How to fight back to toxicity in the workplace.

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Toxic environments have a huge impact on employee churn rate. Consider that your business is a bunch of people gathered around common benefits & ideas. If your team's energy is drawn for any reason, your business will lose.

Here we will talk about a poison that damages goodwill in the environment and we will look for the reasons behind this situation. Also, I will give some tips that can help. I hope they resonate on your end as well.

Okay, let's start.

Arbitrary - Random Decisions

Arbitrary means here, you make intuitive decisions without rational reasons. Intuitive decisions are not always bad. We see many times intuitive decisions drive innovation. But just be aware of the risks you take.

Intuitive decisions might have two possible effects.

  • Your leadership loses credibility because people like to see they belong to a team that moves by reason, not emotions.
  • Employee engagement decreases because people can't relate to that product/feature.

But how this situation pumps up the toxicity in the environment?

Arbitrary decisions will reflect your team member as follows;

"I don't care if this makes sense for you but I want you to do this."

If you keep this attitude, basically you are just cutting the connection between your employee and the "why?".

Low engagement among the employees will spread the toxicity in the workplace. Employees who have high motivation and engagement will get affected as well. Therefore employee churn rate will increase.

So it's important to make sure all team members have a strong understanding of why they develop that feature/product.

If people see their effort actually converted a value in other people's life. They will feel their effort matters. So they will feel engaged and satisfied. Since you explain the reasons behind that feature/product. You actually open a channel to get their opinion as well. So they will feel respected as well.

Respect and engagement are antidotes to toxicity.


User stories are the best evidence of how your team's effort converted to a value on the user's end. We will talk about how to write good user stories in another article. If you read this article till here and didn't subscribe yet, do it in your favor!

If you don't have user stories then at least share customer requirements and discuss with the team before the development.

Also, highly recommend reading about narrative collaboration.

Overwhelming Sprints - Processes

Stress is in the nature of work. No escape! But if you keep the stress for a long time without rest, burnout is inevitable.

Two things come up in overwhelming workplaces.

  • Technical Debt
  • Psychological Debt.

There are many consequences of these but I will talk about how they are related to toxicity.

Good engineers-developers know how risky is the technical debt. So when you shrink the timeline in your task management software with a slider,  consider that you are leaving a huge debt behind.

There are still things that have to be done for sake of quality assurance but since you put time pressure, developers will leave some technical debt behind. Technical debt will bring anxiety to the technical team. (If you are developing an MVP it could be reasonable to have technical debt.)

There is also psychological debt. Consider that people can take stress up to a point, there is a state called "burnout" in which people can't do anything. They can't work, they can't think.

Let's say someone can do X unit jobs in a month. If you try to get X + 10 jobs done this month. Probably you will get X-10 next month. His/her mental power will be reduced. It's a zero-sum game. Rest is part of work.

I should mention that it might be necessary that everyone should put X+10 that month. There could be a very important deadline. That's okay but if you want always more and more from your employees. They will be always worried about tight schedules which increase anxiety and also they will feel they can't be enough after a while. Therefore they will be frustrated.

Anxious and frustrated employees are vulnerable to toxicity. Sometimes they can be the source of toxic as well.

What to do?

Be careful about technical debt. Always listen to your principal engineers and senior developers. If you are developing a new system, don't negotiate a lot about time with the development team. Don't push them to give unrealistic timelines. You will be the one who is losing credibility in front of users when you couldn't deliver at the time.

I know there is always stress coming from the market or executives to deliver things in a short time. Stress is a good thing if you can use it properly. Constant stress will bring anxiety and frustration. Keep yourself and your team in a flow.  If this week was too busy keep next week a bit relaxed.

Lack of communication

We see most of the time that toxic attitudes are the cumulative output of suppressed thoughts and emotions.

People suppress some thoughts if they don't find a proper communication channel. They vomit all of their thoughts when they feel filled. Their toxicity might spread among the team.

What should we do?

Don't lead all conversations.

It's really difficult to keep the balance between leading and friendly relations with teammates. If you can't lead the conversations, the team might have some doubts about your leadership. If you lead all conversations then the team might feel dominance over them and they might hesitate to argue with you.

It's a difficult job to keep that balance. I don't have a clear answer for this, but consider that the best leaders are the ones who take their teams to success. You reduce the risk on the path to success by listening to your teammates. So let your team has a strong voice so they can give you some hints before things get stuck.

1:1 meetings are important

There could be things that they can't say in team meetings. It's good to sit with teammates individually from time to time. So they can reveal things before they accumulate.

Hope you enjoyed my article! I am publishing a new article every 2-3 weeks. If you want to get notified once new articles published, please subscribe to my blog. (No spam, promise)

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All the best,

Ömer Taban

Ömer Taban