5 Leadership Pointers for Eliminating Toxic Workplace Norms

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how to be a better leader and create a positive less stressful workplace culture

August is World Stress Management Month, created to bring awareness to chronic illnesses due to high-stress levels at work, a major symptom of a toxic workplace.


When it comes to stress, how well does your company deal with it? 


When I was a child, I remember spending time with my grandfather. I remember him protesting about everything I was doing. He would complain about how long I was opening the fridge (to save electricity, I guess). He would criticize the books I was reading (I used to read science books at age 10) and even complain when I was not doing anything at all. I felt like everything was wrong, so I always felt the urge to either escape, ignore him, or respond angrily. This stressful dynamic was not happy nor productive for our relationship. Even as kids, we recognize this as toxic. So when we encounter this in the workplace, we respond to stress in the same way.  


The cost of stress


Nowadays, 80% of workers feel stress on the job; nearly half of them say they need help in learning how to manage stress. On the other hand, employers are spending over 300 billion annually as a result of accidents, absenteeism, diminished productivity, direct medical, legal, and insurance costs, and workers’ compensation. While nearly half of large-size companies in the United States are already providing stress management training for their workforces, why is it getting worse? The answer: toxic cultures. 


How much is a toxic culture costing your organization? Estimate the impact using our free ROI calculator!



The hidden factor in creating a less stressful workplace


Training or culture-building sessions are one part of the equation to reduce workplace stress, but there’s another factor that is easily overlooked in your program’s success. That’s the top-down approach to eliminating sources of stress.


Here’s a real-life story on how it works:  


There was a company that just had a major incident at the manufacturing plant. They called me to deliver stress-management training. Employees were all stressed out after this incident. It had changed their deadlines, costs were going up, and meetings and last-minute requests had increased significantly during the weeks following the event. Fear had hijacked the company.  Employees feared to miss the new deadlines; they feared to lose clients due to the delays; they feared being blamed and feared being left out of final decisions. One of the employees told me: “this conversation is really helpful, but when I go back to work, my boss will still ask me to finish a 3-hour report in 10 minutes, what can we do about it?”   


These fears are terribly common in workplaces all around the world, in small businesses, large businesses, service or manufacturing organizations, and even non-profit organizations.


Related: How to Identify a Toxic Workplace Culture


What can be done to change your culture to reduce toxic, stressful behaviors? Two different approaches have to work in parallel: 1) a top-down approach to eliminate sources of stress and 2) a bottom-up approach to train employees to cope with stressful situations.


Let’s talk about the top-down approach, which is usually the part that is the most overlooked. Here are some expert pointers for success: 


1) Create transparency.


Sharing more information will employees, that help them understand the context of their role and company. This information could be about earnings, expenses, customer needs, maintenance needs, projects. Companies are starting to use panels, intranets, boards and daily huddles to continuously share information.


2) Involve employees in decision-making.


Being part of the solution reduces stress because employees can understand the “what” and “why” behind decisions,  especially in a moment of crisis. For example, a company had to reduce costs to survive due to decreasing demand. A manager’s first idea was to fire the temporary workers, though it solves the financial issue, it creates chaos and fear for everyone else. The owner decided to instead be transparent and tell the employees the truth and ask for solutions. Some employees proposed to work only three weeks a month until problem was solved, and everybody agreed. In less than an hour the problem was resolved and chaos was avoided.


3) Eliminate carrots and sticks programs.


Some companies like Zappos let employees engage each other. Every employee once a month is allowed to give to 50 Zollars (dollars spent in Zappos merchandising) to a coworker. If someone may have overheard a great customer call, they can reward the customer representative with some Zollars!


4) Change the way managers handle deadlines and their teams’ workloads.


As per a Forbes article, the biggest source of stress is one’s boss. Companies should train bosses as well as employees on stress-management techniques, but let’s face it, they have their own bosses that put pressure on them too. So the catalyst here is transforming the power of the leader by re-distributing his power within the team. KPIs are shared with everyone and team members define their objectives and deadlines.. Employees should be empowered to organize work by themselves, and assume the responsibility. 


5) Provide more flexibility and balance.


Stress is sometimes generated by being unable to balance work with your personal life. The snowball effect ends up making it worse on both sides. Life Blue, a small business in Dallas, provides generous parental leaves, weekly lunch-and-learns, and yoga classes. Their Director of Culture, Caitlin Studley, says this is to “encourage people to bring their whole selves to work.” The company Sounds True allows employees to bring dogs to work and Patagonia even allows to bring children to work.


Stress-producing behaviors or norms can become ingrained in workplace culture: decisions are made only by top leadership, there’s a feeling of secrecy, managers don’t feel like they’re part of the solution, there’s a lack of team involvement in decision-making, among others. These rituals create toxic cultures that promote stress. It’s time to realize that stress distracts people from their purpose, both at home and at work. New practices that involve working in small autonomous and multidisciplinary teams with no hierarchy seem to be more promising in reducing stress.  Distributing power among a bigger number of team members can reduce the pressure at workplaces and increase productivity.


Want more information on how your organizational culture can go from from toxic to thriving? Learn this 5 steps:



About the Author

Lu Paulise

Lu Paulise is an agile culture coach, speaker and author. She is an MBA and Quality Engineer. She is an accomplished book author, contributor on ThriveGlobal.com and other international media outlets. She has helped a wide range of companies, from small business to corporations to transform their culture to become more agile, engaged and innovative. Past companies she worked for include ExxonMobil and Coca-Cola. She is the CEO of Biztorming Training & Consulting LLC. Luciana also serves for various non-profits as chair and advisor. She writes and provides advice in English and Spanish.


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