Toxic Environments: Where Do They Come From?

It seems there’s a lot of talk about toxic work environments these days and I was thinking about this the other day. What does create a toxic work environment? What are the contributing factors that are involved? Where does it actually come from? What perpetuates a toxic work environment? How is a toxic environment detected?

I’m just going to ramble for a few minutes and show you where my brain went with this. 

If someone says that this is a toxic work environment and no one else agrees, what happens? Logically it would seem that the person claiming that it’s a toxic work environment might question themselves. They might think, “Well, maybe it’s just my perspective.” Then they might look at the situation and see if there is a different way to interpret what they’re seeing, hearing, experiencing in that environment. When they’re looking for evidence that it’s just them, since no one else is complaining, they will most likely find it. They may find other possibilities for what they’re interpreting as toxic and they may change their opinion.

However, if someone says that this is a toxic work environment and someone else agrees with them, what happens? I think what happens in that case is that they believe that it’s true. Once they believe it’s true, their brain seeks evidence that proves their belief. It’s a classic case of how our brains work. Unless they question the belief that it’s a toxic environment, their brain will find evidence supporting that belief. It may notice someone stressed out (they could be stressed out about something outside work or they could be responding to the toxic environment) and interpret that the stress is the result of a toxic environment. Their brain will also reject evidence that doesn’t support that belief. It may notice someone laughing with the “toxic” boss and explain it away with a belief that the person laughing with the boss is part of the problem or that they’re just the boss’s favorite. Through this process of finding support evidence and rejecting contrary evidence, their belief that it’s a toxic environment will strengthen.

Is that environment truly toxic? How would we know? What empirical or scientifically proven evidence can we find in the situation? What is the definition of toxic environment? What are the objective criteria that constitute a toxic environment? Is there scientifically proven evidence that those criteria are present? Chances are that we can’t scientifically prove that those criteria are present and many of those criteria will probably be subject to individual interpretation and therefore cognitive bias. But does that really matter?

If I’m someone in a toxic environment, how is it important whether or not I can objectively prove that I’m in a toxic environment? Whether it’s actually a toxic environment or the environment isn’t toxic but I believe I’m in a toxic environment actually doesn’t matter. The impact to me is the same. If I believe it, it might as well be true because that’s what’s going to dictate my experience in that situation — what I believe is more important than the facts. Stay with me.

How do I show up when I believe that the environment is toxic? I might think something like, “This environment is so toxic. It’s not healthy.” I might feel undervalued, under appreciated; I might even feel resentful. When I feel like that at work, how do I show up? What do I do? I might just do the bare minimum to keep my job, or I might not even care about keeping my job, I might be disrespectful, I might purposely not contribute value to the team, I might purposely withhold value from the team, I might try to sabotage the team, I might begin to hope that they fail so my point would be proven. Any of this could happen either consciously or subconsciously. What might be the result of all of this? I contribute to a toxic work environment. I contribute to poor results for the team or the organization. I make it more difficult for myself and the team.

You don’t have to agree with me, but it’s at least fascinating to consider, right? What creates a toxic environment? It’s like the question, Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Did the toxic environment come first or did my response to what I thought was a toxic environment create what I perceive as a toxic environment?

The result of me believing that the environment is toxic is that I create a toxic environment, whether it exists in the world or not. I first create it in my mind, then I start to create it through my actions. See how it doesn’t matter whether the environment is actually toxic or not? Either way, I’m experiencing the environment in a way that feels toxic to me as a result of what I think. And I’m reacting to it in a potentially toxic way. If the environment is toxic, I’m perpetuating that condition or making it more toxic. If the environment is not actually toxic, I’m introducing the toxicity.

You considered the possibility of how believing that the environment is toxic. Whether it actually is or actually isn’t, how is it useful for me to believe that? It doesn’t help me create an experience I want. Now consider the other possibility. What if I DON’T believe that the environment is toxic? How do I show up when I believe that the environment is not toxic or when I believe that it’s supportive? I might think something like, “I love how the people here all rally around each other when things get crazy or just plain hard.” When I believe that I might feel supported, loved, purposeful or engaged. When I feel like that at work, how do I show up? What do I do? I might go above and beyond to help out my team, I might encourage others, I cooperate with leadership, I support leadership and the team, I contribute whatever value I have to offer, I don’t hold anything back, I try to lift the team up, I pray fervently for the team’s and the organization’s success, I support myself and encourage myself in all of this. What is the result of all of this? I create a supportive environment. I make it an amazing place to work. I contribute to the well being and success of the organization and I encourage others to do the same.

I’m not suggesting that you become delusional or sugar coat everything, sweep things under the rug or pretend that real problems don’t exist in the world. I’m only suggesting that you question whatever is causing problems, causing suffering in your life. Can you be absolutely sure that it’s true? If it’s just as likely that it’s not true as it is that it’s true, as I did in my example, look at it both ways. Which way leads to a better result or a better experience for you? You might be wondering what does this have to do with money and with life? Yes, I’m a Money Coach. I’m also a life coach. What you believe about toxic environments can significantly impact your quality of life. Not only can it impact your quality of life, but when you believe your work environment is toxic, it can also significantly impact your career, how much money you earn or create, how much money you spend and, consequently, how much money you have.

I would love to hear what you have to say about this. What are your thoughts? Email me at