We’ve all worked in toxic cultures. You know the signs: team members are afraid of speaking up, there’s an abundance of rules and hierarchy, communications flows in one direction – from the top-down, and silos are standard.
Toxic cultures have a huge impact on employees. In fact, multiple employee engagement studies point to a majority of the workforce being disengaged. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workforce shows that 67 percent of workers are disengaged, or two out of every three employees. It is difficult to work and thrive in toxic workplaces, and toxicity contributes to turnover in the workforce.
No one wants to dread going to work. Let’s look at key characteristics of a toxic culture, and then break down strategies for improving a toxic workplace.
4 Characteristics of a Toxic Culture
Fear of Speaking Up
When employees are afraid, they keep quiet even when they should speak up. They withhold positive and not-so-positive feedback alike. In these workplaces, employees have learned that speaking up is bad, and as a result, they don’t share ideas or sound the alarm when they see things headed for disaster. These are the types of workplaces where harassment and other harmful behaviors thrive. These are the types of companies that discourage diversity in terms of race, sexual orientation, religion and viewpoint. Even if an employee considered the lack of diversity a problem, they’d probably be too afraid to raise the issue.
Abundance of Rules and Hierarchy
In hierarchical cultures, every step the employee takes is controlled by a long list of policies. Rather than trusting employees to make sound decisions about things like what to wear to work, whether they can use social media at work, or when to travel first class versus coach, policies create a tightly controlled environment that not only keeps employees in line but stifles creativity. Additionally, in these workplace cultures, there is often favoritism or unevenness in who benefits from policies and how they’re applied. Managers routinely point to the policy to support their decision rather than having the freedom to consider the nuances of a particular situation and make the right decision.
In cultures where there is hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy, communication has to flow through a tightly defined chain of command. There isn’t an opportunity for open communication and collaboration.
In workplace cultures where the communication is typically top-down, team members are brought in on a “need to know” basis. Open, transparent dialogue is discouraged rather than fostered. I’ve often come across organizations where decisions are made by the executives and input from employees and managers at all levels is rarely solicited. If employees don’t share a sense of ownership in both the company and the company’s direction, they are unlikely to fully buy into the vision of organizational leadership. Moreover, they are unlikely to bring their best and full selves to the work.
In workplaces marked by silos, leaders tend to run their own shops and shun collaboration and sharing of ideas. As a result, most people don’t know the priorities and focus of other departments in the organization. Team members feel isolated and disconnected from the broader work of the organization. When this happens, employees are limited in their ability to be effective advocates for the organization. Additionally, departments balloon because managers hire and pad their staff, often duplicating work that is being done elsewhere in the company.
Fortunately, leaders can control these issues. Leaders set the tone for the organization, and it is incumbent on them to model the behaviors they wish to see in their companies. Here are three strategies to shift a toxic workplace culture.
3 Strategies to Build a Better Culture
We all want to know the “why” behind our work. Think about your mission. While you might be a tech company hiring developers, your purpose is to build tools that give a voice to people and their passions. Communicate how your work serves others. In his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Dan Pink shares that autonomy, mastery and purpose are critical to creating a motivating and engaging work environment. It’s critical to show employees the “why” behind their work, then give them the opportunity to innovate and own their contribution.
Too often, we promote leaders because of their technical skills. But people skills and leadership skills are just as important. Leaders need to be authentic and connected to each person on their team. When you care about people, you make the time to appreciate them and what they do, and you make time to foster a two-way feedback loop. Leaders make time to share the “why” behind the decision and engage their teams in sharing their ideas.
Ensure your culture fosters a win-win attitude and collaboration. Ultimately, it’s not about one person getting promoted at the expense of another or one team winning over another team. We want everyone to collaborate and work together to advance the goals and purpose of the organization. And, when we have an empowering culture, we are also valuing differences and creating an open, transparent environment for people to share ideas and debate openly. Organizations such as Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton and Netflix all have empowering cultures where their employees are empowered to make decisions to please their customers.
As leaders, we have a choice every day. We control how we behave and what tone we set. When we focus on building cultures with purpose, inspiring leaders and empowering employees, everyone wins. Employees feel bought in, meaning they’re able to bring their highest selves to the work. Productivity increases and the company is able to meet the needs of its employees, customers and stakeholders alike. This is what a win-win for all looks like.