The Existential Dangers of a Toxic Culture

One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to shape the culture of the organization or team they lead. More specifically, their responsibility is to create a culture that brings out the best in people — a thriving culture.

However, and unfortunately, too many organizations are plagued by toxic cultures that are diminishing, discouraging, and dysfunctional. Sometimes this happens because the leader is just a really bad leader–a negative, harmful, prideful person that should not be leading others. Other times it happens as a result of some bad decisions, having the wrong people “on the bus”, or just overall misconceptions that turn into hurt feelings and resentment, which ultimately permeate the culture.

Whatever the reason, toxic cultures need not remain that way. Too much is at stake, and too many lives are harmed by toxic cultures. It is therefore imperative that leaders take the necessary steps to address their cultures and commit to changing them.

So, what does a toxic culture look like? Leaders must be able to recognize the signs to ensure that they safeguard against falling prey to the toxicity that plagues too many teams.

Signs of a Toxic Culture

Leaders need to be aware of the following signs of a toxic culture:

  • Dark and negative energy
  • Very formal environment that lacks any friendliness
  • Extreme lack of transparency
  • Suspicion about the motives of other team members and leaders
  • No celebrating of accomplishments
  • Public berating of team members
  • People are afraid to try anything new or make mistakes for fear of being shamed
  • Leaders and managers who threaten team members if they do not perform
  • People are afraid to speak up and share their ideas or concerns
  • Lots of internal politics and “water cooler conversations”
  • Pervasive discouragement
  • Extremely low morale and low engagement
  • No sense of community

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. Not a pretty picture! Who would want to work in an environment like this? Worse yet, who would want to create an environment like this? I hope no one.

Leaders, we must guard our cultures and do whatever we can to restore them and help people flourish. Work should be purposeful, fulfilling, and life-giving. If your culture has any of the signs listed above, you need to stop everything you are doing and get to work on fixing it with your team (you can’t do it alone). If you don’t, you run the risk of driving away your people, driving away your customers, and driving your organization into the ground.

Toxic: How an Unhealthy Culture Can Kill Your Organization

How would you characterize the culture of your organization or team?

In this episode of Leading Well, Jeremy Couch discusses the importance of organizational culture and explains what a toxic culture looks like. He identifies the signs to look out for and then contrasts the detrimental effects of a toxic culture with the positive attributes of a thriving culture.

Organizational Health Begins With Awareness

An organization’s success depends on a number of essential factors, including the quality of products or services offered, strategy, marketing, customer service, and financial resources, to name a few. As important as each of these are, there is an intangible component that can make or break an organization—organizational health.

“Organizational health is the single greatest competitive advantage in any business.” -Patrick Lencioni

The health of an organization is often overlooked because it’s not easy for leaders to get their arms around. They know it sounds important, but they are not sure exactly what a healthy organization looks like, nor are they sure if their organization is healthy or not. As a result, they end up avoiding it altogether and focus instead on the things that are easily quantifiable and familiar. In doing so, they are putting their organization and people at risk.

Ignoring the health of your organization is like ignoring your own physical health. You can get by with this approach for a while, but it will eventually catch up with you. When warning signs are present, pretending like they do not exist will not make them go away. Confronting your current reality is always the wise and necessary thing to do.

Leaders must be intentional about taking care of their organization’s health, and it starts with awareness. They must constantly be looking for warning signs, such as: declining morale, lack of engagement, internal politics, low productivity, lack of trust, employee attrition, team disunity, avoidance of accountability, and poor communication.

Consistently evaluating your organization to see if any unhealthy warning signs are present is the first step in the process of building a healthy and thriving culture.

What step will you take today to evaluate your organization’s health?

Four Keys to Cultivating a Healthy Culture

Whether leading a business, non-profit organization, school, church, or any other organization, leaders are responsible for the quality of the work environment. They can either create an environment that is healthy—one where people trust one another and work together to achieve a common goal. Or, they can allow the environment to become toxic—full of mistrust, lack of cooperation, competing agendas, and very low morale. In toxic environments, people are diminished, discouraged, and often driven away from the organization because of the unhealthy atmosphere that exists.

Author Patrick Lencioni talks about the concept of organizational health in his book The Advantage, and he asserts that when organizations of all types embrace the idea of becoming a healthy organization, they flourish and find true success. I couldn’t agree more. Yet, as Lencioni suggests, too many leaders allow their organizations to become characterized by unhealthy work environments and, unfortunately, they do not take action to correct this problem.

Great leaders are intentional about the type of environment they create within their organization or team, choosing to cultivate healthy cultures that bring out the best in people and build them up. So, exactly how do leaders foster organizational health? There are four key components that they focus on developing: trust, transparency, accountability, and unity.

Trust: team members and leaders at all levels must learn to trust one another, knowing that each person cares for one another and has the best interests of others at heart.

Transparency: honesty and vulnerability are essential because they safeguard against the possibility that any hidden agendas will emerge, often causing friction and dissension.

Accountability: people must have a sense of personal responsibility for their actions and hold themselves and others accountable to the standards and values of the organization.

Unity: ultimately, everyone needs to be moving in the same direction toward the same overall goals and vision. As a result, there is a true sense of cooperation, and every team member works for the betterment of the organization as a whole and does not seek to advance their personal ambitions.

If you are in a position of leadership, take some time today to evaluate your organization or team on these four components and identify any potential cracks that may exist. Toxicity in an organization has a way of spreading quickly, so it is essential that you as the leader confront any potential issues and ensure that they are properly dealt with and resolved. Doing so will help you create a healthy organizational culture that makes a positive difference and serves as an example for others to emulate.

The Power of Positive Turnover

The idea that turnover could ever be a positive thing might come as a surprise to you, but trust me–there is such a thing as positive turnover. You see, there are people whose very presence on a team is inhibiting the performance and productivity of other team members. Furthermore, their attitude and inability to work well with others can damage team morale and worse—drive away good people. They are called “culture-busters.”

One of the biggest mistakes that managers and leaders make when dealing with this type of employee is to do nothing. They think that by ignoring or tolerating their behavior, everything will just mysteriously get better somehow. Wrong. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Seems obvious, but it’s amazing how often the “do nothing” strategy is chosen as the approach for “dealing” with these type of situations.

When this is your approach, guess what happens? Your people lose confidence in you, and they draw one of the following conclusions:

1)  You’re not aware of the situation. This sends the signal that you are detached and uninvolved in the day-to-day realities of the team or organization.

2)  You’re aware of the situation, but you’re not doing anything about it. This sends the signal that you are not comfortable making tough decisions or dealing with conflict.

The damage caused by failing to deal with an employee that is detracting from the team and hurting the performance of the organization can be catastrophic. Morale declines, performance declines, organizational health declines, good people leave. As the leader, you don’t want any of these things to happen, so why run the risk of allowing a “culture-buster” to wreak havoc on your team and organization?

If you find yourself in this situation, faced with the tough decision to let someone go, confront the issue head-on. Do not let the short-term feelings of conflict or discomfort cause you to avoid making a decision that has long-term implications for the health and success of your organization.

Here’s the good news: when you do decide to confront the issue and remove the person from the organization (assuming their attitude/behavior cannot be corrected), the morale of your team will immediately increase. It’s like a breath of fresh air, a brand-new day that gives hope and instills confidence. It says to your people that you are aware of what’s going on around you, and you will not tolerate anyone who seeks to damage the culture, health, or performance of the team. This is leadership in action, and your people need to see it from you.

Are you dealing a potential “culture-buster” situation on your team? Is anything preventing you from making the decision that you know deep down needs to be made? Ponder the potential consequences of not acting. This should make your decision a lot easier.