Is the Workplace Culture at Your School Toxic?

Every week I hear from teachers who are on the brink of burnout. My DMs are filled with heartbreaking stories of eroded confidence, unsustainable workloads and crowded staff rooms that feel utterly lonely.

It’s a real honour that you share your stories with me. I hope that never changes. And of course, it’s got me thinking about how I can help.

Now, I will say - I’m not a psychologist. There are brilliant people with deeper expertise in this space than me. But you know I love to share a resource, so that’s what I’ll do today.

I’m going to share some of the resources that have made a difference for me. The ones that set off *all* of the light bulbs and blew my very mind. (No one has time for ‘kinda useful’ resources - we need the hard-hitters!)

These resources will help you understand what a toxic culture can look like, how it can impact you and how to combat it.

So while this post won’t have all the answers, think of it as a yellow brick road toward some true expert advice. 

So What is a Toxic Culture?

A toxic culture shows up in so many ways - some are clear and some are so subtle that you only realise how they impacted you once you’re out. 

But one great explanation for a toxic workplace culture comes from Dr Donald Sull who analysed 1.4 million workplace reviews. He found that the top five things that drive a toxic culture are:

  1. Exclusivity and a lack of inclusion
  2. People feeling disrespected
  3. Unethical conduct (like dishonesty)
  4. Cutthroat behaviour (like people undermining each other), and
  5. Abusive management.

He also found that nothing makes people leave a workplace like toxic culture. Of the 24 million Americans who left their jobs between April to September last year, toxic culture was ten times more than of a driver than remuneration. HUGE, right? 

So, that leads me to my first ‘you-really-must-check-this-out’ resource: The Dare to Lead Podcast. The doctor I mentioned above, Dr Donald Sull, chatted with Brené Brown recently about toxic workplaces and it’s well worth a listen.

But most importantly? This podcast gives some guidance about what to do if you’re in a toxic workplace. Because heck knows you need to do something!

A white male hand holds a smart phone with the Brené Brown podcast on the screen. The text on screen says ‘Must Listen Leadership Podcast.’Well worth a listen!

How Functional is Your Team?

BFF, how functional is your broader teaching team? Do you feel supported? Confident that everyone will deliver what they promise? Able to be yourself?

This next resource examines the dynamics and dysfunctions of a team. And trust me when I tell you - this book will change everything. It makes you see your team in a whole new light. It helps you understand the root cause of so many dysfunctions.

This was one of those reads that had me immediately joining the dots between the examples they gave and my own workplaces.

A Black hand holds ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ book. The graphic says' Must Read Leadership Book.’
Game. Changer.

The author Patrick Lencioni says that when it comes to a team reaching its goals, a lack of trust will be your biggest barrier.

He’s not talking about the kind of trust where you close your eyes and fall backwards, but the kind where you can be authentic, honest, accepted and trust that your basic needs will be met. 

How much trust is there at your workplace? Can you be completely vulnerable and candid about your struggles? Can everyone?

A graphic shows Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, in a pyramid. From bottom to top it says: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, accountability avoidance and inattention to results. Content and IP by the great Patrick Lencioni.

While I’ve just given the tiniest snippet of this framework, you really must read this book. It’ll give you actionable tips to help build a functional, high-performing and rock solid team. It’ll help you see the links between a lack of trust and a toxic culture.

But BFFs, the bit that had me nodding like a bobblehead on a car dashboard, was the bit about artificial harmony.


So, What is Artificial Harmony and Why Does it Matter?

Artificial harmony (to paraphrase Brenè Brown) is the kind of culture where leaders avoid tough conversations and honest, productive feedback is withheld.

A cream coloured graphic with handwriting font that displays the Brene Brown quote ‘Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things”.Don’t you agree?

It’s the kind of environment where people give a ‘dirty yes,’ saying yes to an ask, while really meaning no. 

Artificial harmony leads to ‘back-channeling’ (another Brené gem), or the ‘meeting after the meeting’ where people say what they really feel.


How Does this Show up in a Teaching Environment? 

Well, it might sound like:

  • A school that’s overly hierarchical - where it’s not safe to challenge leading teachers, faculty heads or principals
  • Projects that are driven by a one or two people, because the other participants didn’t feel safe to just say no
  • Hearing from a colleague that another teacher is frustrated with you
  • Silence in staff meetings when contentious issues are raised
  • Venting after the meeting instead of hashing it out during the meeting
  • Feeling pressured to work overtime and say yes to everything

The good news is, there are real, tangible actions you can take to address this kind of toxicity. And they’re laid out so beautifully in my next resource recommendation.

A white male hand holds the book Dare to Lead’ by Brene Brown. The graphic says ‘Must Read Leadership Book.”And if you’re sensing a Brenè shaped theme, you’re not wrong!

Like nothing else I’ve encountered, this book is SO powerful in helping you create a safe culture. Whether you’re an official leader in your school, or the leader of your own domain (i.e. - all teachers) this one is a true must-read. It‘s as illuminating as six to seven suns, at least.

What is the Impact of a Toxic Culture?

There are so many different ways a toxic culture corrodes a workplace. 

Toxicity impacts everything from high attrition, to high unplanned absences and lost productivity. But most importantly. It can have an awful impact mental health. In a toxic workplace, trust struggles to thrive. And burnout lurks under the bridge.

Dr Louise Phillips from Southern Cross University recently said that “The crisis is now. The impact of burnout (in teachers) is not in the minority, it’s the majority.” Staggeringly, 83 percent of Australian teachers considered leading the profession last year. And every week, I hear from teachers across the world that are in the same boat.

Chances are you probably know how to recognise burnout. But if you’re not sure, keep an eye out for:

  • A lack of fulfilment in things that used to bring joy 
  • Withdrawal from socialising 
  • Interrupted sleep 
  • Neglected self-care
  • Overwhelm
  • Apathy and irritability

And please, more than anything BFF, make sure you get support.


So, Where to Next?

If you’re feeling like this is all a little too close to home, the first and most important thing to do is to reach out for help. Chat to a trusted colleague or friend. 

And if you’re facing burnout, reach out to a professional. Imagine I’m looking at you right in the eyes as I say this - please seek help. 

Teachers are well known for putting others first, but remember what the pilot told you - you have to put on your own oxygen mask first if you’re going to help others. 

I’ll leave you with a little list of some fantastic support services in Australia. But to all of my MJLL BFFs, if you’re facing a toxic workplace, or if you’re burnt out - know that there’s a community around you. Know that you are worthy of support. And know that you deserve better.

A graphic contains the contact details of Beyond Blue, 1300 22 4634. Balck Dog Institute,, Mensline Australia, 1300 78 99 78 and Lifeline, 13 11 14.Never hesitate when it comes to getting support. You deserve it!



Is the Workplace Culture at Your School Toxic? - Miss Jacobs Little Learners

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