Subtle Warning Signs Your Work Environment Sucks

There’s an analogy of a frog and water. If you put the frog in cold water and slowly turn-up the heat, the frog won’t notice and slowly cook. However, if you put the frog in boiling water, the frog will jump out. In this analogy the frog is us, and the water our work environment. The more accustomed we become to our surroundings the less we pay attention to them.

This makes it rather difficult for us to recognize the warning signs when a good thing starts to go bad. So in the context of a work environment, what are some warning signs that it sucks?

1. Managers fail to acknowledge the hard work of employees

I heard this statement today when an employee gave a manager a draft presentation: “There are no speaker notes.” The speaker notes were there. Never mind that the presentation took several days and carefully crafted. Just say “Thank You.”

2. Complaints about trivial things

When unresolved issues pile up, trivial things become the object of dissatisfaction.

3. Previously made decisions are constantly reevaluated. Deadlines constantly slip

This creates doubt that decisions can be made. It also sends an unintended message that no matter how hard you worked to get a decision; it won’t last – so why try.

4. Employees scrutinize the contents of emails out of fear of reprisal for making a mistake

I’ve seen employees agonize over sending banal emails out of fear of making a mistake.

5. Executives have a pattern of diving into the details instead of setting the direction

Executives spend time setting context and vision for the organization. How to achieve the vision is middle management and employees work.

6. Meetings rarely start on time. Meeting’s purpose unclear

Look at your calendar. How many meetings do you feel were productive and useful? What’s the irritation of poor meetings costing you?

7. Managers are rarely available because of back-to-back meetings

If managers aren’t available, it slows down progress on deliverables, decisions. Employee issues/concerns not addressed timely.

8. Employee breaking points become more obvious

Look at the number of employees out on stress leave. What’s going on with your attrition rate? How’s productivity? Absenteesim? Are your top performers beginning to show signs of wear and tear, or worse, leaving.

If several of the above items are present in your work environment, it’s time for management teams to get together and determine how to address the warning signs. I’m an advocate of initiating the conversation with employees by simply having a conversation: “I’ve noticed these things and am concerned how they are impacting you and our work environment. I’d like to hear your thoughts.”

This is an updated post that originally posted in 2010 on Shawn’s former blog.

Graphic by Shawn Murphy

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Adi Gaskell

    This is so true Shaun. So often we get so bogged down with the detail of our work (and indeed lives) that we don’t take a step back and look to see if we can actually do things better. A classic case of running to stand still.

  • BruceSallan1

    Yipes, I don’t want to work THERE! lol…

    I’ve come to the place where I like ONE workplace – my own. I am a stern boss, but I also give my employee plenty of time off (me)…Now, I’m skiing. I’m always skiing in the winter. It inspires me and now, after a great morning on the slopes, I’m going thru 65 posts from my Triberr tribes…reading, commenting, approving, and once in a while deleting…Job well done. Going to eat and drink later. I have a good boss!

  • Greg Marcus

    Sean, I thought you said “subtle” signs? Seriously though, you make a very good point. When caught up in the work vortex, you can’t really notice what is going on around you. This is a great list, and giving people something concrete to look for is very helpful

  • HRSSConsulting

    Unfortunately many bosses never take the time to step back and assess their workplace – they can’t see the forest for the trees. Employees clearly see the signs, but nothing changes and they become more frustrated. Additionally, too many managers don’t want to take ownership when they have a work environment that sucks. Either they just don’t see it because they too are inundated…or they choose to not see it.

  • Years ago, I worked for a large company that conducted an enterprise wide employee survey. The expected issues arose and they do in a business of thousands of stakeholders but the top concern was management’s inability to deal with non-performance. If you lead, you don’t just get to wave the pom poms in the good times and disappear during the challenges. If you think your team doesn’t notice you are hiding, you are a fool.

  • Pingback: Corporate team tuning - is it that time again?()

  • I definitely agree these are great symptoms, with the root cause being mid-level management in over their heads and having put the company in a position where the environment is systemically overloaded, chaotic and inefficient. There are other symptoms for a bad working environment (like nepotism, toxic employees, lack of objectivity in promotions / rewards), but these are good ones. Relevant:

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