Signs of a Toxic Work Culture

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Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.

~Frances Hesselbein

How important is company culture?

Very important, it turns out.

Long-term exposure to toxic workplaces can lead to both poor performance and even failure. At the very least, a hostile company culture results in high employee dissatisfaction, a distracting workplace, and increased employee turnover.

Today’s rapidly changing and competitive job market means that employees don’t hesitate to leave their jobs if they feel there isn’t a strong workplace community. Unfortunately, it’s often your most talented employees who are first out the door. Many talented and experienced people quit their jobs for reasons unrelated to their actual positions. They do so because they can no longer tolerate the heavy weight of an unhealthy work environment, corporate bureaucracy, and a culture that lacks an authentic team-oriented mission.

Strong, shared culture forms when people share common values, goals, and expectations. In practical terms, culture can be influenced by the physical work environment, the transparency of communication from leadership and the type of language (e.g. how “corporate” does the communication sound), dress code, technology, and the tone of company meetings and events.

When some or all of these factors are off, the culture can begin to drift in a negative direction. If outright hostility, negative incentives, outright toxic communication, or narcissistic management is present, culture will not drift but rather sprint in a negative direction.

Additionally, the Millennial generation (those born from 1981 to 1996) is currently the largest segment of the current workforce and by 2025 will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. This is particularly critical, as research has shown that this generation is 22 times more likely to remain at a company that they consider a high-trust culture.

Conversely,  Millennials are far more likely to leave a role when they find themselves in a demoralizing workplace. The Millennial take on work culture can be pretty accurately summed up by Kenny Rodgers: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” A lot of Millennials are running from toxic work cultures, and few are looking back.

With these factors in mind, avoiding a toxic company culture becomes a critical priority for companies that is only increasing in importance as the Millennial generation takes on an increasingly important role in the workforce.

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Signs of a toxic workplace

No pulse, no enthusiasm.

When you look around and find yourself embedded into a negative ecosystem of bad attitudes, poor outlook, and cynicism, it’s a pretty good sign you’ve landed in a toxic work culture.

Attitudes tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies and, as Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “If you keep on saying things are going to be bad, you have a good chance of becoming a prophet.”

Risks are not welcomed because failure is feared

When the highest priority in a company culture is to simply not make a mistake and to stay off of the radar of management, then a machine of innovation-killing behavior has been set into motion. This sort of predominantly fear-based work environment breeds a plethora of toxic behaviors and will ultimately have a deeply negative impact on your company culture.

Simon Sinek says, “Stress and anxiety at work have less to do with the work we do and more to do with weak management and leadership.” If you find yourself in a workplace with leaders who focus on exacting retribution for failure more than encouraging growth, it is likely you’re in a toxic workplace.

Back-biting, gossip and drama

Another hallmark sign of a toxic culture is a constant flow of office drama and gossip. Team dynamics and effectiveness rapidly break down when individual members no longer trust one another. This issue is exacerbated if there is also a high level of fear in the company culture. Drama and fear create an especially destructive cocktail of failing corporate culture. 

Leadership who participates in office drama is a particularly destructive sign of poor leadership in the workplace. When leadership falls into the habit of office gossip, it acts as a catalyst and accelerant for workplace cultural demise. 

High employee absenteeism and turnover

Absenteeism and Turnover are perhaps the ultimate sign of employees quitting a toxic job and “a high turnover rate is perhaps the most telling sign that you have a toxic work environment that needs to be addressed”, says Carol Sankar.

When a company fails to engage and retain talent it is often a major sign that company culture has crossed into a toxic death spiral. Pulling back from this level of cultural breakdown is a difficult task and usually takes a major overhaul of company policy, leadership, and mission.

How to change a toxic work environment

Strategies to fix a poorly performing work culture could fill volumes, but there are a few core steps to creating the best workplace on earth that every team should implement right away.

Get rid of bad management

Whether managers reach their role by hustle, hook, or crook, every company needs to take a regular, hard look at team management. Few factors will kill employee motivation and innovation like a bad manager and when a company identifies poor leadership, it’s better to rip the bandage off sooner than later. A manager is far easier to replace than an entire team of disgruntled employees.

Find your company’s core values

Many companies have never given more than a passing thought to company core values. Some view a core values statement as a checkbox to complete and file away, and most employees in those companies don’t realize the core values exist, much less what they are.

Core values, when authentically created and upheld by leadership, can provide a powerful source of engagement, inspiration, and accountability. A company built on a foundation of shared, common values will inherently attract and retain more engaged employees.

Engage and grow your employees

As the old adage goes, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” and that is especially true in the context of teams. Creating paths for employees to personally grow, learn from mistakes, and mentor one another is a fundamental way to engage and retain talent. Engaged, growing employees are more likely to take personal ownership of company culture and are more motivated to be productive team members.

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