The real issue in a toxic workplace

How many times have you found yourself in a workplace where you have to gauge the mood of a colleague or boss to know if you are going to have a good or bad day?

Have you ever worked in an environment where the stress levels go through the roof when the boss walks into the room because you don’t know if it’s you or someone else who’s going to be picked on or shamed this time?

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find someone that has not ever worked in an environment like this at some time or other and experienced the feeling of dread when they wake up on a Monday morning anticipating another day working in that environment.

This environment is created by something we call unsafe leadership – the outcome of a disconnected leader. While it can be also called a toxic workplace, let’s discuss why it’s far more serious than the label ‘toxic’ and what can be done about it.

Toxic leadership versus unsafe leadership

There are many articles dedicated to toxic work environments and the symptoms may appear the same, but once you understand that it’s not the toxicity that can make a work environment unhealthy but what it is creating the issue is far more serious.

When an environment is poisoned by a toxic leader the entire workplace becomes unsafe. When people work in an environment that is ‘unsafe’ it is impossible for anyone to perform at a competent level, let alone a high one, because when it comes to your safety, we as humans shut off other parts of the brain when we are in danger. (Check out my blog about how the brain works when under stress here.)

It’s not the toxicity that is the problem, it is the effect that poison has on the people and the organisation. A toxic leader suggests that there is a one-shot cure – either take the medicine or get rid of the toxic leader, whereas an unsafe leadership alludes to many issues that might be underlying to make that workplace unsafe. Simply removing that toxicity is not always the answer. And what if that toxic leader is you?

Unsafe leadership and disconnected leaders.

The leaders that I work with never want to be labelled a ‘crap boss’ and indeed most leaders come to work trying to do the best they can with the skills and experience they have. The problem we face in an industry is that multiple generations of poor leaders are now teaching the leaders of tomorrow how to do things badly.

The only way to break this cycle is for a fundamental understanding of how we are wired – knowing that a large part of how we operate as humans, let alone as leaders, comes back to a time well before we were put in an organisational structure.  When we can connect to this understanding and connect with the real needs of a workplace and how to keep it ‘safe’ in the modern age we can then start to create a leadership style that is safe.

Attributes of a safe leader

Unsafe leaders are not just ones that overtly criticise, or stand over their teams. They also can be seen as having different expectations for individuals where they display favouritism and might reprimand one team or employee while overlooking the same issues in another.

When we see safe leaders in action we often see them cultivating high levels of trust, are adept at really listening to their team (and not just waiting for their turn to talk) and have one standard and expectation for everyone.

They can do this because they have a clear purpose that is communicated to everyone, at all levels. When everyone is on the same page and held to the same expectations then this produces a safer environment for teams and individuals to innovate while still knowing where the boundaries lie.

Prosperity before profit

When we talk about safe leadership it makes sense that we also talk about prosperity, not profit. Prosperity comes from a place of managing the welfare of everyone inside an organisation, whereas profit only looks at the monetary outcome of an organisation, with disregard for the people that work within it. Whether you like it or not, if you are in business, you are in the business of people – both as employees and customers.

Leaders need to step up and start thinking about what is best for the people because when they get this right, wonderful things start happening to both the bottom and top lines of an organisation.

Creating a competitive advantage through people

Today, an organisations biggest competitive advantage is their people. The leader’s role is to look after the team and protect them, allowing for an environment that will develop the people and tap into their collective intelligence.

By prioritising the health and prosperity of the ‘community’ of an organisation and being a safe leader, the people will connect with the organisation and each other and the safe environment will also create more productive individuals.


Safe leadership goes well beyond eliminating a ‘toxic person’ because that toxic person is a product of their environment. When you look at what has made that person toxic in the first place, and how we are wired as human beings to want to be guided by safe leadership, you can then start seeing a way to turn the environment and people within it around.