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How Unchecked Power Creates Toxic Work Environments

Written By: Naomi Jones

I walked into the office thinking it was any other Monday, little did I know that my day was about to blow up in a major way. As I went to set my things down at my desk, I was called into the office manager’s office and ignorantly walked into a surreal experience of being berated for 30 minutes while employees walked in and out of the front office area, trying to act as if nothing was happening.

The reason I was berated: I changed the Microsoft template on my email. I later found out that she came back to rave reviews of how quickly I turned around estimates and documents that were given to me for review. With 27 years of tenure at this family-owned business, she was not going anywhere and I quickly learned that anything showing the contractors and practitioners that her way was not the best or most efficient way was met with anger and aggressive behaviors. It’s a story I remember like it was yesterday, but it was 15 years ago.

It was the first time I worked in a toxic work environment, but certainly not the last.

Once there was an incident when a manager threw a paperweight at me. As an HR professional, I’ve had managers outright refuse to work with me. At one point when I was promoted, an older man decided that he shouldn’t have to report to someone my age and he was moved to a different manager. I am sure that was a win for me, but it shouldn’t have been an option. These environments all had one thing in common: an employee who was allowed to do what they wanted when they wanted with no repercussions.

Unchecked power shows up in different ways depending on the role, seniority level, and structure of the organization, but the results are always the same - a terrible working environment. Here are five ways unchecked power creates toxic workplaces.

  • Authoritarian leadership: In a toxic workplace, those in power often operate from a position of authority rather than collaboration. The authoritarian leader may use their power to intimidate, control, or belittle employees which stifles creativity and creates a culture of fear rather than a culture of empowerment and growth.

  • Lack of accountability: Leaders may feel as though they are above the rules and policies that govern other employees or turn a blind eye when disruptive employees violate policies. This lack of accountability spreads, eroding trust and setting a poor example for the rest of the workforce.

  • Nepotism and favoritism: When power is unchecked, leaders can easily play favorites, often promoting those they are close to, regardless of merit. This creates an unequal playing field, where competent individuals are overlooked, while those in the inner circle receive unwarranted opportunities and benefits.

  • Emotional manipulation and gaslighting: Unbalanced power dynamics often lead to manipulation tactics like gaslighting, where leaders make employees question their perceptions and sanity. In a toxic work environment, those in positions of authority may downplay complaints, misrepresent situations, and use divisive tactics to maintain control. Employees may start to feel insecure about their judgments, skills, and contributions to the team.

  • Poor conflict resolution: Those in authority may use their power to silence dissent, sweep issues under the rug, or punish those who speak up. Without a fair and transparent method for addressing concerns, employees may resort to passive-aggressive behavior, further deteriorating team cohesion and productivity.

Unchecked power contributes to a toxic work environment by promoting authoritarianism, eroding accountability, fostering inequality, enabling emotional manipulation, and inhibiting effective conflict resolution. The outcomes are often disastrous for both employees and the organization.

Unfortunately, we will all probably experience at least one toxic work environment throughout our careers. If you find yourself in a toxic work environment there are a few things you can do. First, you may need to consider whether the environment is salvageable or if your best course of action is to seek opportunities elsewhere. If personal circumstances dictate that you remain in your current work environment, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.

  • Document instances where authoritarian behavior affects you or your team. This record can be useful if you decide to report the issue.

  • Consider discussing the lack of accountability with HR or using an anonymous reporting system, if available, especially when it significantly impacts the work environment.

  • Focus on building a portfolio that showcases your skills and accomplishments, making it harder for management to overlook your contributions based on favoritism.

  • Trust your instincts and document any incidents of emotional manipulation or gaslighting to protect your professional standing and mental health.

  • When conflicts arise, try to resolve them directly with the involved parties first, adhering to any organizational procedures if possible.

Ultimately, you have to prioritize your overall well-being, because your mental and emotional well-being is important and no job is worth compromising your health or integrity.


Meet the Author

Naomi Jones For almost 15 years, Naomi has pioneered transformative initiatives across manufacturing, healthcare, and higher education as a People Operations Leader. Her methodology resonates with the modern workplace's pulse: the successful organizations of the future will be those that personalize their offerings to address both the collective and individual aspirations of their employees. Naomi believes the crossroads of strategy and compassion delineate the future trajectory of people operations.

Outside the corporate realm, Naomi treasures moments traveling with her daughter, mentoring the upcoming wave of professionals, and aiding new parents in her role as a postpartum doula.


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