How to Change Toxic Work Culture

February 14, 2020      By Morag Barrett

Ultimate Takeaway
  • Organizational culture isn't just an HR issue—it should be a top organizational priority.
  • Toxic culture impacts productivity, engagement, and the bottom line, not to mention an organization's reputation and employer brand.
  • Here are three ways to tell if your culture is toxic, and three key steps to improve it.

Is your office plagued by politics, siloes and turf-wars? Are you finding the water-cooler conversations more dramatic than a daytime soap opera? Are your talented employees leaving for pastures new? If so, you may be in the midst of a toxic culture, and you need to sit up and pay attention. Organizational culture isn’t an HR issue, it’s an organizational priority. You must learn how to change toxic work culture, because if you leave it unaddressed, it can undermine your business results and damage leadership reputations.

Company culture can be summed up as “how business gets done.” It’s the organizational equivalent of “personality” and is created from the behaviors you’re willing to tolerate. When it sparkles, we all want to be associated with the company, and everyone thrives. When it becomes toxic, or the “brilliant jerk” is allowed to operate without consequences, unhealthy behaviors become a cancer that spreads quickly. The whole organization can become infected and somewhere we want to avoid.

Unfortunately, without care and attention, a healthy culture can become toxic. It can slide into an ongoing nightmare that has a lasting and detrimental impact, not just to the company reputation, but to the reputation of everyone who works there.

I’m often called to work with organizations and teams who’ve taken their eye off the proverbial “Culture Ball” and ended up with the culture they deserved rather than the culture they needed to ensure success. Fortunately, there are proven ways to change toxic work culture.

The Cost of Toxic Work Cultures

Employee engagement is one way to assess culture and is a hot topic for many organizations. Gallup estimates employee disengagement costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion annually.

It’s a fairly basic concept, and we all get it: A healthy culture with engaged employees is good for business—and perhaps most compellingly, bottom lines.

Yet, in spite of all the care, attention, and resources lavished on employee engagement programs since it first came to prominence nearly 30 years ago, the needle has barely moved. Gallup continues to report that, of the approximately 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million—or 30%—are engaged and inspired at work. At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 million employees—or 20%—who are actively disengaged. The other 50 million—that’s 50% of full-time workers in the U.S.—are somewhere in the twilight zone of engagement: Not fully engaged and involved at work, yet not totally switched off. They’re just kind of…there.

(Learn how employee experience impacts employee engagement.)

Is Your Culture Toxic?

How do you know if you need to change a toxic work culture?

There are three questions you can ask to take a pulse check on your work-place culture. I talk more about these questions in The Future-Proof Workplace.  These three questions appear simple on the surface but have uncovered underlying issues that have held our clients back from achieving the results expected of them.

In the last seven days, have you:

  1. Been surprised or blindsided by the words or actions of a colleague?
  2. Hesitated to make a decision for fear of others’ reactions?
  3. Been guarded with your opinion or avoided sharing feedback with a colleague so as not to rock the boat?

If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, your office culture may need urgent attention as you may be on your way to a toxic culture. Don’t worry: this is our area of expertise at SkyeTeam. Call me!

Even if you answered “no,” I’d still encourage you to pause and reconsider your answers, if, in the last few weeks, you’ve returned home and said something along the lines of the following to your friend/significant other/dog:

“You won’t believe what happened at work today!”

You may be in the early stages of denial. Call me!

How to Change Toxic Work Culture

Creating a healthy organizational culture is a critical factor for success in the 21st Century Workplace. In researching our book, The Future-Proof Workplace, Dr. Linda Sharkey and I had the opportunity to interview leaders around the world about their experience of cultures, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In our podcast, The Future of Work, we spoke with top leadership thinkers. All shared tales of cultures that enabled employees to thrive, and the horror stories of the toxic environments that crushed motivation and left careers in tatters.

A little care and attention to your company culture goes a long way. Wondering exactly how to change toxic work culture? Here are three key steps.

  1. Role model candor and debate: Organizational values are a great tool. However, a poster is NOT the way to go. If you want a corporate culture built on trust, candor, teamwork then your ACTIONS need to demonstrate this. If your employees feel the need to ignore the elephant in the room or filter their messages in order to fit in and be successful, then things need to change. The change starts at the highest level of the organization – role modelling the expectations, not by a memo or motivational poster.
  2. Leverage the power of storytelling: If your employees share horror stories about your company and the villains past and present that work(ed) there then you need to create new stories that champion the desired culture. Stories are a powerful way to change corporate cultures. Look for the opportunities to reinforce and share the good-news stories. Tales that celebrate the successes and behaviors that are desired, rather than the toxic horror stories that may have been.
  3. Celebrate the role models: Make sure that your reward processes (whether monetary, promotion, or trophies and symbols) recognize the healthy productive behaviors that you want reinforced and not the “toxic habits” that may keep you stuck.

Nurture the Culture on Your Team and in Your Organization

While it’s the employees of an organization that end up being the victims of a toxic work culture, it’s those same employees who can be the champions for change and turn things around. While one person can influence a culture, it’s the people who make a culture stick.

If you now realize that you are immersed in a toxic work culture, don’t panic. You can turn this around. You can be the catalyst for change for your company.

(Tip: Don’t be a nightmare boss.)


Learn the top five reasons your employees are leaving to determine potential culture issues and retain your top talent—before it’s too late.

Tagged with:
glasses

Related Posts

Leave a Comment