Feedback Skills Will Help You Avoid A Toxic Work Environment

Feedback. This simple word, and the action it represents, has the power to create an open, positive and healthy workplace. When absent, it has the power to promote a toxic work environment.

Feedback is an integral part of organizational life. Evaluations, performance reviews, contract renewals, renegotiations, and day-to-day team conversations that move projects along all require the ability to give and receive feedback.

So how does this skill, or specifically the lack of it, lead to toxic work environments?

First, let’s look at workplaces where feedback is lacking. What happens when you aren’t given performance reviews – especially if wages or promotions are tied to these reviews? What happens when there is no direction for a project, yet you later find out through the grapevine that your superiors were unhappy with your work? What happens when you have a team member that constantly makes mistakes or doesn’t deliver work on time? How is everyone impacted if management will not directly address these important needs?

These are just a few of the ways that the lack of feedback can lead to feelings of betrayal that fuel toxic work environments. As you experience these things over and over, you begin to feel like your work doesn’t matter, that management doesn’t care about you or your success, or that you are being set up to fail. These feelings lead to disengagement.

What’s worse than no (or poor) feedback? Negative behaviors leaders, managers and team members engage in that further the growth of toxicity, such as:

  • calling out others when a mistake is made
  • shifting the blame from one team member to another
  • playing favorites
  • yelling, berating, or overtly abusing others
  • providing only negative input to an action or process

Feedback, when delivered thoughtfully, is a powerful vehicle for building trust, and ultimately, your professional effectiveness.

Feedback Can Fuel or Smother a Toxic Work Environment

It is not hard to understand how important feedback can be to preventing or eliminating a toxic work environment. But how do you give good feedback? How do you tell people their behaviors are negatively affecting performance or your working relationship?

How do you receive feedback without taking it personally, without getting defensive, or without getting your feelings hurt?

The key to giving feedback is to remember that it’s not what you say, but how you say it – and the intention with which you offer your insights.


Good Intentions are Important to the Feedback Process

If your intent is to put a person down, to prove him or her wrong so as to make yourself right, you are getting it wrong! These personal attacks create defensiveness, an unwillingness to listen, and future apprehension about feedback. In essence, you’re promoting a toxic work environment.

If your intent is to make your colleague aware of how he or she is perceived and to strengthen the relationship, you’re on the right track. By focusing on specific behaviors and being true to your positive intention to help, rather than to judge or criticize, you are making your feedback productive. When you extend compassion while giving feedback, you support others to see opportunities to improve something – a behavior, a skill, an approach, a relationship. It is easier for the other person to receive the feedback when they can participate in understanding that their approach to a problem can be changed to achieve a different outcome.

In this way you’re demonstrating that you care for the other person and that you’re willing to invest in your mutual effectiveness. You build a deeper sense of understanding for how to move forward, together, in the most productive manner.


To give feedback effectively, you need to be willing to receive it in return.

When others give you feedback, listen closely for their intentions. Being defensive and focusing on your response prevents you from hearing, and learning. Instead, focus on what is being said, make an effort to be open and show genuine interest in what you hear.

When you practice this behavior people will experience your receptiveness and will feel safe in sharing their perceptions. When people feel that their opinions are both being heard and matter, they are more willing to engage. This dynamic helps avoid the apathy that accompanies toxic work environments.

Having the courage to engage in constructive feedback conversations is an ongoing discipline that demonstrates commitment to fostering strong, trusting relationships that eliminate toxic work environments while building your Trust of Communication and overall professional effectiveness.

two figures with a broken idea bulb - teamwork

3 Top Trust Breaking Behaviors in the Workplace

Signs and Symptoms That Trust is Being Eroded Within Your Team

What this Article Covers:

3 Symptoms of Trust Erosion 
Trust Breaking Behavior #1: Gossip at Work
Trust Breaking Behavior #2: Breaking Confidentiality
Trust Breaking Behavior #3: Getting Even
Building Trust in the Workplace

The simplest things can turn a productive team into one where gossip, backbiting and other trust breaking behavior overshadow the work.

It is because the level of trust within a team and between individuals is eroded. It worsens with each small betrayal and each negative encounter. Without good communication, that damage is never fixed, leaving the core foundation of the relationships crumbling.

It is ultimately up to leaders to identify that there is a problem and begin building trust in the workplace.

There is good news in all of this: there are very obvious symptoms of trust erosion. Once you spot the three early signs of trust erosion, you can take action right away to stop the damage—an even reverse it.

1. Gossip At Work

gossiping women in office cubicalEveryone wants to be on a team where they feel free to share ideas, where they can communicate openly and honestly about issues and challenges. Building trust in the workplace creates an environment where people want to work.

Yet every day, trust is tested in team relationships, especially in the form of gossip at work.

Gossip is the number-one trust breaking behavior within teams. Rather than going directly to the individual with an issue or concern, members talk to everyone else. The grapevine begins to flourish.

As the time goes on, if the gossip is unchecked, it becomes more prevalent, happens more often, becomes more disruptive. Soon people began to hear about things a co-worker said behind their backs. They in turn gossip. Negative feelings grow. Distrust grows. Once the feeling of distrust takes hold, team members no longer work well with each other—they watch what they say, don’t voice ideas and exhibit other coping behaviors. Stress rises, as do other trust breaking behaviors.

When you notice team members talking about one another behind each other’s back, this is an immediate sign that there has been damage to the foundational level of trust within your team. It must be addressed to begin building trust in the workplace.

2. Breaking Confidentiality

breaking confidentially in the workplace breaks trustSimilar to gossip at work, breaking confidentiality has to do with how people in your team are communicating—it also says something important about trust of character.

Sometimes a personal issue may interfere with a person’s ability to meet deadlines, or how they are functioning at work. Being able to share issues with leadership or team members so they understand the outside pressure or an extraordinary circumstance is a factor in maintaining trust and keep projects on track.

But people are reluctant to discuss personal matters in a climate where confidences are broken and rumor mills are fed.

This is also true of professional confidentiality. From company trade secrets, to intellectual property, to individuals’ ideas for market growth with a new product or system. When these things are publicly shared, others become suspicious about whether their information is safe.

Building trust in the workplace means that people feel their personal and professional information is safe. Disclosing information members have been trusted to keep private—whether it is personal or professional—violates trust. Breaches of confidentiality encourages misunderstandings.

When a leader hears that confidentiality is being broken it should be immediately addressed as a trust breaking behavior that threatens to weaken teams.

3. Getting Even

Getting even in the workplace two men with boxing glovesGossip at work and breaking confidentiality lead to defensiveness and a “get even” attitude among team members. For example: “they said something about me, so I am going to share personal information about them.” Or: “she didn’t get me the information I needed in time, so I’m not going to worry about this deadline I committed to meeting for her.”

This tit-for-tat behavior will continue to escalate if not addressed: further decreasing the effectiveness of the team, eroding trust, creating deep feelings of betrayal and causing stress in the lives of all team members involved.

This trust breaking behavior is easy to spot because it to will get shared through the grapevine. People will begin to gossip about perceived wrongs, or use one person’s past behavior as an excuse for their current bad behavior.

When a leader hears or sees this “getting even” mindset, it must be addressed immediately to stop the erosion of trust within the team. Once this behavior is turned around, people feel less worried about making small mistakes and are able to begin building trust in the workplace.

Building Trust in the Workplace

Trust is fragile and our everyday behaviors—even those that are unconscious—can break it.

female coworkers celebrating a successAs a leader, you can turn your team around by modeling behavior that begins building trust in the workplace. People unconsciously follow behavior modeled by leaders, bosses and even administration. If leaders allow a behavior to persist, they are unconsciously saying to their team that this behavior is acceptable.

Trust begins with you!

The first step in correcting trust breaking behavior is to consider how your behavior has contributed to the presence or absence of trust in your team dynamics. From there, model the behavior you wish to see, address the issue by discussing how things should be handled you’re your team and follow through. When you see one of these behaviors, address it with the offending team member. Make it clear to your staff these behaviors are not tolerated and provide them with healthy ways to communicate to avoid eroding trust.

By addressing common trust breaking behaviors and creating a culture that encourages building trust in the workplace, you will transform your team into one that can transcend any challenge.

Build Trust through Broken Promises

People often tell me how much they need to be able to count on one another to come through, particularly during this period of doing more with less.

Think about it for a moment. When you do what you said you’d do, you give people concrete evidence that you can be trusted. Trust is your relationships’ adhesive. Without it, everything gets harder and takes longer.

Simple, right?

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stepping stones across turbulent waters representing seven steps to telling difficult truths

How to Tell a Difficult Truth in 7 Straightforward Steps

Telling the truth can be difficult.

In my work, people ask me to help them strengthen trust in their relationships. I work with individual leaders; other times with teams or entire organizations. Regardless of the scope of the engagement or place in the world I’m working, however, I’ve found that when it comes to trust, the same core issues surface. Among the most challenging of these issues?

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Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer Could Rebuild Trust. Here’s how.

Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Montersino

Under CEO Marissa Mayer, in the last year more than one-third of Yahoo’s employees have parted ways with the company – either voluntarily or involuntarily. In the coming months, another 15% of Yahoo’s workforce is slated to be fired.

Or, as Mayer prefers to say – “remixed.”

“Ms. Mayer has steadfastly refused to use the word “layoff” to describe the thousands of jobs eliminated since she joined the company,” reported The New York Times. “She even forbade her managers from uttering what she called “the L-word,” instructing them to use the term “remix” instead.”

Mayer’s termination policies have caught the attention of courts in California, where Yahoo is headquartered. Under California law, companies engaging in mass layoffs are required to give employees 60 days advance notice. Despite the large numbers of employees it’s forced to leave its ranks, reports are that Yahoo has provided no such notice.

If the courts determine Yahoo’s been conducting mass layoffs under the guise of performance-based terminations, thousands of former Yahoo employees will be eligible for back pay and damages. If the courts decide in Yahoo’s favor?

Yahoo – and Mayer – still face an uphill battle in the court of public opinion:
  • “Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer Has An ‘Invest/Maintain/Kill’ List” (Fortune)
  • “How Marissa Mayer is Spinning Yahoo’s Layoffs” (
  • “Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer has a list of layoffs…but will she end up on it?” (Vanity Fair)

Clearly, Mayer – and by proxy Yahoo – have a trust problem. When it comes to the viability of an organization, compromised trust is the canary in the coal mine. Why?

Because business is conducted through relationships, and the foundation of effective relationships is trust.

The question is, can Mayer rebuild trust in her leadership and throughout Yahoo? In our nearly 25 years of experience in rebuilding workplace trust with leaders around the world, the answer is yes…if Mayer demonstrates a sincere commitment to leading her people through the following steps:

Step One: Observe and Acknowledge

Turning around an environment struggling with trust starts with honest reflection, courageous examination, and assessment. It takes courage to take stock of where trust stands and acknowledge the specific behaviors that caused trust to erode and for relationships to head south.

This isn’t the time for generalities and labeling. It’s not the time to attack character. This first step is to assess and acknowledge the behaviors that broke trust in the first place, and how those actions impacted people’s lives. After all, what’s not acknowledged can’t be restored.

Step Two: Allow Feelings to Surface

Trust is emotionally provocative. When people experience trust being eroded, they feel it. Consider the last time your trust took a hit at work. What emotions surfaced?

People tell us when trust is compromised they feel everything from frustration, to anger, to devastation. They feel loss – the loss of their energy, focus, and productivity. And, in cases such as this, the loss of their relationships, particularly with people they’ve worked closely.

Often, the people who’ve been laid off are people others have cared about. People they’ve collaborated with…gone to the wall with…been with through thick and thin. When those people leave, it hurts. There is a loss, and with loss comes emotion.

In an environment of layoffs, people also tell us they feel vulnerable and fear for their jobs. Instead of stepping up to meet current demands, they withdraw. In these situations, people need a safe container to vocalize their concerns and discuss vulnerabilities constructively. They need support to move through the impacts of eroded trust, embrace the changes, and prepare to move forward.

Step Three: Get Support

We’ve seen people rebound, grow, and even prosper through broken trust…with support.

People can actually benefit from what disappointed them and took them down.

When trust is compromised (whether at work or at home), people – you – need support from impartial and objective confidants. Judging, criticizing, or heaping blame on the person who made trust vulnerable isn’t what’s needed. While those actions may be an easy default in the short term, they’ll only trap people dwelling in the past.

What’s most valuable at this time is perspective…exploring options…gaining an objective understanding of the bigger picture and working through doubt, confusion, and frustration.

Step Four: Reframe the Experience

With objectivity comes the ability to reframe experiences of broken trust within a larger context. Through looking at the extenuating circumstances that contributed to the break down, people can begin to shift from blame to problem solving. They can see options to move forward.

They may even begin to view the person who broke their trust through the lens of compassion, rather than blame.

Reframing helps people transform their traumatic experiences to opportunities for learning and growth for everyone involved. People can look at what they have, what they’ve learned, and how – as a group – they’ve even benefitted from what’s happened.

In our work, we’ve seen it time and again. When people are appropriately supported to reframe, they discover fresh appreciation for one another, both as colleagues and as human beings. They gain greater insight into what they truly need to from one another to do their best work, and learn how to deliver on those needs.

Instead of trying to trying to distance themselves from their situation, they step into it begin to leverage it.

Step Five: Take Responsibility

When people are suffering within a lower trust culture, it’s normal for them to project their negative feelings onto others – to lay blame and sidestep responsibility. However, people who successfully rebuild trust take ownership of their behavior in response to the conditions they are facing.

They ask themselves, ‘what can I do now to take charge of my situation? What I might be doing to contribute to a downward spiral of trust? Am I pointing the finger? Am I painting other people in black-and-white terms, as ‘all wrong’ or ‘all bad?’ Am I talking about – rather than with – people when I have concerns?

The truth? Even if not responsible for what happened, we all have responsibility for how we respond.

Step Six: Forgive

When people don’t forgive one another, they cling to their anger, resentment, and bitterness like a security blanket. We often hear people talking about a breach of trust that happened 5, 10, 15 years ago.

No matter how egregious they were, hanging onto past hurts doesn’t help you…or anyone else.

Learning to forgive releases people from this pattern of negative behavior and allows them to approach others with a sense of compassion. Forgiveness is less about letting the other person “off the hook,” and more about freeing oneself from the baggage of negativity, bitterness, and blame.

Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.

Step Seven: Let Go and Move On

In this final stage, people are supported to accept the situation without blame. They look back over their experience, reflect on the lessons they learned, and think about what behaviors they can practice to ensure a healthier, more productive working environment in the future.

We are not here to judge or criticize Mayer’s decisions, words, or actions. However, we can use the impression of broken trust as an opportunity to learn.

The truth?

We all find ourselves up against a wall at some point in time as the result of what has happened either to us or around us.

What we do when we’re up against the wall is what builds trust…or breaks it.

Final note: Using these Seven Steps for Rebuilding Trust, we’ve seen people in a multi-billion dollar communications firm completely transform their relationships – both within top leadership, and throughout the company. Through taking responsibility to rebuild trust, these people repaired severely damaged management/employee relationships in time to successfully navigate a major change initiative.

In their own words:

  • “Relationships can overcome betrayal.”
  • “This process can and has made relationships stronger.”
  • “The good results we have as a team and as individuals are linked to the level of trust we have in the team.”
  • “I got my power back.”

Yours in trust,

Michelle Reina

How leaders build trust, one mistake at a time.

When we work with leaders, we’re often asked, “what can I do to inspire trust?” For each leader, the answer is a bit different. When it comes to trust, people have unique strengths to leverage and vulnerabilities to address. That said, through nearly 25 years of trust-focused research and experience, we can give one piece of guidance to leaders seeking to increase their trustworthiness:

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Do your relationships have cracks?

Over the years, people have asked us why we called our book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace.

Betrayal is a strong word. It’s complex and emotionally provocative. For some, it’s downright off-putting.

“When you used the word betrayal,” people have said, “surely you knew you’d risk losing potential readers. If you wanted to make a contribution – to make people’s lives better – why would you use a word that could make people uncomfortable? Or, even push them away from your message?”

The truth?

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Spark a Cycle of Reciprocity

You want to be trusted at work. We all do. We all want others to believe we’re good, capable people, guided by the best intentions.

A truth about trust? It’s reciprocal. To get trust, we have to give it first.

What does it look like when we give trust?
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3 Things You Need to Know About Trust

Are you struggling to build and sustain trust in your workplace? You’re not alone. Human dynamics are challenging. Relationships are complex.

If you’re like most people we serve, you’re running into three common problems as you try to strengthen trust in your organization.
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Trust Begins with You.

We’re very excited to welcome you to our very first blog post and the launch of Reina on Trust Building!

To be honest, as we launch our blog, we’re feeling like the proverbial kids in a candy store. We’ve been supporting leaders and teams to transform their workplaces through trust for nearly 25 years. We have much to share with you!Continue reading