How To Sniff Out Toxic Work Environments According to Workplace and Meaning Expert Danny Gutknecht

It’s no secret American’s are leaving their jobs at alarming rates. And though some would like to blame the pandemic or poor benefits and pay, recent research out of MIT shows that the top predictor of turnover is toxic culture. In fact, toxic culture has been shown to be ten times as influential in a person’s decision to stay or go than salary or any other consideration. So, what makes a workplace dysfunctional?

According to Danny Gutknecht, CEO of Pathways, and author of “Meaning at Work and It’s Hidden Language,” there are three types of toxic workplace cultures: dysfunctional, controlling, and isolating. In the onset of the pandemic, workers have been empowered to reject the workplaces that thrive on dysfunction and hyper-control. The third, isolation, while seemingly less detrimental than the first two options, can be debilitating.

“They all share one thing in common,” Gutknecht says, “a lack of personal and shared meaning.” But what does “meaning” really mean? Well according to Gutknecht’s book, meaning is what you believe about your life and how you navigate your existence, and it is deeply tied to your physical well-being because at the end of the day we cannot fake how we feel without consequence.

When it comes to toxic workplaces, it becomes difficult for employees to exist in these environments after too long. Dysfunctional environments often are overrun by power struggles and a lack of communication or trust, making it difficult to collaborate or focus. In controlling cultures fear, manipulation, and authority are used to achieve company objectives and what happens is that people feel reduced to a cog in the wheel. But isolating cultures can be the most detrimental and are often the most difficult to detect. More alluring than a dysfunction or controlling environment (for obvious reasons), isolating cultures promote individualistic work ethics despite the impact this can have on psychological health.

Knowing how common toxic work environments are, it is unsurprising that job seekers might be concerned about how to identify a toxic workplace, manager, or team. This is where Gutknecht says it’s important to not only evaluate your interview through the lens of “can I see myself growing and evolving here? Does this position align with my career goals?”, but to also interview the interviewer.

“It is critical to realize that everyone usually wants things to work out in an interview, so the instinct is to relate and connect. Ignore this instinct,” says Gutknecht. “It’s why most employment relationships don’t work out.”

In order to position yourself for success professionally, it’s critical to identify questions you have about the company, job, team, and the interviewer themselves. Specifically, understanding the short and long-term company goals, as well as what brought the interviewee to the company and why they stay, can give you concrete insight into the company versus receiving a personal testimony from the person interviewing you. By taking this approach and taking your time to evaluate and weigh the information you have received, the more likely you are to end up in an environment that feels best for you.

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