“You wake up every morning and drag yourself into the office. You know there’s a reason you drag and don’t skip. The thought of being in your office makes your stomach turn, and you wake up every morning checking your temperature to determine if today might be a sick day rather than a work day.”
That’s how I started my article on Signs You Work in a Toxic Environment back in 2017. You know that feeling. I think we all do. Over the years, I’ve written more about working in a toxic corporate culture. I even wrote about Sunday Scaries. You know that feeling, too. Sadly, we’ve all been there.
WHAT IS A TOXIC CULTURE?
A toxic corporate culture can best be described as an unhealthy and detrimental environment within a company. It’s an environment in which employees feel disrespected, undervalued, and unsupported.
Such a culture negatively impacts employees’ mental and physical health, as well as their productivity and job satisfaction. It often leads to increased absenteeism, high turnover, and low morale. For the business itself, a toxic culture can lead to poor performance and a bad employer reputation. Would you want to work for a company that has a toxic reputation?
It’s important to employee well-being and to organizational success to turn this culture around. But first…
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY CULTURE IS TOXIC?
Signs that your corporate culture is toxic include the following, some of which expand on the list I included in my original article about the Signs You Work in a Toxic Environment.
- Micromanagement and authoritarian leadership: leaders might be overly controlling, dismissive of input from others, and quick to exert authority. They closely monitor employees’ work and deliverables/output, arrival and departure times, breaks, work from home time, etc.
- Bullying and harassment: could be in the form of verbal abuse, physical intimidating, or gossiping and spreading rumors and is often encouraged, leading to a hostile work environment.
- Unrealistic expectations: employees are expected to work long hours, achieve impossible deadlines, or take on more responsibility than they can realistically handle.
- Lack of (or poor) communication: communication breakdowns are common, leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and even conflict among employees. Management may not effectively communicate the company’s vision, goals, or expectations.
- Lack of transparency: similarly, there is a lack of openness or transparency when communicating or in decision-making processes. Information is withheld, and employees feel like they’re kept in the dark about the important stuff.
- Favoritism and discrimination: unfair treatment, discrimination, and favoritism are prevalent in toxic cultures. Employees might feel like raises, promotions, and opportunities are based on factors other than merit.
- Lack of work-life balance: employees are discouraged from taking breaks or vacations, or they might be expected to be available at all hours.
- Unethical behavior: you know it when you see it; you know it’s not the right thing to do or the right way to behave (e.g., theft, lying, violating company policies, etc.), but it’s happening all around you.
- Fear of recourse: employees are uncomfortable speaking up about concerns, and they don’t feel like they can say anything that goes against the grain or questions the status quo because they’ll be chastised (or worse) for saying it.
- Lack of trust: trust is a fundamental and foundational component of a healthy corporate culture. In toxic cultures, trust is eroded, and employees are skeptical of both leadership and colleagues.
- Blame and finger-pointing: when things go wrong, the focus is on blame and finger-pointing rather than on problem-solving and improvement.
There are more, but those are some of the key issues and signs.
HOW DOES THIS CULTURE GET TURNED AROUND?
Well, clearly, a culture transformation is in order, but that can’t happen without addressing the root cause: your leadership team. If you’re an employee (or a mid-level manager) – not the CEO or an executive – in your company, I’ll be right with you. Let me first address leadership’s role in turning the culture around.
Culture is driven from the top down. I believe that the CEO and the executive team set the culture and model the expected behaviors. Mid-level managers and employees follow their lead until they start to see that grassroots groundswell take over and everyone lives the desired/designed culture.
So, the culture turnaround starts with leaders. Here’s how this has to play out in order to drive lasting change:
- Acknowledge the problem: The first step to turn things around is to recognize and acknowledge that a toxic culture exists. Denying or ignoring the issue only perpetuates the problem. Leaders must admit that there are culture issues that need to be addressed.
- Define values and behaviors: Leaders should define and articulate a set of values and expected behaviors that align with the desired culture. These values serve as a guidepost for all employees to understand what is expected and acceptable.
- Effective communication: Transparent and open communication is critical. Leaders need to be candid about the need for culture change and clearly convey their vision for a healthier work environment. Regular updates and feedback mechanisms are essential.
- Employee involvement: Involve employees in the change process rather than forcing change on them. If they’re involved, the solutions may be richer because they have other perspectives and experiences that the decision-making leader may not have. Seek their input, engage them in decision-making, and consider their ideas for improvement. Employees are more likely to buy into the change if they are active participants.
- Realistic goals: Set achievable short-term and long-term goals related to culture transformation. These goals should be specific, measurable, and tied to the organization’s overall strategic objectives.
- Lead by example: It’s important that executives lead by example and model the values and behaviors that they wish to see from their employees; if they don’t live the change, why should employees?! Actions always speak louder than words. They must demonstrate respect, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to positive change.
- Recognition and reinforcement: Recognize the right behaviors and reinforce with incentives, promotions, metrics, and more. Reinforcing the behaviors, actions, and changes that leaders want to see is more powerful than talking about them, especially when combined with modeling them.
- Feedback mechanisms: Establish a mix of listening posts to gauge employee satisfaction and gather input on ongoing culture improvement efforts.
- Accountability: Leaders should hold themselves and others accountable for their actions and decisions. This means addressing instances of misconduct, fostering a culture of trust and responsibility, and implementing consequences for harmful behavior.
- Evaluate progress and adapt: Continuously assess your progress and be willing to adapt your transformation strategy, as needed. Stay responsive to feedback and be flexible in making necessary adjustments.
- Celebrate progress: Acknowledge and celebrate the positive changes and milestones achieved. This will help boost morale, motivate employees, and reinforce the importance of the ongoing effort.
- Measure success: Develop metrics and key performance indicators to measure the success of your culture change initiatives. Evaluate the impact on employee engagement, retention rates, and overall organizational performance.
Keep in mind that a culture transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a long-term commitment from – and alignment across – the entire leadership team to ensure that the changes are both embedded in the organization’s DNA and sustainable.
The Employee’s Role
Don’t give up if you’re not in a leadership role. (But know that even mid-level managers have to own some of the negativity and toxicity that they themselves perpetuate.) There are things you can do to shift the dialogue and the behaviors. But know that without an advocate or champion on the executive team, it will be challenging. Here are some of the things employees can do. It will require a group of you to then motivate others and get that grassroots groundswell going.
- Lead by example: Be a part of the solution, not the problem. Refuse to perpetuate the behaviors that drag down the organization. Model the behavior you wish to see in the organization. This includes treating colleagues with respect, being accountable for your work, and actively participating in initiatives that promote a positive culture.
- Open and honest communication: Foster better communication by providing constructive feedback and raising concerns with your manager or with HR. Sharing your experiences, ideas, and suggestions for improvement can be instrumental in identifying problem areas and working toward solutions.
- Advocate for change: Form alliances with like-minded colleagues and approach leadership as a united front. (Again, having that champion on the executive team will be important.) The more voices that speak up for change, the harder it is for leadership to ignore the need for transformation.
- Mentorship and support: Offer mentorship and support to colleagues who are struggling in the toxic environment. Create a network of individuals who are there for each other to mitigate the negative impacts of a toxic culture. (But don’t turn it into a bitch-fest.)
- Encourage respect and inclusivity: Challenge discriminatory behavior and advocate for a more inclusive workplace. This can include speaking up when you witness or experience harassment or discrimination.
- Seek training and development: Encourage and participate in training and development programs that improve communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution. These skills can be valuable in creating a more positive and collaborative work environment.
- Promote work-life balance: Emphasize the importance of work-life balance by taking advantage of flexible work arrangements and encouraging others to do the same. This can help shift the focus from overwork to overall well-being.
- Self-care and resilience: Encourage self-care and resilience-building among colleagues. Coping strategies can help you navigate a toxic culture while contributing to its eventual transformation.
- Support leadership initiatives: If leadership takes positive steps towards culture change, you can support these efforts by actively participating and contributing ideas to the process.
Then, there’s always the obvious: look for a new job. Quit. Leave. Save your sanity. Nothing changes if nothing changes. You’ll know if and when the time is right.
Culture change takes time. It’s a challenging endeavor, but with leadership that is committed to making things right, it is possible to create a more positive and supportive work environment that benefits both employees and the organization as a whole.
Employee efforts may not yield immediate results. But by actively participating in and supporting the change process, employees can help create a more positive and inclusive work environment that benefits everyone in the organization. Their actions will complement the leadership’s initiatives and accelerate the culture transformation.
Transforming a toxic corporate culture will result in a ton of benefits, ranging from improved employee well-being and productivity to a stronger organizational reputation and financial success. A positive culture is an investment that pays off in numerous ways and contributes to an organization’s long-term sustainability and growth.
As I like to say: Fix the culture, fix the outcomes.
Annette Franz is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. In 2019, she published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. In 2022, she published her second book, Built to Win: Designing a Customer-Centric Culture That Drives Value for Your Business (Advantage|ForbesBooks), which is available to purchase on Amazon, Books A Million!, Target, Barnes & Noble, and thousands of other outlets around the world! Sign up for our newsletter for updates, insights, and other great content that you can use to up your EX and CX game.
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