from flexible work – they need it to perform their best and stay happy and healthy.

For more insights, read our full guide on how to adopt a flexible working policy.

5. Promote employee and peer-to-peer recognition

It may seem simple, but one of the most powerful ways to decrease negativity is to promote positivity.

Encourage a culture of employee gratitude and praise instead of only negative interactions, and workplace negativity is naturally minimized. It’s telling that recognition is the top driver of hard work, ranking higher than autonomy or extra pay.

Too many teams run on pure “constructive” criticism and no positive reinforcement. This is problematic for two main reasons:

  1. Employees need recognition and praise for proper growth and motivation 

  2. Many teams simply criticize and bring workers down and write it off as constructive – even when it isn’t

That last point is problematic, and many employees hide behind a mask of “helping” others when they’re actually bringing them down.

You can promote more positive recognition when you build a culture where praise is natural between peers. To learn more, read our article on peer-to-peer recognition.

6. Invest in development and training for staff

Upskilling and reskilling are crucial to keeping employees happy and reducing workplace negativity. Many employees face stress and attitude issues because they feel like they’re stuck in a rut.

Career growth is important to every employee, regardless of their role or rank. It’s an essential part of the modern working world and a big “must-have” for countless workers.

One study by Lever found 31% of employees would take a pay cut to take on a new role they were more satisfied with. A further 61% would begin job hunting if their company didn’t help them start a new role.

investing in development and training is crucial to retain talent

Learning and development opportunities show staff they’re valued. Professional growth opportunities tell them you see a future for them louder than any speech.

You can help your employees get started by working with them to create a professional development plan. These documents describe a worker’s goals, the skills they need to attain them, and possible resources and strategies to help them.

7. Encourage non-violent communication and open-door policies

A safe culture is one of the most important pieces in a healthy, positive work environment.

Build a culture where employees feel safe to speak, make mistakes, and take risks. This act alone nurtures a positive, encouraging culture.

This is also known as having psychological safety in the workplace. 

Employees should feel comfortable trying new things, innovating, and asking questions. When employees don’t feel this freedom, it doesn’t just increase toxic negativity in the workplace. It also decreases innovation and creativity.

No one wants to speak their mind when they know they’ll be penalized for it.

It’s also important so employees don’t fear conflict. Conflict happens – it isn’t the end of the world. Workers need to know they can safely resolve conflict and become more experienced.

8. Create a transparent, inclusive, and fair environment

Many negative feelings arise when employees believe their peers are treated differently than them. It can even lead to specific rivalries or targeted negativity.

According to MIT Sloan’s recent report, non-inclusivity was one of the top five main causes of a toxic workplace, including gender inequity, age inequity, racial inequity, and nepotism.

It’s crucial to create a fair workplace environment in hiring, training, resource allocation, and promotions to truly have a harmonious work culture.

One way to nurture a fair environment is by adopting skills-based hiring, which creates a fair environment with the best candidate for the role chosen. 

This affects the hire and also their colleagues, who know they work for a company that uses fair hiring practices and doesn’t rely on connections or pedigree.

Employees need to know their employer is inclusive and doesn’t show favoritism.

9. Hire employees who value positivity and are motivated to get the job done

One way to create a positive culture is by building it candidate by candidate.

Hiring people using personality and culture tests enables you to recruit positive, empathetic people who help your culture flourish.

Using tests like our Culture Add test helps you find the candidate with the best culture add potential.

What’s culture add? It’s when a candidate holds similar values to your organization’s but isn’t expected to perfectly fit in. For more information, read our blog on culture add vs. culture fit.

Building a culture this way is a gradual process, but eventually, you can create a strong, thriving team by hiring people for their personalities and cultural values.

This is our top method to slowly hire fewer “insufferable geniuses” into your company. Using personality tests enables you to discover an asshole genius before they damage your organization.

Decrease workplace negativity with a skills-based approach

The bottom line is that negativity in the workplace is a detriment with many unfortunate outcomes, but if you take the right approach, you can handle it.

Take action to address and eliminate a toxic culture, and you’ll reap the benefits of a healthy company. Adopt regular 1:1 meetings, promote frequent recognition, and hire positive employees with personality and culture tests.

If you want to continue learning about workplace positivity, check out our guide on how to create a positive workplace culture.

To assess your next candidate’s worldview and core beliefs, use our Enneagram test in your next pre-employment assessment.

Sources

  1. “Workplace negativity can hurt productivity”. (February 25, 2015). Science Daily. Retrieved April 4, 2023. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150225094315.htm

  2. Menon, Archana S; Priyadarshini, R.G. (2018). “A study on the effect of workplace negativity factors on employee engagement mediated by emotional exhaustion”. IOP Science. Retrieved April 4, 2023. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1757-899X/390/1/012027/pdf

  3. Papathanasiou, Ioanna V. (February 22, 2015). “Work-related Mental Consequences: Implications of Burnout on Mental Health Status Among Health Care Providers”. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved April 4, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4384854/ 

  4. Sull, Donald, et al. (March 16, 2022). “Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture”. MITSloan. Retrieved April 4, 2023. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-every-leader-needs-to-worry-about-toxic-culture/

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