Brett Knowles, pm2 Consulting
Brett is a long-time thought leader in the Strategy Execution space for high-tech organizations, beginning in the late 80’s while teaching at Harvard and being involved in the initial Balanced Scorecard research and books. His client work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune and countless other business publications.
Pub: October 13 2021
Upd: November 11 2022
I am going to separate this article into two sections: first, a diagnostic that you can use to see if your work culture is toxic; and secondly, identify what are the common causes of toxic work cultures.
Rate the following from 0 to 5, where 5 represents complete agreement with the statement, 3 represents a medium level of agreement to the statement, 1 would indicate the statement is rarely true and 0 (which is awesome!) meaning that this statement is never experienced in your organization.
There’s little to no enthusiasm
Today you detect no excitement about the challenges of the day, new ideas, or even interacting with each other.
Bad attitudes build on themselves, gaining mass and volume as time passes. All that negativity is a result of culture, but what you see is a gloomy vibe in the office. It hinders everyone's ability to get things done and most workers’ report cards say they're far less productive when they work with people who have poor attitudes.
There’s a pervasive fear of failure
It is super important that everyone feels psychological safety - security in the knowledge that you can take risks and make mistakes without punitive consequences. No one wants to make mistakes at work, but often this is the biggest fear that employees report in culture surveys.
There's a big difference between the temporary embarrassment when an idea of yours fails than the lingering stigma that exists after you feel you're in a toxic work environment. The latter kills all creativity in the organization.
There’s constant dysfunction and confusion
No one does what they're supposed to do or what they're accountable for. “Overlaps” and “under-laps” are common, and people often feel left out of the loop. It is hard to tell which way is up within a toxic workplace.
Toxic cultures are breeding grounds for dysfunction and confusion. They breed a lack of trust, ineffective communication, and power struggles, which result in anarchy. Those issues make it all the more challenging for team members to collaborate, solve projects, meetings, and relationships frequently run off the rails.
There’s never-ending gossip and drama
A little bit of office gossip is normal, in fact, most employees admit to participating in office gossip. But when this gossip takes on an extreme level, and you feel like you're starring in a reality TV show, things have gone beyond the normal.
Our current hybrid mode of working disguises gossip as small personal slights, sarcastic comments during Zoom meetings, and side comments in chats/Slack/Teams.
It might seem harmless, but this maliciousness takes a toll. Workplace bullying is correlated with mental health issues such as psychological burnout, depression, anxiety, and aggression.
There’s high employee turnover
This is the lagging indicator. By the time you see high employee turnover, the cancer has already spread.
If more people are leaving than usual, it's a strong indicator that the workplace culture has taken a nosedive. On exit interviews, most employees cite culture as their reason for leaving. Organizations that focus on their culture have almost 20% lower turnover rates than those that ignore culture.
There are several reasons why employees leave their jobs. But if you feel like you’re seeing a mass exodus, that’s a red flag about your work environment.
Add up your scores from 0 to 5 across these five questions. If you score >23, your organization has a critically toxic work culture, 10 to 22 is seriously toxic and needs immediate attention, 5 to 9 requires focused attention, and 1 to 4 is “normal” these days.
The most common causes of toxic work culture
The following is based on our experience and research. These are presented in no particular order, are intended to be easy “observation-based” diagnostic of what might be causing the toxic work environment in your organization.
Your organization's core values are not outlined or communicated.
Each organization’s core values describe the expectations the organization has about how employees should behave. They become the foundations for decisions that are made and how we interact with each other. Without them, it is impossible to establish a stable culture and we’re headed towards a toxic workplace.
Your organization's culture is purely for communication purposes and does not reflect how the organization functions.
A surprising number of organizations think that once they have articulated their core values on their website, promotion materials, and board reports, they become fact. Of course, this is not the case.
You should see evidence of your core values being monitored and followed by leadership and every single employee. When someone accidentally stepped over the line and contravenes a value, the organization should nudge them back into place to avoid toxic behaviors spreading.
You and your coworkers cannot recite the company values
This is a great indicator as to whether people live their values day by day. If you and your co-workers can't recite the values, it's time to reconsider how they're established and used day by day.
Your policies, procedures, and compensation system don't align with your core values.
Let's say your core value is about being a trusted partner, but your compensation system rewards salespeople for achieving the end of Quarter targets. You can imagine that as the quarter draws to a close, and sales reps are in jeopardy of losing their jobs, they will sacrifice the core value in aid of achieving their quota. This misalignment spell cause that core value to be ignored once every 3 months, which is effectively the same as never being followed at all.
Take a look at your policies, procedures, and even your benefits. See where there may be a disconnect between what your organization’s values are and the standards that are currently in place.
Your organization does things in a particular way “because that's how it's always been done”.
Without the ability to constantly modify your values and change how the organization performs, you will inevitably fall out of sync with society, and find your values no longer match those of the communities in which you work.
It is important to note that increasing organizations are seen as the engine to cause societal change, especially where governments have proven ineffective at doing so. If your organization is insensitive to its internal or external pressures, you’re enabling a toxic work culture that is being created through the disconnect between your organization and the world in which you operate.
Bad bosses can create toxicity.
There’s also toxic leadership present in some organizations. There is a saying that goes along these lines “good employees leave bad managers”.
Managers do not provide quality or consistent feedback.
To be useful, performance feedback must be both frequent and immediately applicable.
In today's world, especially in the hybrid mode of working, it is critical that employees are given daily or weekly feedback and are able to act on that immediately.
The adage of publicly praised and privately coach has never been more true. If this is not followed, toxicity is created within the work environment.
Walking the talk
Leaders and managers are held to a higher standard than individual contributors, and for good reason. If neither ship does not uphold the values of the organization, it sets a poor example for employees to follow and they could eventually step into a toxic workplace.
Managers commiserate with employees
There will always be disconnects within the organization, but when employees come to complain about their co-workers and management sides with either group, conflict is created.
Is critical to create a culture where psychological safety exists, and coworkers are not chastised for not conforming to others’ expectations and word diversity can be respected and dealt with.
A disagreement between managers and corporate decisions are apparent
While it is unlikely leadership will agree with everything that is dictated to them by Corporate, your leadership needs to present an aligned and unified front. Managers need to serve as the filter for toxicity to create a peaceful work environment.
Manager's coaching and mentoring is not aligned with corporate values
Day to day you guide your co-workers on how to see events that occur and behave in accordance with them, it is critical that your coaching is a hundred percent consistent with corporate values. Even small discrepancies are observed and can invalidate all values.
Toxic employees also create a toxic work culture.
Not every individual in an organization is in a position of leadership. But there’s an opportunity for self-leadership and taking accountability at a personal level.
Employees exhibit entitlement
Employees often do not understand the context or why decisions are made but feel that their voice and opinion have been ignored to the detriment of the organization. They feel that they are entitled to set the direction of your organization, get that next challenge, receive that promotion, or be included in that decision.
The reality is that someone might not be ready yet. Or perhaps they simply weren’t the best fit. If they could put their ego aside, they could talk through how they feel about the situation, then ask the question, “What would it take for me to get there?”. Teach employees to respond to failure positively so they can be more resilient. This will set them up for future success.
It is possible that employees are not the right fit
Workplace toxicity is frequently caused by employees staying in a role that they're not suited for. Not only are they unhappy, but the job is not done to the quality that is required. If an employee seems checked out they need to consider the following questions:
- Is your job the right role for you? Does it play to your natural strengths and interests? Does it challenge and motivate you?
- Is your manager the right manager for you? Does he or she support your personal and professional development? Is your manager self-aware and understanding of your unique needs?
- Is your team the right support system for you? Do your co-workers push you to grow and improve? Do you have healthy workplace conflict and trust?
- Is the organization aligned with your personal life values?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, this employee might need a change. This could mean you shift them into a new role on the same team, a new role on a different team, or they part ways with the company. Recognizing that one’s role or company isn’t a fit and having the courage to talk about it and act on it should be celebrated.
Your co-workers are resistant to changes taking place within your organization.
Employees who are anxious to learn new skills or adapt to change do so because previous change did not work out the way they wanted, and now they’re experiencing low psychological safety and they don’t feel safe to take risks.
Employees aren’t honest and forthcoming with others.
In Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, he says the base of successful teamwork is trust. If your employees don’t trust the people they work with it creates a fear of conflict. Employees who fear conflict don’t express disagreement with decisions or policies. Staying silent can fuel bitterness, resentment, and disengagement. In other words, it can fuel toxicity and lead to a hostile workplace culture.
Most of these signs and causes of a toxic workplace are easily avoidable, you just need to keep a sharp eye and take action before it’s too late. You can learn more about employee engagement strategies by clicking here, and prevent your work environment from presenting toxic situations!
Photo credit - wayhomestudio