How to eliminate toxic work cultures
A toxic work culture is one of the most debilitating situations a leader can have to deal with.
It creeps in sometimes seemingly silently, permeates an organization quickly and leaves discontent, resentment, panic and chaos in its wake. It will affect productivity, employees will resign. It can seriously damage a company’s reputation. Once word gets out of a toxic work culture, it’s difficult to recruit new talent and the only way to recover is CHANGE.
The key to eliminating toxicity is creating an empathetic culture and it starts at the top.
Leaders are able to set norms of empathy and respect that ripple across the organization and dispel negativity. A leader has to be prepared to face uncomfortable truths, take staff concerns seriously, and act on issues and to set a new agenda based on compassion and respect.
It’s important to firstly recognize that a work culture is not necessarily the result of a few bad eggs. A work culture is derived from the beliefs and values, or unspoken rules, across an organization which either support or enable what MIT Professor Edgar Schein refers to as, repeated behavior. It’s incredibly difficult to directly observe the unwritten values determining behavior in an organization, making it necessary to interview key staff and look at the formal documents and charters of the company. But more importantly, leaders need to look to the assumptions of the organization that are taken for granted. The way things are done simply because that’s how they’re done. It’s here bias and discrimination often hide.
Because a work culture is built on how things are always done - founded on these unspoken rules of values and behaviors taken for granted, cultures are entrenched phenomena, and thereby changing company culture is no walk in the park.
How do you approach this seemingly insurmountable task?
The more drastic the change required, the more drastic the measures needed. Generally, humans abhor change and we’ll only change when we realize they way we’re doing things is not working. To turn around a toxic work culture, your strongest support is a clear acknowledgement from staff that conditions are toxic and untenable. You will then win their support to effect positive change. If the level of toxicity is significant, staff will likely already have approached superiors or HR with their concerns, and they will be relieved that something is being done about it! Where toxicity is more subtle or limited, the better leaders can convince staff they’re working towards a more positive, happier workplace, the easier it will be to win support for change.
The first step is to investigate what behaviors are at play in your organization to determine what kind of toxicity you’re dealing with. Practically speaking there are a number of scenarios a company may experience and this article will pose scenarios and possible strategies.
Negativity can take a plethora of forms. There could be a particular person or situation you’re dealing with that’s easily identifiable or you might have a number of issues. Generally, the most common symptoms of toxic negativity are:
Often a workplace can be suffering a few symptoms as one condition can impact another. For example, should there be any kind of discriminatory behaviour from management, either in terms or favoritism or pay gaps, there may be accompanying gossip, complaint, strained interactions between staff, resentment and increased leave taking.
Alternatively, there may be a single clearly identifiable issue an organization or team are labouring under.
Whatever you identify in your organization, the next step is to investigate how this negative condition arose.
It’s too easy to blame one bad manager or sour employee. Usually while one or two individuals are the catalyst for a toxic work culture, there is a supporting network of people or policies that have either turned a blind eye to bad behaviour or enabled negativity to fester.
A good starting point is to look to your leadership team and examine what values and people strategies they bring. Work from the executive level down through the leadership chain to establish what patterns or issues could be contributing to a toxic work culture.
Examples of issues to look for include:
If you’re experiencing a toxic work culture, it’s likely some staff have already come forward with such particular grievances. Whatever intel you have from staff and leadership, try to draw as comprehensive a picture as possible across the team, or whole organization and resist the urge to root out the one ‘troublemaker’ that’s the key to all the problems. Keep in mind that while you may identify negative beliefs and behavior associated with one staff member, look at how these beliefs may be reinforced either in company policy or by others because unless you take a holistic approach to the problem, removing one person from the equation will not stop the toxicity. Once a pattern has been established, it’s about addressing the organization or team as a whole, not just one or two problematic staff.
By now you should have a list of identified issues and it’s time to prioritize what’s the biggest problem that you need to tackle first. Change takes time and often righting one element will automatically result in improvement in other areas.
While the solution will be specific to the particularities of your organization and teams, here are some general solutions to some of the most common toxic conditions.
When employees are disgruntled, it’s important to air their grievances in an appropriate forum, not at the water cooler. Management needs to hear the grievances, validate their experiences and make changes. If staff don’t feel heard, for whatever reason, frustration and anger will brew and spread like wildfire. Determine the best format to listen to employees, whether it’s one-on-one check-ins with managers, team meetings with HR or blind surveys. Think through the best listening strategies for your organization and consult with experts to decide on best practices.
Managers need to understand what each member of their team does specifically and what multiple roles and agendas middle management take on. Executives need to find out how long tasks are taking individuals and why. They should problem-solve to ensure resources are fairly distributed to address tasks and assess, not only whether staff are performing effectively, but how workloads could be reassigned more fairly so work is more evenly and efficiently distributed for the best outcome for the team, as well as each individual. It’s not enough that managers demand staff just ‘get it done’. They need to know how it’s been done, and adjust the consternation of the team if there are difficulties.
There are certain behaviors for which zero tolerance is the only solution. It is impossible to maintain a healthy working environment with any kind of aggressive and bullying behavior. Leaders need to issue clear warnings and repercussions for offending staff, but also provide support for staff exhibiting these kinds of behavior, as it often relates to their own psychological insecurity. A program dealing with underlying insecurities and fears needs to be offered to staff demonstrating such behavior, and they need to be given tools and effective strategies for dealing with their insecurities, improving their emotional intelligence and breaking negative patterns.
Staff need to have sufficient access to relevant information to complete tasks. Where either the flow of information is restricted because one employee is controlling it, or staff generally just feel left in the dark, the simple solution is clearer communication. Having the information to do a job and understanding expectations saves time and reduces confusion, frustration and the likelihood the task will be completed incorrectly. Hold weekly meetings, establish guidelines, how tos and standardized procedures and training for regular tasks, give adequate feedback on tasks and model desired outcomes where possible, send clear emails with itemized instructions or assign work groups where staff can share knowledge. The options are endless and again, it’s worthwhile talking to a consultant to figure out the right solutions and best practices for individual staff or teams.
Everyone wants to feel appreciated for the work they do, and the more appreciated they feel, the more likely they are to keep doing it. Where there is a toxic work culture, it can be easy to focus on everything that’s wrong, but day to day, it’s important that staff are recognised for what they’re doing right. Build a supportive environment with routines of sharing employee successes and celebrating team results.
If there are any company policies that might discriminate between employees, it’s important to amend them. It can be difficult to identify so go to employees for feedback as they’ll often see things Execs don’t. Make the rules as fair as you can for everybody and ensure that everyone across the organization is playing by them.
Examine work spaces, establish meeting and social routines, brands and logos and determine if anything represents the old toxic approach. Replace anything that could trigger old habits to new healthier routines and symbols that promote the changed values and behaviors.
You can’t tell staff how to change. Implementing lasting change and turning toxic environments around involves demonstrating the changes. New behaviors need to be demonstrated as ‘normal’ and easy. Leaders need to model the behaviors and select adopters to promote the new behavior and integrate them as normative standards that are easy to adapt to and rewarding for everyone. Create momentum and shared vision by involving big groups of people in disseminating and even generating solutions. Avoid slogans and sound bites like ‘we need to be more inclusive’. Be specific and show change through demonstrated practices, processes and routines. All leaders and executives need to be aligned on what the steps are and what clearly defined behaviors and values are the target. Leaders need to be compassionate and take responsibility for systemic failures and be an active and open participant in the solution.
If staff are experiencing barriers to change, it’s important to open up listening channels to identify their difficulties and provide them with the skills and support to make the changes.The promise is that any effort involved is to improve the working environment and managers need to be able to justify and explain how the proposed changes will deliver on that promise.
Weeding out toxicity will necessarily mean there will be casualties. Either it’s staff that are exhibiting destructive behavior that can’t be remedied or staff entrenched in negative values contrary to the culture you want to implement. Either way, you will probably need to say goodbye to staff that don’t support moves toward a healthy new corporate culture and this is OK. Staff that undermine the process will ultimately be better off elsewhere in a workplace more aligned with their values. Toxic people need to go, even if they are top performers.
Implementing change is a long process that may require modification along the way. Once you’ve implemented initial changes, you’ll need to evaluate progress 90 days down the line. The average length of time to effect organizational change is within 90 days, so make your implementation plan for this period and update it with wins and setbacks. If things aren’t improving as you’d hoped, you might need to make further analysis and enlist some new perspectives either from staff or consultants on how you can adjust on your plan for more effective change. If you’re having difficulty seeing results, it could be worthwhile to involve a unbiased third party consultant who, as an outsider, can more easily identify weaknesses and patterns and they can develop a plan to dismantle them. It’s often easier for external consultants to identify workplace bullies for example, as people who exhibit bullying behaviour often assume a different personality for superiors than they exhibit with their own staff or colleagues. It’s easier for outsiders to see through fronts. Consultants can also act without bias, which is another pitfall to Execs identifying bullying staff. Executives will often turn a blind eye to their direct reports’ toxic behaviour when the bully in question is a key or top performer on whom the Executive relies heavily.
The key to eliminating a toxic work culture is instituting a culture of psychological safety founded on empathy, sound listening and clear communication.
Staff need to be able to trust each other and their superiors, and have the skills to deal with and disarm conflict productively. Communication needs to be focused on goals, outcomes, solutions and successes and staff need to be provided with all the information and expectations to successfully execute tasks. When organizations can make the switch from enabling power-playing games to creating an authentically safe environment where each member is heard and the rules are clear, then companies can eliminate toxicity for good.
If your workplace could use some further inspiration for tackling toxic tendencies or a tailor made strategy, contact us for an appraisal.
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