In my work as a performance coach, I have extensive experience with toxic company cultures. I can recognize a toxic culture very quickly, as the warning signs tend to be similar across a variety of industries and businesses. Many leaders I work with, however, fail to recognize the culture decay in their own companies until it’s too late. And in my experience, those leaders are often part of the reason the culture has become toxic in the first place.
What Is a Toxic Workplace?
A toxic workplace is one that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity. Similarly, a toxic work environment is one that negatively impacts the viability of an organization. Employees are often the first to notice these issues – and leaders often the last. In my experience, people come to work for a company that they respect and end up leaving because of their supervisors.
The following are signs your company culture might be toxic:
You can feel this type of environment the minute you walk in the door. Employees often feel as if they’re wearing an emotional suit of armor. There is little laughing or smiling, little positive interaction between employees. Just quiet work.
Behavior Motivated by Fear
In toxic environments, employees aren’t motivated by the desire to succeed for the team or for themselves. Instead, they are motivated by the desire to avoid punishment or retribution.
There is little, if any, direct communication when it comes to solving issues, which leads to our next sign…
Rumors and hearsay thrive where communication is absent – and then tend to grow quickly, often putting everyone on edge.
Toxic cultures start at the top. Weak leaders who act defensively, are constantly blaming others and would rather pass the buck than solve the problem are often the biggest driver of poor work environments.
Lack of Trust
For employees, one of the most important parts of a job is knowing that your boss has your back. When that trust falters, so does the culture.
Lack of Respect
Whether it’s a leader not respecting their employees or employees not respecting each other, cultures can turn toxic quickly if there are those in the company who don’t believe others are “up to the job.”
Shared values are incredibly important to an organizational culture. When leaders and employees place different priorities on different values, conflict soon arises.
Lack of Commitment
As in every human relationship, lack of commitment creates a lack of unity, a lack of respect and ultimately, a lack of viability.
Employees Have No Voice
When employees feel as if they have no outlet to voice their concerns, and that leadership isn’t listening to them, they are less likely to stay engaged in their work.
How to Avoid (or Fix) a Toxic Culture
A solid company culture can turn sour quickly if you’re not consistently nurturing it. The best thing company leaders can do to avoid a toxic company culture – or reverse one – is to start by immediately opening all lines of communication to determine the root cause or causes of the emotional strife. Facilitate conversations around these topics with employees and come up with solutions that both employees and leadership can implement together. Using a performance coach as a moderator can help “even the playing field” to ensure that employees don’t assume the game is rigged.
Above all, building a positive and productive company culture requires three major factors:
Predictability: Employees desire of a level of comfort that comes with predictability. They want to know what’s expected of them, and that they will be valued and awarded if they play by a set of clearly defined rules.
Consistency: When leadership operates in a consistent manner and espouses the same values as the company the employee signed up to work for, culture stays on track.
Accountability: As a leader, do what you say and say what you’ll do. A culture in which both employees and leadership feel comfortable owning up to mistakes is a culture that can easily move past problems and grow stronger as a result.
Building a positive and productive company culture takes focus, time and continuous nurturing. Simply laying out a vision and then putting it on the shelf won’t do. Leaders who want to avoid toxicity in the workplace should be aware of what is going on with their management and employees at all times, proactively creating a communication strategy that can rectify any communication issues before they metastasize.