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Do You Have a Toxic Work Environment? How To Spot It and Take Action

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From stories in the news to conversations with friends, most of us have heard horror stories about work environments where yelling, undermining, backstabbing, and unethical behavior are the norm. Where belittling colleagues, constant gossiping, and unequal treatment are daily occurrences.

Unfortunately, toxic work stories are all too common. It was found in a study of American workers in large organizations that 10.4% of current employees and 16% of former employees mentioned a trait of toxic work culture in their Glassdoor review.

Negative workplace culture, as described above, can be found within a team, a department, or the entire organization and can significantly affect performance. A hostile work environment can devastate thriving companies, from increased turnover to reduced motivation and productivity. So, if you think you may have a toxic work environment and culture, the time to change is now.

According to a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article, the number one driver of turnover and “The Great Resignation” is toxic work culture. Furthermore, the culture of a team, department, or entire company is the strongest predictor of turnover, beating out compensation by ten times!

The case is clear - leaders must focus on the culture and work environment of the people they lead. But what exactly is work culture? How do you know if yours is toxic? We will answer these questions, as well as where to start if your culture and work environment could use a tune-up. Let’s jump in.


Table of Contents

  1. What is a Work Culture?
  2. Ways to Spot a Toxic Work Environment
  3. How to Take Action to Change a Toxic Work Environment


What Is A Work Culture?

Work culture comprises the norms and behaviors of each individual within a group. It is the spoken and unspoken rules on how a team, department, or entire organization works together, communicates, and behaves.

For example, the spoken rules can include the company or team values. In contrast, the unspoken rules, typically the ones that genuinely form the culture, are the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors individuals demonstrate that come together to create the working environment.


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Ways To Spot Toxic Work Environment

If you’re responsible for leading a team, department, or an entire organization, it is critical in the highly competitive race for talent that you do everything to ensure your work environment and culture are one that individuals want to be a part of. With 1 in 5 workers leaving a job due to workplace culture, the time to take action is now.

If any of these signs look familiar, it is a good indication that your culture and work environment may need to shape up.

10 Common Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

  1. There is a lack of passion, enthusiasm, and positivity
  2. New ideas, ways of thinking, and suggestions are dismissed
  3. Chaos, firefighting, and dysfunction are the norm
  4. Gossip and rumors run rampant
  5. There is an “insiders club" where certain employees receive more resources, information, and preferential treatment than their peers
  6. There is a constant stream of customer complaints and bad reviews
  7. Fierce and cutthroat internal competition between colleagues and teams
  8. High turnover and absenteeism
  9. Overworking is expected
  10. There is a lack of communication, and when information is available, it is hoarded

10 Common Signs of a Toxic Work Environment (1)


How to Take Action To Change a Toxic Work Environment

Culture and the work environment don't solely rest on HR, whether on a team or across an organization. Leaders must take an active role in shaping the culture and a positive working environment for their people. For example, A study by SHRM found that 58% of people who left a job due to culture claim people managers are the main reason they ultimately left.

Moreover, the same study also uncovered that 76% of respondents said their manager sets the culture of the workplace. So, if you’re leading a team or department and are keen to give your work environment a tune-up, follow these five steps to begin to shape your desired culture.


How to change a toxic work environment

  1. Recognize there is a problem
  2. Get an understanding of what's working and what's not
  3. Communicate your vision for the culture and work environment
  4. Invest in training and coaching
  5. Keep up the momentum with recognition


Recognize there is a problem

To solve any problem, you must first recognize there is a problem. To start, take a critical look at how employees interact and note any toxic work environment signals you see. Next, explore the behaviors, actions, or beliefs underpinning problematic work culture and environment.


Get an understanding of what’s working and what's not

There will always be aspects of the culture you want to keep and others to eliminate that are leading to a toxic work environment. To better understand what’s working and what needs to change, start by asking yourself the following questions.

  • What behaviors are adding value to our culture and work environment?
  • What behaviors, if eliminated, would improve our culture and work environment?
  • What new behaviors do we need to create the type of culture and work environment we desire?

Communicate your vision for the culture and work environment

Individuals must understand what’s changing, its rationale, and what’s expected of them. Adam Hickman, in his article for Gallup, shared the importance of communication when changing culture. He said, “If a culture change is what's desired, employees have to hear and feel the need for change. They need to know how a focus on individual development flows from the organization's mission or purpose. And they need to know why it will lead to better performance and results.”

The role of frequent communication and reinforcement of your vision for the culture and work environment cannot be discounted in the pursuit of changing a work environment and culture.

Invest in training and coaching

People do not set out to create a toxic work environment on purpose. However, a lack of leadership training and the knowledge and skill to create a positive work environment can be the culprit. Therefore, an investment in leadership development training and coaching is often needed to fix the problem. Look for training that focuses on cultivating awareness of leadership styles, best practices of high-performance teams, and the soft skills needed to be a successful leader today.

In addition to leadership development training, employee training helps individuals gain skills such as collaboration and communication that they will need to succeed in this new environment and culture.


Keep up the momentum with recognition

To reinforce the positive behaviors and changes you’re witnessing in moving towards the desired culture and work environment, ensure there is frequent praise and recognition. Provide at-the-moment feedback when you notice positive behaviors, and have culture awards for those who lead the pack on the behaviors you desire for your culture.

The Team Culture Toolkit Conains Resources That Will Help You Understand Where Your Culture Is Today and What You Want It to Be