5 Major Signs of a Toxic Work Culture

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Dare to Lead" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What causes a toxic work culture? What are the signs of a toxic workplace?

A work environment that doesn’t allow employees to face their vulnerabilities and is defined by lack of trust and ineffective communication will inevitably lead to a toxic work culture. Employees in a toxic workplace will resort to cynicism, criticism, and a kill-or-be-killed mentality as defensive measures to keep others at a distance.

Read on to learn more about the signs of a toxic work culture and how to combat them.

Signs of a Toxic Work Culture

A toxic work culture will pit team members against one another—in these environments, any show of vulnerability is seen as failure. This mentality is toxic to innovative settings because it’s void of meaningful collaboration and self-improvement, instead focused on gaining approval.

Brave leaders combat this behavior by rewarding those who show vulnerability and collaborate, not compete, with others. You can accomplish this by identifying team members who ask for feedback on their ideas, ask for help from others, and are transparent about their mistakes. Reward these team members with recognition for their commitment to self-improvement—meaningful recognition depends on the team member, but it can look like a shoutout at a meeting, a promotion, or a shift in focus onto more meaningful projects.

Cynicism and Sarcasm

In response to negative emotions, team members might put up a snide, detached, or suspicious front that lets them avoid engagement with these feelings or with other people. This approach of cynicism and sarcasm usually turns work relationships sour, because it stirs up feelings of anger, resentment, and confusion. Other people might distrust them—“What does she really mean when she’s saying ‘great work’?”—or they might become distrusting of others—“My colleague is purposely slowing down this project to make me look bad.” 

Brave leaders combat this behavior by rewarding clear communication while refusing to allow or engage with cynicism or sarcasm. With the knowledge that team members usually resort to cynicism and sarcasm when they’re hiding feelings like fear or inadequacy, you can open up an honest conversation with them about the difficult emotions they’re dealing with.


Team members who feel inadequate or afraid often criticize others as a way to shift negative attention from themselves onto someone else. Unmitigated criticism is one of the most inhibitive consequences of a toxic work culture, because the fear of backlash or ridicule stops team members from contributing ideas or breaking the status quo.

When trying to weed criticism out of your organization, you need to listen carefully—criticism isn’t always obvious. There are two ways that people veil criticism in a toxic work culture: clinging to the past and the royal “we.”

  • Clinging to the past usually sounds like, “We’ve always done it this way.” Mentioning how things have always been done doesn’t sound like criticism, but it still expresses that an idea isn’t worth thinking about. 
  • The royal “we” presents the opinion of an unknown majority, such as, “We don’t think that’s the right strategy for this project.” By pretending that their comment is the opinion of everyone, the critic escapes the pressure of having to expose his own opinion to feedback.

Brave leaders combat this behavior by counterbalancing criticism with contribution. You can easily achieve a healthy contribution and criticism balance by establishing a new policy stating that team members can’t criticize without offering their own point of view or idea.

Abuse of Power Dynamics

Power is not inherently dangerous, but it becomes dangerous when it’s used to protect a higher-ranked minority while disadvantaging the majority. This protection of the minority causes resentment and resistance among the majority leading to a toxic work culture. Yet, the cycle never breaks—as members of the disadvantaged minority are promoted to higher levels of power, they begin to feel that they have more value than those at the bottom. They choose to abuse their power to benefit themselves and their perceived higher value.

Brave leadership combats this behavior by reassuring their team members that they all have power, at any level. This stops the abuse of power at higher levels, because people aren’t given the idea that they’re somehow more valuable. It also calms the resentment at lower levels, because people are no longer being disadvantaged by abuse of power, and understand their agency and value in organization. This can be accomplished by reminding team members at all levels that they possess three types of power: power with, power to, and power within

  • Power with: Team members are reminded of the larger purpose of their work, which pushes them to support one another and collaborate in order to maximize their collective power.
  • Power to: Team members are given the freedom and power to exercise their skills and knowledge as they see fit.
  • Power within: Team members are reminded of their unique value and power, and are subsequently able to appreciate the skills and knowledge of others without feeling threatened.

Refusing to Celebrate Achievements 

Joy is wonderful to have, but it can be lost at any moment. Because of joy’s vulnerability, we can feel vaguely threatened by it, and respond by refusing to engage with it—thinking that doing so will protect us from inevitable disappointment or hurt. Refusal to engage with joy usually shows up in two different ways in the workplace:

  • Teams hesitate to celebrate their accomplishments or take a breather before moving on to their next challenge. There’s a fear that the moment they let their guard down, something bad will happen. 
  • Leaders hold back from giving positive recognition to their team members for a job well done. They fear that praise might be misunderstood as permission to stop striving for improvement.

If your team members never have the opportunity to rest or feel pride in their work, they will quickly become burned out, which leads to a toxic work culture. 

Brave leaders combat this behavior by acknowledging that something bad might happen or their employees may stop striving, and then choosing to celebrate the achievements of their team anyway. When you recognize your team members’ efforts and achievements regularly and sincerely, they usually don’t become complacent. Instead, recognition increases their engagement and satisfaction with their work. 

(Shortform note: To learn more about how recognizing and celebrating your team’s “moments of pride” can boost their engagement and motivation, read our summary of The Power of Moments.)

5 Signs of a Toxic Work Culture & How to Tackle Them

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Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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