Addressing the Drivers of Toxic Culture in the Workplace

As mentioned in a prior post, over 90% of CEOs and CFOs believe that improving their corporate culture would boost financial performance. However, a staggering 80% of workers still report suffering from work-related stress. This disconnect has massive implications on both a human and corporate level, highlighting the urgent need for leaders to address and improve their organization’s culture.

Leaders who want to enhance their corporate culture (which should be every single one of us!) struggle to answer the next question: Where to begin? The only unacceptable response is to do nothing! Some business operators believe that culture can be improved through group activities and demand participation in company picnics, team sports, and similar events. However, it’s important to recognize that demanding participation in these activities is, in itself, a toxic practice that will undermine the effort to create a positive culture.

One of the biggest obstacles to change is the abundance of conflicting guidance available. There are thousands of books and tens of thousands of blogs that offer conflicting advice and approaches. The only correct perspective is that no single strategy exists that is universally right or wrong. Due to the difficulty of knowing which recommendations to follow for your business, there are no blanket, out-of-the-box solutions. While there are certain standards that all organizations should adhere to, each situation demands customization based on the complexity of the operation and the depth of the problems. 

To gain meaningful insights on potential culture changes for your business, it’s essential to seek the perspective of objective outsiders. If you are already aware of changes you could make but have not acted upon them, it’s crucial to examine the reasons behind the inaction. If you don’t know where to begin, that’s precisely where you must begin asking for help.

In trying to grasp the issues, we need to recognize that leadership, social norms, and work demands are the primary drivers of culture, and leadership’s inattention to these same issues is the primary cause of toxicity! 

The best place to start your analysis is by looking in the metaphorical mirror, as the answers to the issues often stem from errors made by leadership. Begin by accepting responsibility but treating your errors as fairly as you would anyone else’s mistakes. With that action alone, you are beginning to assess if fairness is properly handled within your organization!  It’s important to acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes, and the only lasting error is refusing to accept the mistake and doubling down, ultimately making the situation worse.

The importance of leadership as the best predictor of culture comes as no surprise, but it underscores a fundamental reality: Leaders cannot improve corporate culture unless they are willing to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for toxic behavior.

Social norms should define what behavior is expected and acceptable in day-to-day interactions. A company might list “respect” among its core values, but if respect is not commonly understood or defined, it becomes an abstract value that cannot be translated into concrete behaviors. Surprisingly, even the most basic social norms can vanish within an organization if not clearly defined. It is the little things that we ought to be able to take for granted that form the foundations of a corporate culture.

Leadership and social norms are closely intertwined. As noted in a previous post, not all leaders are managers, and not all managers are leaders. Everyone can and should be a leader when it comes to reducing toxicity in the workplace. Leaders elevate others through their behavior, while managers provide day-to-day guidance and performance assessments. As discussed in the book “Assholes Matter,” managers reinforce or undermine norms through their actions when providing feedback. However, it’s important not to reflexively blame bad culture on individual managers. The issues and situations surrounding a single toxic individual can be profound and need to be addressed accordingly. Every person, no matter how hard they try to adhere to the most elevated standards, will make mistakes. Some individuals refuse to change despite counseling and need to be dismissed, while others will evolve with appropriate support and guidance. A great leader assesses which category an individual falls into and acts accordingly. Managing blindly using a black-and-white lens will cause leaders to miss out on the greys that offer the greatest potential for growth.

Along with leadership behavior and social norms, managing workload appropriately, both for oneself and one’s staff, is another key area where leaders can focus efforts to improve corporate culture. Setting unattainable expectations for oneself and others will always lead to failure. While “failing fast” is a business motto of merit designed to support growth and success, if the goals are unattainable, it reinforces negativity and breeds low self-esteem. This low self-esteem can easily be reflected in lowered ongoing performance, decreased job satisfaction, and increased turnover.

The vast majority of leaders are concerned about their employees and want to do the right thing. Leaders should address corporate culture and toxicity as ongoing, living challenges and keep them as top priorities for organizational success. If you are unsure where to start, seeking help from experienced professionals can provide the guidance and support needed to create a positive and thriving workplace culture.