Woman yellingYou’ve heard the nice sayings that other people can’t make you feel bad without your permission, blah, blah, blah.  Well, that sounds nice, but, anyone who has worked in a toxic environment - especially one in the academy - knows that other people really CAN make us feel horrible, or at the very least, can make the work environment next to impossible for actually getting work done.

Three sources (and early warning signs) of toxicity include negative attitudes, gossip, and intimidation/bullying.  In this article, I’ll share some ideas on each and what to look out for.

Negative Attitudes

When someone is down for a day, you might notice it and try to cheer them up.  A week of being negative would start to become more noticeable.  If you work with someone who has negativity that seems to seep from their pores, you have a potential problem.  Even in a large office, one person’s negativity can affect others - and even more worrisome is the fact that their negativity may grow and pull in others, as well.  When you are planning to maintain a positive academic work environment, you might feel sorry for someone if he/she is his/her own little unhappy person - but just keep it to themselves.  On the other hand, once it starts to radiate beyond, that’s when the trouble starts and you have to step in.


Gossip is certainly a source and a sign of potential problems in the workplace. It i’s an insidious issue and is one of the first ones that people could take a stand against.  When you take a stand against gossip, you are exhibiting leadership that others will remember - and will someday thank you for (even though that is not why you’re stepping up).

First, you can refuse to participate in gossip.  If you hear someone gossiping, you can walk away.  If you are offered a ‘juicy item,’ you can let the person know that you prefer not to hear gossip.

Secondly, if you hear gossip (or something that has the potential to be gossip), shut up about it and refuse to pass it around.

Thirdly, be more bold in exhibiting leadership in this area.  At a staff meeting, bring up gossip and encourage everyone to have a gossip-free zone at the office (and related to the office).  If you have individuals who are gossip hounds, speak with those individuals privately to let them know that their actions are damaging to human beings and the to the work that needs to be accomplished in this office or lab.

Gossip never helps anybody.  Unfortunately, it’s one you will essentially always see in a toxic environment.  And gossip is clearly linked to the intimidation and bullying (or haven’t you seen or read any news lately)?


Just recently somebody told me about a higher level administrative person spreading malicious rumors.  Everybody was believing these stories and talking about the situation - and it was untrue, but the damage was done anyway.  If you think about it, it will remind you of junior high or middle school shenanigans.

Academics, or those working in an academic environment, will often use words as the way of intimidating and bullying others vs. the physical intimidation and bullying that we might see in other settings.  With words, once the untruths, half-truths, or even truths that are meant to cause pain or to demonstrate power are ‘out there,’ you can’t take them back.  The damage is done.  No matter what is done to retract or to demonstrate that something is not accurate, some will always harbor those little questions, “What is s/he really…?’  It’s toxic!

As somebody said recently, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”

Toxic academic work environments, characterized by bullying, intimidation, gossip, and negativity keep productive people from their work and give non-productive people an excuse not to work or learn. As a leader, do everything you can to create and maintain a positive academic work environment.

graphic-fresh-berries-300x199Sadly, toxicity exists in the academic work environment. Please access the recording “Antioxidants” for Your Toxic Work Environment so you can live, learn and earn in positive, healthy, & productive places.






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