Now that we’re all paying attention to workplace culture, here’s the unfortunate news: It’s not always pretty. A workplace can be just as broken and dysfunctional as a rotten relationship. Like the couple in counseling, you don’t really know how bad it is until you’re focusing on it.
As a leader, you’re in a uniquely powerful position. You can turn it into a total win. But that’s only if you’re willing to do the work. First, you have to drill into your organization’s core values, and you may not like what you find. When the truth looks ugly, do you stop looking, and just return to business with blinders on? Is there a way to conceal it from the employees, fix it at some future date and hope they don’t notice? No. It’s already an elephant in the room, believe me. And your employees see it a lot more clearly than you do.
The first step to healing is facing the truth. Here are four key signs the workplace culture is toxic. If you own them and commit to fixing them, you’re heading towards a far better place for everyone.
- You churn like butter at the lower layers. Entry-level and lower-mid level positions are your canaries in the coal mine. If you can’t engage people as they come in, something’s missing. If your entry-level employees tend to leave before their one-year anniversary, there’s a problem. Further, given that you’re dealing with mostly millennials and younger generations at this level, there’s already a foot-out-the-door mentality. So, like climate change, the worse it is, the worse it will get. One key oversight is not supporting employees. Among key reasons to leave a job, millennials want to be given the chance and support to grow into leadership positions.
- There’s no line out the door to get in.There were 5.4 million job openings in the month of February, during what is still a turbulent labor market. For some fields, there are always more openings than talent to fill them. It’s not expected to change in 2016. Meanwhile, do a search for “great work environment” or “best place to work” and you’ll get some 82 million options. Listing great employers is trending, which means a great workplace will get noticed. And so will a bad one. From massive portals to tell-all blogs, no workplace is invisible.
- Everyone’s in a bad mood. Down in the trenches, what’s the air like? If everyone’s in a bad mood, note to self: That’s your workplace culture. Along with a general pissiness, you’ll probably find that employees feel undervalued, forced to compete with one another, distant from the company mission (if indeed that mission is even on their radar), can barely wait until the end of the day or resent the long hours, and are probably also going to embark on a job search if they haven’t already. (Two signs: clusters of gossip at the water cooler — digital or real — and a company’s browser history that’s glutted with visits on sites like LinkedIn.)
- Change is resisted, no matter what it is.Fear is an instant mute button in a toxic workplace. It’s also a giant monkey wrench for any kind of process. It can impose a status quo that resists changes, whether they would be better for the organization or not. A dynamic workplace is one in which the employees are willing to embrace change: They trust their best interests are going to be protected. They also see the point of thoughtful change, and may well agree with it. If they don’t, they’re not afraid to say so.
What we’re finding is that we know even less about our own organizational cultures than we think, though there are numerous ways to get a bead on it.
But it’s not a good time to overlook the challenge. If you’re not willing to do the work, you’re going to lose. It’s impossible to hide in this global, hyper-networked social economy. And there’s an added factor for leaders: To not fix a known problem could dump you into the churn, too.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.