3 Signs of Toxicity at Work

and ways to deal with them

Toxic workplaces are not uncommon. Tight deadlines, competition, bad bosses, large egos, the need to climb the proverbial ladder, are all culprits in creating environments that don’t make you feel supported to do your best work.

Here are some ways in which a toxic workplace can impact your own sense of self-worth, and your mental health.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

1. You doubt your own abilities

Everyone has their own style of doing work. Some are visual thinkers, some people are strategic, some fare better when thinking about the details, some people want to be owners and so on. We are all ultimately very different people, and there is no one-size-fits-all to being a “good worker”.

Companies that try to put their employees in straightjackets, without acknowledging an employee’s individual strengths and weaknesses, tend to be toxic. While feedback such as “you are not a strategic thinker” can be valuable, discounting your strengths while expecting you to be strong only in the areas that your managers are comfortable with, is toxic.

You may start doubting your own abilities, because your strengths are not nurtured or valued, as much as your flaws are highlighted.

Here’s what you could do:

  • Create a circle of people you trust at work.
  • Share your work with these people, and get their honest feedback.
  • Share your skills on forums outside your workplace.

2. You doubt your feelings

You are not feeling valued or appreciated. Furthermore, you feel unmotivated to show up at work, and do your best. You leave your desk feeling like something’s off, and you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong.

However, you aren’t able to articulate exactly why you are feeling the way you do, and push those feelings down. You work despite this gnawing sense of discomfort, because you tell yourself that you are overreacting. Work is supposed to be hard — that’s why they pay you.

This is not true. Feelings are important. They protect you from danger, and heartbreak a lot of times.

Toxic workplaces foster a culture of fear and anxiety, and sometimes, feelings are your body’s way of telling you to run.

Here’s what you could do:

  • When you are faced with an especially uncomfortable feeling, write it down. Write down what you are feeling and what incident/who caused you to feel that way. No other action needed. When you log your feelings with the date, you might see a pattern emerge. Maybe you are a victim of microaggressions.
  • Seek help: when it is difficult for you to trust yourself/your feelings, a mental health professional can provide you with a valuable outsider’s perspective on incidents at work that invoke strong feelings.

3. You over prepare

Toxic workplaces/teams foster a culture where people are disproportionately afraid of failure. I had a manager who used to proofread the emails I sent. This type of behavior signals to the employees that they just cannot fail. Psychological safety is compromised. This causes you to think twenty times before you send an email, and a hundred times before you speak up at a meeting.

Mentally, this constant fear of failure is exhausting, and is not sustainable. The world is changing at such a fast pace, and the complexity of problems has increased so much, that it is impossible to succeed without trial and error. In other words, failure is an inevitable part of the path to successful innovation.

In my experience, toxic teams encourage over-preparation even for low-impact decisions.

Here’s what you could do:

  • Educate your team about the idea of psychological safety.
  • Normalize failure: Don’t shy away from sharing and documenting failures. Talk about what you learned from them regularly at your team meetings. Normally, in large companies, employees try to hide the failures while talking about their wins. Don’t do this — embrace failure. Be honest about it, and soon you will see that other people are too.

If you have tried to combat a toxic work culture, and you still feel worn out, uncomfortable or defeated, it is time to move. No job is worth it. Toxic workplaces slowly chip away your confidence and your sense of self-worth, which are things you have worked hard for. Don’t give them up so easily!

I'm a product manager living in San Francisco with a heart that refuses to leave Chennai! I enjoy writing about product management, technology, and food.