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.