Most employees say their workplaces are ‘toxic.’ What if you’re the toxic one?

March 7, 2023, 11:34 AM UTC
Even if you’re not the most toxic boss at your company, you may be protecting or enabling someone who is.
Getty Images

You’ve heard it before: Nearly 80% of Americans consider themselves an “above average” driver–and fewer than 1% consider themselves “worse than average.” The same holds true for the workplace: We all love to complain about toxic bosses and coworkers–but we never want to think we might be the problem.

And yet, many of us clearly are. Our recent poll found that 64% of respondents have experienced a toxic work environment–and 44% blamed leadership. Not just their direct manager, but the entire leadership team.

Respondents defined a toxic workplace as one that was disrespectful (55%), abusive (34%), non-inclusive (30%), unethical (29%), or cutthroat (21%). Female respondents were most likely to report toxic experiences, compared with males or people who are nonbinary. White respondents were 10% more likely to say they’ve been able to move on from a toxic job, compared with Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, and other respondents of color. Leadership was most often to blame over direct managers, coworkers, or one’s team–and respondents also identified leadership and management training as the top way to fix toxic work situations.

Even if you’re not the most toxic boss at your company, you may be protecting or enabling someone who is.

When I founded The Muse in 2011, my goal was to create a values-based job search platform that created better matches between individuals and companies based on people’s unique needs, preferences, and priorities. But it was also to elevate great workplaces and cultures so that more of us could actually enjoy where we work, which helps employers as well.

Take a good hard look at yourself–and watch out for these six signs. You might be the toxic one.

You always speak first

As a leader, you’re often the one starting meetings and are in control of their cadence. Reflect on how these meetings usually go. When you solicit ideas, do you often find yourself needing to urgently share what you have in mind first, or wanting to jump in when someone speaks because they reminded you of something important?

Toxic managers stay within their own brain bubble and often fail to give others a chance to add perspective and enrich the conversation. They also might lead with big declarative, black-and-white statements that leave little room for others to disagree or provide alternate perspectives, or quickly shut down dissent–for example, by using “Why are you being so defensive?” to shut down legitimate pushback.

You can start to fix this trait by listening and asking questions before you speak. Try a listening tour to kick this off: Sit down with people, ask them questions, and really process what they have to say (taking notes is encouraged). You can even repeat what you’re hearing back to them, to make sure you’re on the same page. As a single individual, there’s no way you can gather as much data personally as you can by leaning on your broader team. You’ll learn, they’ll feel heard, and that will go far.

You find yourself constantly checking in

How many times do you check in with your reports in a day? Do they have a chance to decide how to accomplish their goals, or proactively update you on their progress? Or are you certain they won’t think to do so on their own, or suspicious that they’re not even working, so you can’t help but check in, just to make sure you’re covering your bases?

There’s a term for that, and you’ve probably heard of it before: micromanaging. When workers feel a sense of autonomy, they have a chance to breathe, plan, execute, and review their own work. They’ll naturally take more pride in their responsibilities, and in getting their work done. It’s important to make deadlines clear and keep folks accountable for them, but you may surprise yourself by simply backing off.

Your reports have very specific tasks

Have your reports been doing the same thing, day in and day out, for months or even years? This isn’t giving them a chance to grow and develop, an opportunity you were once given that led you to where you are today.

Part of your job as a manager is to lead the next generation at your company. Insecure managers try to keep their reports down a notch, so they can maintain a sense of security in their own position at the company.

Think about it this way: If you can bring them up to your level, then you’re freed up to move to the next level. If you don’t know how to do this on your own, consider asking for management training, or finding an executive coach who can give you direction.

You act differently around your team v. your own boss

This could look like a more demanding or aggressive tone toward your team, even on Slack, that morphs into an upbeat, impeccably polite demeanor when your boss comes into the room (virtually or IRL).

Ask yourself, why is that? Remind yourself that you’re all on the same team working toward the same goals. How would you talk to your team if your boss was in the room with you? Even if you’re genuinely trying to motivate your team to accomplish something, simply imagining that someone you want to impress is present can help you articulate yourself more positively.

Studies have consistently shown that fear-based leadership is less effective than we think. Turn it down a notch and try genuinely motivating your team for a change.

You often find yourself wanting to put people in their place

You may have that urge to roll up your sleeves and rage type so that you’re literally showing them who’s boss. Stop to ask yourself, where is that instinct coming from? It may draw from your own insecurities as a leader, or from feeling in the past like you weren’t taken seriously. Projecting those feelings onto other people will only reinforce the same toxic environment you were once trying to escape.

Fight your urge to shut conversations down with the last word, and instead try open-ended questions like, “What’s the thinking behind X? Or, What’s the best way to move forward from here?”

You often change expectations

You’ve probably been to a workout class where the instructor says you have just 30 seconds left, or five more reps–and then they get a glint in their eyes and go, “OK, now just 10 more seconds! You can do it!” Imagine if that happened to you every single day of the week. You’d probably lose trust in your instructor. The same goes for an environment where you’re constantly moving the goalpost. Even if you’re keen to move on to the next quarter once the present one closes, pause–and take time to congratulate people on their work.

The human brain is hardwired to think we aren’t the problem, but statistically, that’s often not true. Leading and managing is hard, and everyone benefits when leaders take the time to step back and assess their own behaviors.

Instead of leaning into your worst impulses, try a different approach: one that is self-aware, transparent, empathetic, shows up with integrity, treats people with respect, and is genuinely interested in the personal development of others.

Kathryn Minshew is the founder and CEO of The Muse.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion