If there’s one thing that leaders don’t want their workplace culture to be considered, the word “toxic” is arguably the first term that comes to mind. Toxicity can cause high performers to underachieve, exceptional employees to explore new opportunities, company morale to deflate, and overall business performance to suffer. Although the COVID-19 pandemic enabled millions of workers to depart from the confines of their offices and begin working from home, toxic workplaces have proven to permeate these remote work boundaries.
When evaluating and examining the composition of toxic work environments in companies across the United States, there is one primary factor consistent in each workplace. So what is the underlying cause behind these toxic workplace cultures—and what can be done to stop it?
The top reason for toxicity
While many issues can play a role in attributing to toxic workplace cultures, the most pervasive is weak leadership. From placing the wrong resources in executive positions to lacking a clear and persistent business strategy among C-suite leaders, toxic workplaces almost always have improper people sitting atop their organization. Although these leaders are supposed to be stewards of the company’s image and brand, their many ineptitudes can create a trickle effect throughout the rest of their business.
How to prevent a toxic workplace culture
If you’re an upper-level leader at an organization that’s battling high rates of turnover, it’s time to look yourself in the mirror. One of the most common expressions—attributed to Marcus Buckingham—used to explain workforce attrition is: “People leave managers—not companies.” Preventing a toxic workplace culture first begins by evaluating your managers and making sure they’re in the right position to succeed. Are these people fit to lead an entire department or team? Can they relate to—or be empathetic with—their staff? Do they have a positive attitude that can help to overcome adversity? If the answer to most of these questions is “no”, then it could be time to make a change.
Organizations that conduct employee engagement surveys are often far more attuned to the challenges that are facing their workers. This is a great way to solicit input from your workforce and evaluate the performance of management teams. By encouraging your employees to be honest in their survey responses, you could pick up on key executives that are struggling to effectively lead their teams. Some managers have resorted to command-and-control leadership styles, which are often damaging to employee engagement and productivity. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, leaders that could articulately communicate and effectively level-set expectations often shepherded teams that performed well—even in spite of ever-changing circumstances.
The path to achieving a strong workplace culture includes the elimination of negativity and this starts at the leadership level. When not controlled, negativity costs U.S. businesses $3 billion per year due to its harmful effects which include high levels of absenteeism, failure to complete work, and refusal to collaborate with co-workers.
If weak leaders are toxic, what behaviors do strong leaders exhibit? Positive leaders share optimism, hope, and inspiration with their team through success stories and the acknowledgment of individual and group achievements. They also identify opportunities for future improvement as opposed to complaining and blaming. Through these unique and uncertain times, leaders who demonstrate empathy, humility, and integrity are often successful in building inclusive cultures that foster purpose, innovation, and mutual support.
What to do if you’re part of a toxic workplace culture
After reading these last few paragraphs, are you realizing that some parts of your own work culture are toxic? If so, it’s time to make some changes. Upon uncovering these toxicities, the worst thing that any manager or leader could do is remain silent. For things to improve, action must be taken. And if things don’t improve, the long-term viability of your business could be thrown into question.
Ultimately, turning around a negative workplace culture starts with honest and open discourse. Be transparent with your employees about the internal challenges that are facing your organization—and encourage them to propose resolutions that could help the business. Some of these suggestions could be valuable enough to implement, which would effectively enhance company morale. If your employees feel like they’re being heard, they’re more likely to work harder and be more engaged.
It may also behoove your organization to examine potential “bad actors”—leaders who may not be proper fits for their role. Are managers overworking their teams? Are executives failing to offer proper guidance or ample feedback to their employees? Are leaders struggling to effectively communicate with their teams? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, it may be time to evaluate your leadership. Utilizing talent assessment tools like The Predictive Index is critical in identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and potential blind spots of your upper-level managers. Once you’ve taken steps to identify the skills the upper manager needs to build upon, pick one on which to focus. As a starting point, it’s best to choose the skill that will provide the greatest impact on the manager’s specific role. Employ training programs and coaching to provide the manager with the tools, insight, and skills needed to become a successful leader.
As toxic workplaces have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, businesses need to be strategic when addressing issues in their company culture. Executives must be cognizant that improving a toxic workplace culture won’t be a quick fix. This is a slow and deliberate process—one that will take considerable time, genuine effort, and collective buy-in before results are observed. Although progress in the early going might be difficult to observe, your employees will be able to gauge whether you’re truly invested in making a positive difference in your business environment. Leave little doubt that changing your company culture is nothing less than your top priority!
What will the future of the workplace look like? TalentRise’s Carl Kutsmode recently led a webinar panel with a group of dynamic HR leaders that examined this very issue. Find out what these experts predict will occur in the months—and years—ahead.