How to change a toxic culture

We’ve all experienced a toxic workplace, where nothing gets done, employees are at each other’s throats and management is in crisis. That can all change says Colin D Ellis.

You never forget your first toxic culture. It stays with you, night and day, weekday and weekend. It affects your work, your relationships, your life. Often, you’ve done nothing to create (or maintain) it, but like everyone else, you’re forced to live it. Of course, sticking with something that’s bad for you is never a good idea and make no mistake, toxic cultures are bad for everyone. They’ve been statistically proven to increase stress, anxiety, mental health issues and thus undermine engagement and productivity.

According to US research company Gallup, toxic cultures costs US businesses alone approximately $500 billion every year in lost productivity. So they’re bad for people and bad for business too, yet some people seem to revel in them and some leaders choose to ignore them.

What causes a toxic culture?

Toxicity in organisations is a result of a working culture that has stagnated. In these kinds of cultures everything stops. There’s no conversation, no challenge, no clear strategy or priorities, no consequence for poor behaviour or poor performance and no visible leadership. There is plenty of fear and a distinct lack of safety. When Google surveyed its teams in 2017 and asked them what their number one attribute of great teams was, psychological safety came out on top.

Amy Edmondson is the authority on Psycholo-gical Safety (PS). In a paper in 1999 she described it thus, “Psychological safety describes the collective belief of how team members and leaders respond when another member ‘puts themselves on the line’, by asking a question, reporting an error, or raising a difficult issue.”

In toxic cultures this doesn’t happen. Leaders ‘blame throw’ and look for scapegoats. They use power and authority and seek to make the simple complex.

Lead with courage

Toxic cultures are created as a result of low emotionally intelligent employees who feel little to no connection with what the team or organisation is trying to achieve. Sometimes, where strategy or a decision is clear, this is understandable; however, in my experience it’s mostly a result of bullying behaviour from managers or else allowing certain individuals to become a disruptive influence. In order to address either of these issues, courage is required and in toxic cultures, courage in numbers provides greater psychological safety.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting for one minute that people ‘gang up’ on those they believe are responsible for the toxicity. It’s critically important that they practice what they preach and approach the issue with empathy, seeking to understand the root cause of the toxic behaviour and presenting solutions to address it. Whether this is being honest with a colleague or manager about their behaviour or then escalating the issue to those that can help.

Moving from toxic to vibrant

For a culture to move from toxic to vibrant then people have to be held to account for their behaviours or performance. The best teams do this really well so that managers never have to do it. And in order to be able to hold each other to account, then time needs to be spent discussing what works well in the team and what doesn’t. Then a set of behaviours and principles need to be agreed that can serve as the foundations for better working conditions. Without this, people lack the foundations from which courage and discipline can rise and the toxic culture will remain.

It’s vital that individuals who have identified their culture as being toxic, take meaningful action. Simply waiting it out and hoping that it corrects itself is not an option. To get rid of a toxic culture, the staff have to define what vibrant looks like and then have the courage and discipline to hold themselves to account to it. If nothing changes then finding a place that allows you to do your best work may be the only option you have. 

Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work has seen him travel all over the world to help organisations transform the way they get things done.