Seven Ways to Detoxify the Workplace

May 28, 2024 Doug Glener

How tough is the work world?

More than one in five people say they’ve worked in a toxic workplace. But ask a group of people what makes a workplace toxic, and you’ll get as many answers. 

“People were out for themselves.”

“The pressure was relentless.”

“I never felt like I belonged.”

“Who you knew mattered more than what you did.”

 So what really makes a workplace toxic?

 Research points to five descriptive words—the “Toxic Five”—that can refer to a toxic workplace: disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. All of these elements are corrosive, but disrespectful is the most pernicious, according to the analysis.

 The risks of working in a toxic workplace are significant. People are more prone to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Toxic workplaces also significantly increase the chance of getting diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and other serious illnesses.

The Long Reach of a Leader

When it comes to changing a workplace environment, leaders have significantly more influence on their people than any other factor.

How much more? An astonishing 250%.

This means leaders have unequaled control in shaping their work microclimate—so much so that they can even create a refuge for their people. This is not an easy task; however, research shows a good leader has the power to mitigate even the most difficult environment.

Leaders should take this information to heart, because toxic workplaces can suffer from poor productivity, high turnover, and low morale. Peak employee performance will always be elusive.

Detoxifying the Workplace

Here are seven ways to detoxify your workplace.

1.   Role model. Embodying the behaviors you want your people to follow is one of the most powerful things you can do. Your people will likely copy you. As evidence, we so respect authority figures that we imitate the body language and diction of our superiors. If you want to eradicate toxic behavior, act the way you want your people to act.


2.   Be civil. Civility is an antidote to a toxic environment. It’s also a basic human need. When we are treated respectfully, we work harder. We share information. We seek guidance. And we’re inspired to do a good job for our leader. Contrast this to a toxic environment, where disengagement and duplicity is common. The lesson here: a kind word goes a long way.


3.    Welcome everyone. Most people feel excluded at work. More than half ‘identity cover’ something about themselves. This shows how deeply feelings of discomfort run in the workplace. Leaders can change the atmosphere from exclusion to inclusion by making sure everyone feels welcomed and valued.


4.   Create your own norms. Invite people to share their concerns about the workplace. Ask them what social norms they would like your team to follow. If people don't feel comfortable sharing their feelings, conduct an anonymous survey and share the results. Have people vote on the new behavioral expectations and hold them to it.


5.   Build trust. Most workplaces have a trust deficit. A significant percentage of employees don't trust their leaders or their coworkers. Trust is even rarer in a toxic workplace. Smart leaders should go out of their way to build and repair trust.


6.   Praise often. Most people think their leaders don't praise them enough. Praise is scarce in toxic work environment. Taking the time to publicly praise someone for a job well done can help detoxify the workplace.


7.   Open channels of communication. People working in toxic workplaces usually adopt a defensive posture. They keep their heads down and say little to avoid conflict. Leaders should create a safe and confidential place where people can share their difficulties. This is easier said than done, of course, but establishing a haven where people can vent is preferable to employees sharing their grievances on social media.

Detoxifying a toxic workplace is difficult. It would be naive to suggest otherwise. But the fact remains that leaders have more influence than they know. An effective leader can create a sanctuary of decency and engagement in even the most troubling environment.

About the Author

Doug Glener

Doug Glener is the senior copywriter at Blanchard®. He earned a BA in English from Vassar College, is the author of two books, and has written for Harvard Business School, Training Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, The Financial Times, The United Way, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Holocaust Museum, The Norwegian Tourist Board, Michael Jackson, and many other renowned individuals and organizations.

More Content by Doug Glener
Previous Resource
Teammate Keeps Taking Credit for Your Ideas? Ask Madeleine
Teammate Keeps Taking Credit for Your Ideas? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine, I was lucky to land an incredibly cool job right out of school. I am in digital marketing a...

Next Resource
Not Sure You Should Be So Career Focused? Ask Madeleine
Not Sure You Should Be So Career Focused? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine, I am a young professional woman in the biotech space. I started with one company right out ...