Most of us spend roughly a third of our lives working, so it’s little wonder that toxic workplaces are a significant contributor to mental health issues.

In fact, a recent WHO study determined that workforce stress, anxiety and related substance abuse currently cost the global economy around $1 trillion annually in reduced productivity, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and presenteeism.

Let’s make one thing clear. A toxic workplace is one that has a collectively low emotional intelligence (EQ).

Mentally and emotionally healthy workplaces are positive, productive and profitable environments.

It’s easy to spot low EQ in the workplace. Hands up if you or your employees or work colleagues are:

  • Discouraged and defeated?
  • Lacking agency or motivation?
  • Exhibiting a decrease in work rates, missing deadlines or deliverables?
  • Having trouble focusing and need repetitive instructions?
  • Uninspired by work goals?
  • Suffering from persistent burnout?
  • Utterly fatigued and prone to illness?
  • Subject to bullying or harassment?

If you found yourself nodding ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it’s time to act quickly to improve your workplace EQ before productivity lags, mistakes happen, and your teammates start jumping ship.

Here’s how.


3 foolproof steps to improving your workplace EQ

EQ can be individual, or it can run in packs. Every team has an emotional intelligence of its own, made up of the EQ of its members and the group’s collective competency.

A collectively low workplace EQ might be due to just one emotionally challenged individual or several toxic team members working together to bring down the group average.

Leaders and managers tend to have more influence, as those with higher EQ can work to negate the impact of less emotionally competent team members and those with low EQ can set the scene for higher toxicity.

The good news is that teams can work together to develop greater emotional intelligence and boost their performance.

  1. Identify the problems. The first step is to be ruthlessly honest about your team or workplace environment. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but to change a toxic culture, you’ll have to face some hard truths. Look for the following common warning signs:
  • Excessive absenteeism, illness or fatigue
  • Workplace cliques, usually accompanied by gossiping, favouritism, exclusionary behaviour or (at worst) bullying.
  • Impractical workloads and deadlines.
  • Awkward team interactions and poor communication.
  • Controlling management techniques and micromanaging.

Remember, you’ll find toxicity at all organisational levels, so don’t forget to assess whether the behaviour is coming down from the top, too.

  1. Rediscover your purpose. Many low EQ workplaces run on an aggressive pursuit of perpetual increases in profits or performance alone.

Yes, it’s important to set business and team goals, but people also need to know their work serves a meaningful purpose. Revisit your company mission (or revamp it as a group exercise) to make everyone feel they have a stake in the game. Recognise and value team accomplishments to engage people more deeply in the work at hand.

Find the ‘why’ in what you do, and exceptional performance will follow.

Work out your collective strengths and weaknesses. Don’t waste time trying to fit round pegs into square holes – an emotionally intelligent team knows every one of its members has a unique story and talent to contribute to the whole.

Take the extra time to find out what each of you has to offer and how their skills can be harnessed to achieve the business’ goals. Get to know team members when the pressure to meet deadlines is off, ask them what they think they can bring to the table and where they want to focus their abilities. Cross-train staff so they’re continually learning new skills that can boost overall productivity. 

Encourage and reward innovation and creativity. And, if mistakes are made, don’t name and shame. Always offer constructive feedback in a safe environment, focussing on a culture of growth rather than personal reprimands.

  1. Give everyone a voice. Research shows great working relationships are one of the top five contributors to job satisfaction. By banishing disrespectful behaviour and focussing on making people feel heard and included, your team will rise to every occasion.

Learn how to really listen to what’s happening in the workplace, hear objections, validate individual experiences and address issues transparently and promptly. Hold regular one-on-one and group meetings, be as inclusive as possible in decision making and follow-up assiduously. Make a point of working together to find solutions.


The bottom line

Research into emotionally intelligent groups identifies three conditions essential to team effectiveness:

  • Trust among members
  • A sense of group identity
  • A sense of group efficacy.[1]

Be brave in uncovering the ingrained behaviour of your team that’s holding it back from higher EQ. Explore and expose difficult or unskilled emotional habits and reinforce activities that help build a team that will work more successfully together than apart.

A toxic work culture damages your people, processes, customers and profits. Boosting EQ at work lubricates the collective team brain – increasing mental efficiency, memory, and decision-making. That’s because emotions are contagious – and when a workplace demonstrates high EQ, the whole organisation benefits.


About the author and Employment Innovations

Ush Dhanak is an HR Consultant for Employment Innovations operating out of the Newcastle and Central Coast region. Ush applies her broad experience to partner with local businesses in the region providing HR consulting, advice and training. Ush is also a sought-after Emotional Intelligence Coach having worked with companies and individuals across the globe, including the Australia Federal Police and Smeg Australia. She has qualifications and certifications in Executive Coaching, Emotional Intelligence Coaching, Neuro Leadership and Mediation.

Contact us today to speak with Ush about HR consulting services in the Newcastle and Central Coast region or on how to improve the EQ of your leadership team.

[1] V. U. Druskat & S. B. Wolff (2001). Building the Emotional Intelligence of groups, Harvard Business Review (March).