Unveiling the Link Between a Toxic Work Culture and Workplace Conflict

And 5 practical strategies you can implement to fix it.

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Workplace conflict is an inevitable aspect of any organisation, and indeed ‘healthy’ conflict may be needed to promote progress, innovation and continuous improvement. 

But highly prevalent and high intensity conflict can be greatly influenced by the presence of a toxic work culture – and can hinder progress in many different ways.  In short: it leads to negative behaviours and undermines collaboration.

Let’s have a short deep dive into the connection between toxic work culture and workplace conflict, highlighting the effects on both team members and organisations as a whole.

Toxic work culture refers to an environment where negative attitudes, behaviours, and norms prevail, creating a hostile and unsupportive atmosphere. It is often characterised by elements such as: excessive workloads, lack of trust, poor communication, perceived discriminatory behaviour or unfair treatment, micromanagement and lack of recognition and appreciation. These toxic cultures breed conflict by eroding employee morale, increasing stress levels and hindering teamwork.

Toxic work cultures significantly contribute to the emergence and escalation of workplace conflict:

  • Firstly, it erodes trust among employees, resulting in miscommunication and misunderstandings. Toxic cultures often promote a “survival of the fittest” mindset, often encouraging ‘unhealthy’ competition and hostility, which further fuel conflicts.
  • Secondly, toxic work cultures frequently lack effective conflict resolution mechanisms. When employees perceive a lack of support or fairness in addressing their concerns, conflicts remain unresolved, simmering beneath the surface and potentially intensifying into larger issues. Remember the saying “from little things big things grow”!
  • Thirdly, toxic work cultures inhibit effective teamwork and collaboration. When employees are pitted against each other or experience a lack of psychological safety, they are less inclined to cooperate leading to increased conflicts, more absenteeism and decreased productivity.

Workplace conflict carries several and significant negative consequences. For individual team members it is likely to adversely affect their mental and emotional well-being, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and burnout. This, in turn, results in reduced job satisfaction, higher turnover, and a higher probability of an increased number of Workers’ Compensation claims.

Don’t forget a toxic work culture will affect your employer brand.

Five Strategies to Address and Fix Toxic Work Culture and Conflict:

  1. Promote a Positive Work Culture: Foster open communication and transparency. Encourage an inclusive environment that values diversity and treats team members with respect. Develop a shared vision and mission that aligns with the organisation’s values (this is also a great team exercise!).
  2. Implement Conflict Resolution Training: Provide the team and managers with the necessary skills to identify and address conflicts constructively. The program should address effective communication, active listening, negotiation and mediation techniques. This empowers individuals to engage in healthy dialogue and resolve conflicts before they escalate.
  3. Establish Clear Policies and Procedures: Implement policies that address conflict resolution, anti-discrimination, bullying and harassment. Additionally, create a safe reporting environment where team members feel comfortable expressing concerns without fear of retaliation or victimisation.
  4. Lead by Example: Leadership plays a crucial role in shaping workplace culture. Leaders should always seek to model positive behaviours and actively address conflicts when they arise. By setting the right tone at the top, leaders can inspire everyone else to follow suit, fostering a culture of respect, courtesy, professionalism and collaboration.
  5. Foster Employee Well-being: Promote work-life balance, offer support programs (like an Employee Assistance Program), and create opportunities for personal and professional development (this should also extend to the leaders of the business). By supporting employee well-being this will enhance job satisfaction and boost employee engagement.

A final word – get on the front foot and address any workplace conflict or negativity early. Sitting back and ‘hoping’ that the conflict will resolve itself, only serves to prolong the negative impact and deepen the existing toxic workplace elements….and you may lose a critical team member in the meantime!

Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners. He recently published his first book, “Exiting underperforming Team Members – The Inside Scoop”. It is a practical response to the most pressing HR challenges, which can be found at https://resolvehr.com.au/.

Disclaimer: The contents written do not constitute legal advice and does not cater for individual circumstances.   The information contained herein is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

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