How to Fix a Toxic Workplace Culture

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.

Top-Down Communication
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

Purpose-Driven Work
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.

Inspiring Leadership
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.

Empowering Culture
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.

4 Signs You’re Dealing With A Toxic Workplace

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  1. 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.

Violence On The Job: It Pays To Prepare #TChat Recap

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” ―Gen. George S. Patton

This week’s #TChat events coincided with the anniversary of a difficult date in U.S. history — September 11. As our nation considered lessons learned from terrorist events 12 years ago, our TalentCulture community came together to crowdsource ideas about a topic that is vital every day of the year: How to prevent workplace violence, and prepare for incidents that may occur.

Workplace Violence Stats

Learn more – read “Stopping Workplace Violence” at CFO Magazine

According to OSHA, workplace violence includes a range of behaviors that put workers at risk while on the job — from verbal threats and abuse to physical assault and even homicide. How prevalent are these harmful incidents? Some notable facts:

• Each year, more than 2 million Americans report that they have been victims of violence in the workplace. (See details from the U.S. Dept. of Labor.)

• A surprising proportion of incidents are fatal. As the adjacent image illustrates, nearly 20% of on-the-job fatalities are associated with workplace violence, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• Workplace violence is estimated to cost employers a whopping $120 billion a year. And of course, the human toll is incalculable.

For these reasons alone, workplace violence is a growing concern that deserves serious attention.

Violence At Work: What To Do?

To lead this week’s conversation, we welcomed two experts:
• Tom Bronack, President of Data Center Assistance Group, specialists in enterprise resiliency.
Felix Nater, Founder of Nater Associates, a business security advisory firm.

On #TChat Radio, Tom explained that companies can achieve more effective compliance and recovery through a strategy of enterprise resiliency — combining all recovery operations and personnel in a single entity that speaks the same language and uses the same tool set. Why is this important? As Tom noted during the #TChat Twitter discussion:

Felix emphasized the need for proactive violence prevention programs in the workplace, explaining that preparation can decrease incidents by improving problem solving and conflict resolution. He also noted that broader awareness is worth the investment of time, energy and resources to identify threats and mitigate risks. During the Twitter chat, he suggested a handy mnemonic:

He also cautioned us that results come from solid planning, in concert with effective execution:

Tom and Felix inspired many participants to join the conversation last night. Thanks to everyone who contributed opinions and insights! Highlights are captured in the Storify slideshow below, along with resource links from the week. We invite you to review these ideas and share them with others. Who knows? You could be a catalyst to make your organization a safer place to work!

#TChat Week-In-Review: Violence Prevention In Today’s Workplace

SUN 9/8:

Nater and Bronack_KK2

See the preview post and videos

#TChat Preview: TalentCulture Community Manager Tim McDonald introduced the topic, in a post that featured brief “sneak peek” G+ Hangout videos with both of our guests. Read the Preview: “Workplace Violence: Myth and Reality.”

MON 9/9: Post: TalentCulture CEO, Meghan M. Biro outlined 5 ways that organizations can be proactive in maintaining a safe workplace culture. Read: “Is Your Workplace Prepared For Violence?”

WED 9/11:

TChatRadio_logo_020813#TChat Radio: As a prelude to our open Twitter chat, Meghan M. Biro and Kevin W. Grossman, talked with Felix Nater and Tom Bronack about best practices in workplace violence prevention and preparedness, while community members added their thoughts on the #TChat Twitter backchannel.

#TChat Twitter: Immediately following the radio show, I joined Felix, Tom, Meghan, Kevin and our entire community on the #TChat Twitter stream for an open discussion focused on 5 key workplace violence questions. For highlights from the conversation, see the Storify slideshow below:

#TChat Highlights: Workplace Violence & Preparedness

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Closing Notes & What’s Ahead

GRATITUDE: Thanks again to Felix Nater and Tom Bronack for joining us this week. Your insights are raising awareness and providing solutions that make the world of work a more secure, productive place for us all.

NOTE TO BLOGGERS: Did this week’s events prompt you to write about workplace safety? We’d love to share your thoughts. Post a link on Twitter (include #TChat or @TalentCulture), or insert a comment below, and we’ll pass it along.

WHAT’S AHEAD: Next week, we tackle another timely topic in today’s workplace: Creative ways to leverage big data in recruiting top talent. This promises to be a really interesting peek into candidate profiling. So save the date (September 18) for another rockin #TChat double header. And keep an eye out for details in the next few days.

Meanwhile, the World of Work conversation continues! So join us on the #TChat Twitter stream, on our LinkedIn discussion group. or elsewhere on social media. The lights are always on here at TalentCulture, and your thoughts are always welcome.

See you on the stream!

Image Credit: Graeme Lawton via Flickr