How to spot a toxic culture - and what to do about it

Don't let a toxic work environment harm your employees and your business. Consider these tips to create a more positive culture
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A paper by Deloitte entitled “Is Your Organization Simply Irresistible?” describes a fantastic working environment as “flexible, humane, inclusive, diverse, and recognition-rich, with open workspaces.” But all too often, when I ask people to describe their workplace culture, they don’t mention any of these things. They use just one word: toxic.

Nothing good is toxic – nothing. And prolonged exposure to a toxic working culture can be harmful to both business and your mental health.

[ For more tips on building a healthy workplace culture, read 7 ways to foster a culture of learning in IT. ]

Toxic workplace cultures are bad not only for employees, but also for their family members and friends.

Toxic workplace cultures are bad not only for employees, but also for their family members and friends: Many an evening, weekend, or holiday is consumed with anxiety, anger, or exasperation resulting from a toxic culture.

Toxic cultures destroy self-esteem, motivation, goodwill, relationships, and sometimes even lives.

4 signs of a toxic work culture

How do you know if a culture is toxic? Consider these signs:

1. Verbal communication is minimal

Employees in toxic cultures don’t want to talk to each other. They don’t see a value in building relationships, meeting to discuss how to achieve goals, or ensuring that expectations are clearly set. Instead, they rely on email or other communication methods that avoid personal interaction.

2. Gossip is tolerated

When people don’t want to talk to each other, it’s often because when they do, they are gossiping about each other in the kitchen, in corridors, or off-site. Off-site conversations often happen when people are saying things about others that they would never tell them directly.

3. Trust needs to be earned

Experience and previous results count for nothing; everyone is constantly on notice. Everything has to be checked, double-checked, and triple-checked. The list of people who need to be consulted on every decision runs into double figures, and endless processes are required to ensure consistency for every action.

4. There are no consequences

Poor performance, missed targets, and inappropriate behavior or treatment of others are status quo. Anyone can get away with anything, anytime, and nobody is ever called to account for the things they have or haven’t done.

How to change the cultural status quo: 4 tips

If you’re a manager or a senior executive, it’s your responsibility to immediately address toxicity. Waiting it out, sending everyone on the latest training course, restructuring, or adding new people will not fix the problem – in fact, these approaches often make things worse.

Address toxicity as quickly as possible. Talking about culture without taking action will undermine your credibility and position and very likely lead to the loss of the very people you need to help change it.

Changing the workplace culture to one that is flexible, humane, inclusive, and diverse is possible, but only if your organization commits to acting on the feedback you receive and taking the time to create something new and different. That is the only way to help people keep their toxic tendencies in check.

Here are four ways to change the cultural status quo:

1. Redefine the way things are done

If you’re serious about changing your workplace culture, take time away from the office with your team and agree to hold each other to a set of common expectations. Ask team members to come up with a vision, a set of behaviors, and some collaboration principles.

2. Make time for creativity

All great working cultures give their staff members time to come up with new ideas. Some of these ideas challenge the “dumb” things you currently do (and every organization and team has these); others seek to exploit an opportunity that may present itself. Only through time and a different mindset can innovation flourish.

Great working cultures don’t tolerate "brilliant jerks" who do everything in their power to spread negativity and hold the team back.

3. Get rid of toxic employees

Great working cultures don’t tolerate the behavior of "brilliant jerks" who do everything in their power to spread negativity and hold the team back. Get tough with people who bring their worst selves to work every day. Offer them the opportunity to be part of what you’re creating, or part ways for good.

4. Undertake regular cultural activities

Cultures don’t change; they evolve. Simply taking everyone offsite for a few days to redefine the culture won’t give you the change you’re looking for. Change requires continual learning, celebration, and acknowledgment of where you’re heading. If you get it right, things will look a whole lot different in 9 to 18 months.

If you’re looking for a cheap, easy fix for workplace culture, you’re in the wrong job. Leaders understand that cultures evolve, and it takes determined action and role modeling to shift to a productive and fun environment.

Toxic cultures can be changed. How committed are you making the change?

[ Get The Open Organization Workbook, a free download with advice from more than 25 experts on building transparent, collaborative organizations. ]

Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book, "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work" (Wiley), has seen him travel all over the world to help IT departments transform the way they work.

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