The Slippery Slope to a Toxic Work Environment

What is a Toxic Work Environment?


We hear about “Toxic Work Environments” all the time. In fact, in a recent survey by the ACTU, 49% of workers said they had experienced some level of it. We all relate to what it means – life is less certain, less productive, more stressful. Nastier.

But what IS a toxic work environment? When does a “stressful period”, or a “bad day”, turn into something endemic?


Sure, it includes occupational violence, bullying, abuse and harassment. While not all workplaces know HOW to stamp these behaviours out, but most would agree they are not acceptable, work hard to remove the perpetrators and punish the behaviours. At Dynamic Krav Maga we usually focus on these behaviours and how to help people avoid, deter and survive them.


But there is also a layer of behaviour which remains unacceptable, but is likely to be seen as more minor. It may go unnoticed. It may go unpunished. But it can have devastating long-term impacts for those that suffer it …. In part because it is so intangible. There are big overlaps here with gaslighting – causing the victim to distrust their own instincts or judgment about what is really going on.


Today we’re going to look at this form of behaviour, dubbed “Workplace Incivility”. Why? Because it is the slippery slope into a dangerous culture … deprive it of oxygen at the start, and you remove the chances of the beast growing. Condone it, and you will have an unhealthy, unproductive, unhappy place to do business.


What is "Workplace Incivility"?


Workplace Incivility is defined by McKinsey and Co as:

“the accumulation of thoughtless actions that leave employees feeling disrespected — intentionally ignored, undermined by colleagues, or publicly belittled by an insensitive manager.”

Situation 1: Excluding a co-worker

Whether it’s leaving someone out of the general lunch invitation, or ignoring their contributions in a meeting, excluding or ignoring an individual is an age-old punishment. It is on the cusp, because once it can be due to social awkwardness or accident; when repeated it becomes pointed and highly personal.


Situation 2: Cliques forming

Sometimes the situation extends to cliques – or “factions” forming. Instead of working as one team, there is a sense that different parts of the office are working against each other, or at least in competition with each other. There is probably gossip or rumours being circulated. This leads to huge amounts of wasted energy, communication breakdowns and misdirected effort.


Situation 3: Being belittled by an “insensitive” manager

Note the word insensitive here. We’re not talking deliberate put-downs, or open hostility. If it were, it would be more than incivility. It would be outright abuse of power.

Instead, we’re talking about the manager who lacks Emotional Intelligence and is attempting to blunder their way through leading people, without the personal awareness that requires. Someone who lacks the empathy to read people’s reactions, or even someone who is uncomfortably aware they are upsetting or embarrassing people, but without the skills to confront the situation or repair the damage. It might be allowing someone 2 weeks off to grieve a relative, but then berating them for not being back to 100% productivity by Week 4. It could be publicly questioning a doctor’s appointment. In other words, a manager who is painfully out of their depth.

Anything more than this failure to read and relate to the individual could only be seen as open bullying, given the power imbalance that exists between managers and their staff.


On ambiguous grounds – when does Thoughtless Disrespect turn into Intentional Harm?

McKinsey went on to define Workplace Incivility as:

“Low-intensity deviant behaviour with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect."

The key here is that this form of behaviour violates the norms for mutual respect. It throws the natural order off balance, and opens the door other unacceptable behaviour.


There is such a blurred line between “thoughtless disrespect” and intentional harm, that Workplace Incivility is a dangerous concept. It is very much the tip of the iceberg. And, like ice, it is a very slippery slope to much worse.


Is the term “Workplace Incivility” helpful? Isn’t this just bullying?

Well, frankly, yes – in an ideal world this is a form of bullying. But unfortunately many workplaces and organisations shy away from the term bullying and become highly defensive when it is used. They see it as an indictment of the organisation, rather than a complaint about the individual or their behaviour.


Introducing a less-loaded term, such as Workplace Incivility, can allow workforces to open a neutral discussion about poor behaviour without (initially) applying the bullying label. The benefit of doing this is that it can allow them to set lower barriers for interpreting when someone has crossed the line.


What harm does Workplace Incivility cause? and how?

The effects can be both psychological and, in the long term, physical. Once an individual feels disrespected, and comes to believe that that may be deliberate, it tends to result in depression, insomnia, anxiety, substance abuse and other health issues that result from these factors. It also impacts the productivity, absenteeism and loyalties of those experiencing it.


The chief mechanism causing these effects is negative rumination. That is, mentally replaying an event or disturbing interaction with a co-worker long after the workday has ended.

Workplace toxicity leads to adverse effects in part by stimulating people to ruminate on their negative work experiences. Negative rumination represents an active cognitive preoccupation with work events, either in an attempt to solve work problems or anticipate future work problems.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology report

For the Workplace, the many adverse effects include decreased productivity, lower levels of employee commitment and increased staff turnover. These in turn result in lower quality output, likely to be felt across the organisation and by its clients and suppliers.


How Individuals can cope with Workplace Incivility

Coping and healing mechanisms centre on practising relaxation and working on detaching psychologically.


Detachment can be helped by exercise, by planning social events, such as family gatherings and holidays, and becoming involved in activities outside the workplace.


Relaxation is tied up with prioritising work-life balance. Beneficial activities include volunteering, meditation, yoga, taking a walk, listening to music or taking up a hobby.


We spend the majority of our waking day at work, and it can easily take over our life. Making a commitment to spend more time with friends, family and other positive social supports is essential, for lessening the psychological presence of this toxic element outside of work. The aim is to reduce negative rumination - as far as possible, to shut off from it the moment you leave the office.


What Workplaces can do to stamp out Workplace Incivility

The key here is to lead proactively and send a strong message about what is acceptable and what isn’t. It is always easier to deal with threats to culture, like this one, before they become issues. Before they become personal.


There are any number of things employers can do to discover and stamp out workplace incivility. They include:

  1. Model appropriate behaviour at all times

  2. Raise awareness and demonstrate a Zero Tolerance Policy for workplace incivility behaviours, including with visual displays and training

  3. Include a definition of Workplace Incivility in HR and / or WHS policies and set consequences for breaches preemptively

  4. Work to create a culture where everyone understands their role, and everyone knows there is no such thing as a “passive” bystander. The herd influences the breakaway cattle

  5. Watch for the symptoms (e.g. a cluster of team members with unusually low productivity)

  6. Listen when employees raise the issue (with open ears, and without becoming defensive)

  7. Provide an open and anonymous (truly anonymous) feedback mechanism, for all employees

  8. Train staff, especially management, on aggression-prevention behaviour

  9. Make emotional learning and resilience training / support available to all staff

  10. Ensure accountability at all levels – for perpetrators, bystanders and victims

  11. Provide resources for relaxation and detachment (from breakout rooms to funded fitness activities)

Workplace Incivility in your business? Have you ever been guilty of any of these behaviours yourself?


Dynamic Krav Maga provides tailored courses tackling behavioural issues in the workforce, as well as self defence training to equip workers against occupational violence. We have backgrounds in Leadership, People Management and Cultural Change in workplaces large and small. Call our team on 08 9510 6266 to talk about your situation and see how we can help.

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