Toxic work cultures and how to fix them 

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toxic work cultures

As more people experience stress-related illness and burnout, a contributing factor can often be a toxic workplace. 

Toxic workplaces and work cultures are sadly on the rise, and employees don’t even need to be ‘in the office’ to experience the effects. 

My latest blog explores what creates this toxic culture and how good leadership can help to combat it. 

What is a toxic work culture? 

This is a place where employees find it difficult to progress in their role and career because of a negative atmosphere created by the leaders, co-workers and even the company culture itself. 

Typically, in this type of culture, there is a rule by fear, where communication is top-down and aggressive, and conflict is rife. 

This is the type of organisation where communication is all one way and often negative. There is limited room for employees to express themselves or feel empowered to undertake their work, and where they don’t feel listened to – indeed, active listening from supervisors and leaders can be non-existent. Micro-management is often the name of the game, and bullying is often an outcome. 

Organisations that have toxic work cultures may often talk about values and beliefs, but they seldom put them into practice, meaning that they are simply hollow words to the employees. Ambiguous company cultures also mean that new job candidates can’t be informed that they are a good fit and align with business values. 

The fear of being able to speak up or challenge when a workplace is toxic is linked to job dissatisfaction, which, in turn, can lead to a drop in productivity and mental and physical health deterioration. 

Businesses do need to focus on output, but not without also focusing on people. When the output becomes the only metric and growth is the goal, often the people are forgotten about – ultimately, growth may come more slowly because the output of employees will dip when there is no focus on them and their needs. 

How can leaders mend a toxic workplace? 

Recognising that there is an issue is the first step in fixing a toxic workplace and culture. Good leaders will see the dissatisfaction from employees manifesting in the results and attrition rates of employees. 

It is crucial at this point that the leaders let their staff know that they are invested in change for the better, actively listen to the issues that are causing the toxic culture and share plans to resolve the issues along with the plans to rebuild a positive culture. 

Here are some key actions that need to take place to create a positive workplace culture: 

  1. Get everyone on board 

A toxic culture can often stem from change, but to turn this around, more change will be inevitable. Importantly this time, the change needs to be inclusive and positive. Employees need to feel empowered to share thoughts and actions about making changes for the better. Feedback culture must be enabled so that people can have their say – even those who currently feel disenfranchised and may be negative about the process in the first instance. (It is important to remember that some people may still be reluctant even to positive change because if it is not correctly embedded, it will have further detrimental effects). 

  1. Observe, Actively Listen, then Act 

Sometimes toxic work cultures are created by individuals and not the whole organisation. In this instance, it is important for leaders to observe how teams are working – are there individuals who micromanage or bully? Having a set of core values by which the business operates and having regular communications about positive actions associated with those values will allow the individuals who do not operate by them to be performance managed. It also means that the organisation can hire people who display positive attributes aligned with those values. 

  1. Take Personal Responsibility 

Leaders must recognise that they are accountable for a toxic workplace. It may be a direct result of their behaviour, be it their personality or the fact that they are driven only by results. They may not realise that the shadow that they cast hangs over the organisation, especially if this is one where they choose not to have a work-life balance – in this case, working all hours is assumed to be the norm – and this can be a great contributor to burnout at all levels. As a leader, you must always remember that you lead by example. If the example is good, people will follow suit; if you have negative personality traits – then, unfortunately, others will also follow this, so remember the shadow that you cast. 

  1. Be empathetic towards people 

Compassion and humility are no longer just seen as ‘soft skills’, they are ‘core skills’ for any leader. People are not machines; they have feelings, they make errors, and they learn and grow. They are all individuals and need to be treated as such. Good leaders will have the emotional intelligence to recognise this along with their own negative traits or mistakes, and it is an excellent leader who can stand up and admit to making a mistake but also learn from it. 

A Good Leader can Fix a Toxic Culture 

Company culture is defined by those who lead it, and it is possible to remedy a toxic environment when upholding core values, being empathetic towards employees and leading by example, and it is up to the leaders to set the tone and culture to foster a good working environment. 

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