Understanding and Surviving a Toxic Agency

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

For Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, my colleagues and I surveyed hundreds of employees (and leaders) from a wide range of industries and sectors, including the public sector. We then individually interviewed dozens or people whose stories intrigued us. From our research, we discovered three core components that contribute to making a workplace "toxic"—a work environment that is unhealthy, and even dangerous, to the well-being of its employees. 

Poor Policies and Procedures 

Unhealthy agencies have policies and procedures that are not established, documented, or followed. Poor communication is a key contributor to this problem. Some organizations have incredibly poor communication. For instance, communication between departments is sporadic and incomplete (or non-existent). A second variation is when there are no written, standardized ways of doing things, or the written version is no longer applicable because it is so old.

Another issue is that people "go around" the policies that exist. The policies are there; it is just that no one follows them. A toxic workplace with “sick systems” can feel like some combination of chaos, incompetence or anarchy. How anything ever gets done can seem to be a mystery.

Dysfunctional Employees 

When we use the term "dysfunctional," we are being descriptive, not just putting a condescending label on people. "Dys" means “problem.”

Dysfunctional people have serious difficulties in functioning in daily life. Dysfunctional employees tend to blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions. They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others. They typically have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotion in spite of their inconsistent performance. And they are masters of creating conflict and tension within the workplace.


Colleagues who are dysfunctional wind up creating more work for others, to the point that they often need to be “rescued” because they didn’t get their task done. Another issue can be that the quality was so poor, the work needs to be redone. 

Toxic Leaders

We identified 10 common characteristics of toxic leaders. Some examples include:

  • Toxic leaders may be very competent (in a technical sense), but their motives are impure.  
  • Toxic leaders essentially are totally focused on their interests and achievement, and will use others to get what they want.  
  • Toxic leaders manipulate (often by shame or anger); they take credit for others’ work.  
  • Toxic leaders rarely, if ever, accept any responsibility when something goes wrong.

It is important to note that a toxic leader doesn't have to be at the top tier of the organization; they can occur at a department level, or as a frontline supervisor. Regardless of their position, they make life hell for those who work for them.


What Can You Do?

First, and foremost, employees must take care of themselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. (The organization won’t.)

When individuals work in a toxic work environment, they put themselves at risk for physical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure, medical problems), emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger) and relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, loss of friendships). So keep important activities in your life: exercise, sleep, friendships, and hobbies that renew you.

Secondly, make sure you surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. We need others who can help us cope with the stress from work, and who can honestly tell us when we need to consider looking for another job.

Finally, determine how much longer you want to work in this setting and begin to explore other options. One thing you want to avoid is leaving in a manner which puts you in a desperate position—no job, no income, and ongoing bills. If you are thinking about leaving, start now to explore options and take steps to make yourself desirable in the job market.

To learn practical steps that you can take to help your workplace become a healthier environment, join me for the ATD Member –only webcast, “How to Fix a Toxic Workplace (or Survive One)” April 18th 2:00-3:00 p.m.

About the Author

Paul White is a psychologist, author, speaker, and president of Appreciation at Work. He is the co-author of three books, including The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and he has shared his expertise with Bloomberg Businessweek,,,, Fast Company,, Huffington Post LIVE, U.S. News & World Report, and Yahoo! Finance.

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