Cracking Ice like Toxic Workplace Culture

Bad Communication = Toxic Workplace Culture

Dog shows signals of toxic workplace culture

When rapid melting created loud noises from the shifting ice, our dog Grace was ready to flee, tail between her legs. A threat, whether real of perceived, innately triggers us to pull inward, which is why communication is critical.

If you’ve got “bad” communication going on in your organization, it’s not just going to blow over. In fact, communication is one of the keys to a consistently healthy culture. When you replace it with trademarks like harshness, one-sidedness, or even intimidation, the result is a toxic workplace culture. In that kind of environment, it’s not hard to see the signals.

Read the Room

Let’s step outside ourselves for a little perspective. A canine, for instance, is easy to read. Whenever my dog, Grace, thought I was upset with her, her tail went directly between her legs. She would cower, ears back, with a guilty, shameful look.

As humans, our own signals of distress may not be quite that obvious, but they’re certainly there. In my case, others might see my face begin to blush. What they can’t see is my heart about to jump outside my body because of how hard and loud it is beating. These feelings are not to be ignored; we have to pay attention to them, not only in ourselves, but also in others.

Communication Breakdown

This week I had occasion to witness several interactions where one person in the room was feeling threatened by another person. It wasn’t a fist fight or anything dramatic; in fact, fairly subtle signs surfaced, but it was there. I could tell that the person was feeling less than supported by the conversation. It’s not a great feeling for whoever is on the receiving end.

The individual dishing out the language is feeling better for having voiced their opinion and I’m all in favor of making sure you share all feedback — whether good, bad, or indifferent.

Yet the manner in which it is done is so critical for the outcomes. You shouldn’t sugar coat feedback, nor should you say something positive if it’s not accurate. But you need to be respectful, keeping in mind that the other person has their own perspective, which has validity and should be acknowledged and explored.

When a person feels backed into a corner, it’s hard to come out gracefully. One common reaction is to cower, like Grace tends to do, and just give in. But no one wins because the real issues have not been addressed. Moreover, the message you’re sending is that it’s not a safe/healthy environment, and that is how a toxic workplace culture develops.

Change Your Approach

Long-lasting solutions will only happen when both parties begin to think about the problem creatively, and with curiosity, as opposed to throwing out self-motivated fixes. Do whatever you can to have everyone involved participate in a resolution.

When you’re barking loud enough to put someone in a corner, you definitely won’t get the best out of them. Instead of letting bad communication take over, take a breath, back off, and allow room for discussion.

Smart Tips Served Straight to Your Inbox

Want to build healthy, productive workplace relationships??? Join our community of Graceful Leaders/Managers and get access to tips, insights, and resources right in your inbox.

BONUS: Sign up now and receive a FREE animal-inspired gift: “3 Management Tips from Dog!"

Share with a friend using one of the buttons below. Then sign up so you can receive stories, tips, and guidance to help you develop healthy workplace relationships in your organization!


  1. Laurie Bartolo on February 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Great post Robin. This is such an interesting topic for me as I’ve both observed this behavior and also been the recipient, and I’ve never seen it work for anyone. First, it’s not effective in addressing the current problem – as you said, the person will usually just shut down (or, they’ll go to the opposite end of the spectrum and lash out). However, the real damage is in the long-term effects – by behaving this way, you create an environment where trust is not possible – and now the recipient of your bad behavior does not trust you, and you will likely never regain that trust. Without trust, you simply can’t have a productive relationship. Sadly, the “barkers” who behave this way often end up surrounded by people they have alienated, and they don’t even know it – they think everything is fine while others tip-toe around them and keep their guard up. If you are a manager or leader who behaves this way, you’ll get lower performance, resentment, and apathy in return.

  2. PeopleSense Consulting LLC on February 24, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    What an excellent point you raise (as always). The true risk is in the long-term relationship and the erosion of trust; I absolutely agree with you. When we can handle conflict respectfully, it builds trust, rather than the opposite. Great point, thanks so much for sharing your perspective, which I really love to hear.

  3. Tammy Lenski on February 24, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Robin, I’m so glad you wrote about this. Just recently I said to someone we both know, “Don’t back [name] into a corner. Leave room for [him/her] to change course gracefully. If you don’t, things will get much more difficult.”

    In my conflict resolution and negotiation work I see so many workplace situations stuck because not only do people miss the opportunity to leave exit room for another, but they also sometimes actually relish having backed another person into the corner. Usually, it’s only a temporary triumph and only escalates matters.

    Your advice is spot on!

    • PeopleSense Consulting LLC on February 25, 2012 at 11:59 am

      Thanks, Tammy. Sometimes I think people don’t realize they are backing people into a corner, they are just so focused on getting what THEY want instead of thinking of what BOTH parties want and need. You are a master at helping people understand that distinction!

  4. LeeAnn on February 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Robin – I have lived this post. I wish I could share it with my first boss (a lawyer in Philadelphia). His way of trying to teach me was to scream at me. I never took in a word of what he said as I was having an internal dialogue with myself, along the lines of “do NOT cry … do NOT cry….” It amazes me that people think that aggression or anger is an effective way of managing or leading. Great picture of Grace – although she makes me nervous being that close to the edge. : )

    • PeopleSense Consulting LLC on February 25, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      I had a former boss like that, too! It was an awful experience and I always dreaded our interactions because I never knew when he was going to unload. You can’t be your best when you’re walking on eggshells. Grace was close to the edge, but she’s very familiar with that stretch of the river and she doesn’t like water too much, so I felt like she wouldn’t venture any closer. When that ice was shifting, she was definitely cautious! I did NOT want to go in after her, that’s for sure! 🙂

  5. spiderpaw on February 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Nice post Robin. I am extremely grateful that I have Sia, who is so sensitive to our needs that she has us down as far as what we are trying to relay to her and vice versa. She has her moments though, if she even hears the word “BRUSH” in a casual conversation, she is gone. And good luck getting her to come back.

  6. PeopleSense Consulting LLC on February 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    How funny that she recognizes one word in the midst of many and reacts. It is wonderful when there is such clear communication among everyone!

Leave a Comment