top of page

The 3 Elements of A Toxic Workplace

This article was based on episode 139 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get access to The Motivating By Appreciation Inventory for FREE when you become a member at

When does a colleague cross the line from being “annoying” to “toxic”? And at what point does a workplace become so toxic that we should consider leaving? A few months ago, psychologist and international leadership trainer Paul White joined me in episode 99 of The Modern Manager to talk about the importance of appreciation in the workplace. While appreciation is at the center of Paul’s work, he finds that every time he speaks about appreciation, hordes of people come up to him afterwards to complain about unhealthy, damaging work environments. This led Paul to conduct research on employees’ negative experiences at work. He found three major components of a toxic work environment; toxic systems, toxic leaders, and dysfunctional colleagues. Here, Paul explains each of these elements and offers ways to protect ourselves from their harm.


Workplaces, especially large ones, become toxic predominantly because of poor communication habits. Specifically, toxic communication patterns show up as indirect communication. For example, employees might sneak around their direct supervisor to accomplish a task because they fear she won’t approve. Or, they might complain to a colleague about their coworkers rather than addressing problems head on.

Additionally, poor communication arises from lack of clarity. Breakdowns in communication happen in the decision-making processes when employees are unclear of the final decisions, expectations for outcomes, or who they are supposed to report to on a structural level. To clear this up, Paul advocates that managers run through a series of questions after team meetings when communication breakdowns commonly occur. Paul asserts that by addressing these questions, 80-90% of team meeting problems could be resolved.

Ask Your Team:

  • Did we make a decision? What is it?

  • Are we the right people to be making this decision? Do we need to include anyone else before this decision is final?

  • Who is responsible to see that the next step is done?

  • When is that step going to happen?

  • How are we going to know that it's happening?

If you find your team suffers from a toxic system, consider investing in developing the skills, as individuals and as a team, to address conflict and navigate difficult conversations constructively.


Toxic leaders may be hard to spot at first. They are often extremely competent, talented, and charming. It is these characteristics that contributed to their rise to a leadership position in the first place which also mask their toxic behavior. Early on, toxic leaders often look good because they sell well. Warning signs, however, start to appear when what they say doesn’t match up with their actions. Toxic leaders, many being narcissistic, only have their own benefits in mind. They are “toxic achievers” who get a lot done, but harm everybody around them while doing it. They manipulate people like resources to accomplish tasks, and control and distort information. If a toxic leader feels that an employee is disloyal or not helpful in fulfilling their goals, the employee’s job is in jeopardy. Toxic leaders tend to have early warning systems; they know when the organization is going downhill and they leave before things blow up.

So what do you do if you’re stuck with a toxic leader? Paul offers a few recommendations to help take care of yourself.

Dealing With A Toxic Leader

  1. Find a sounding board. Toxic leaders spin webs of lies that can leave you feeling confused. Find somebody you trust–the person doesn’t need to be within your organization–to process and unload your emotional stress.

  2. Keep doing your job. It’s easy fixate on trying to get the person fired or changing the situation. If you center most of your energy around dealing with a toxic person, you end up looking like the bad guy who isn’t getting work done. Instead, focus on getting the work done and staying sane.

  3. Document information. Send emails after meetings to confirm you got the correct information on the decisions made and what was expected of you. While it might not stop them from saying something different going forward, it at least provides concrete evidence that you were following their direction.

To help identify and eliminate toxic leaders from your organization, include annual performance metrics that address not results, but also collaborative work style and communication effectiveness.


Paul refers to toxic colleagues as “dysfunctional employees” who often have chronic functioning problems in life. These patterns may be chronic financial issues, repetitive relationship breaks, drug abuse, or anger issues. Dysfunctional people tend to blame others and make excuses rather than accept responsibility. They are typically image-focused and obsess about looking successful. They are masters of indirect communication and rarely tell the whole truth. They also make others feel responsible for their actions. They may call on their colleagues to rescue them from projects they couldn’t finish. They spend most of their energy building up their image rather than on doing good work. After a while, just like with toxic leaders, it becomes clear that their words and their actions just aren’t matching up.

Dealing With A Dysfunctional Colleague

In order to deal with a dysfunctional coworker, you need to both set boundaries and document well. Make clear that even though you were happy to help out in the past, you won’t be able to help out like that regularly. Be cautious; toxic colleagues will try to push your boundaries and make you carry more of their weight. If a toxic colleague fails to complete their work, make sure to document what work you put into the project and what the expectations were so that you aren’t held responsible for their failures.

When To Bring Issues To Your Boss

As uncomfortable as it sounds, consider having an open conversation with your boss. Explain what happened with your toxic colleague in the last project. In addition to sharing your experience, ask your supervisor for advice in helping to solve the problem. Framing the problem as an assertive “I” statement rather than an emotional rant. For example, “I’m struggling to get my colleague to do their share of the report and as a result, I’m working past midnight multiple nights in a row to ensure the report is finished on time. This is the third time in the past two months that this has happened.” This clearly displays the behavior of your toxic colleague but also minimizes any sense that you are “ratting out” a colleague or creating a sense of blame.

Be sure to document the colleague’s toxic behavior so you have detailed information to provide your supervisor. Allowing your supervisor the space to see the concrete data and draw her own conclusions is key.


Sometimes, a situation at work becomes so toxic that you need to leave. If you’re having trouble sleeping or experiencing emotional and/or medical problems related to work, that might be an indication that it’s time to consider a departure. Paul advises not to try to outwit a toxic leader or colleague; they have an incredible amount of energy to outlast the coworkers they are pushing down. In addition, don’t try to be heroic and “go down with the ship”; Paul has seen many employees try to “save” their organization. In the end, it’s the removal of toxic leaders and employees that will make the difference, not whether or not you stay.

Getting work done during COVID19 is challenging enough. Add in a dysfunctional employee or a toxic leader, and stress levels can go through the roof. If you find yourself working with a toxic colleague, take steps to control the situation and protect yourself. With clear communication, extensive documentation, emotional support, and a willingness to prioritize your own wellbeing, you can function, and possibly even thrive, despite toxicity in the environment.


Get access to The Motivating By Appreciation Inventory for FREE when you become a memberr at Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

This article was based onepisode 139 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify,iHeart Radio,Amazon, and Stitcher.


Recent Posts

See All



When you subscribe to my email list, you'll be notified when new blog posts are released.

bottom of page