Toxic Culture – Diagnosis and Treatment

October 26, 2022

Most businesses are aware of the importance of organisational culture. However, maintaining a positive culture is easier said than done, and often remains an intangible task in the face of everyday activities. Nevertheless, it can be painfully obvious when a culture is starting to turn toxic. This article discusses the signs of a toxic culture, how to go about properly diagnosing it, and what can be done to redress the damage.

Signs of a toxic culture

Although a positive culture is at the heart of every good organisation, human beings are human beings. We invariably have bad days, aren’t going to get on with everyone, and have personal priorities. This doesn’t mean that an organisation has a toxic culture. The true indicators of culture lie beneath the surface of the organisation – in its history and attitudes, it’s taken for granted beliefs and values, having been forged through years of organisational behaviour. So how does a toxic culture manifest? Below are just a few indicators that an organisational culture might be toxic. 

  • Inability to successfully implement initiatives
  • A sense of “Us vs Them” in relation to employees and management
  • Gossip and rumour being a regular feature of conversation
  • An unhealthy power balance
  • Passionate resistance to reasonable change
  • Sabotage of change projects
  • High numbers of sick days
  • High turnover of staff (although this depends on the source of the toxicity)

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it is best to undertake a cultural diagnosis to get a clear understanding of your culture. From a management perspective, it is important not to solely rely on your own understanding of the culture or those of your senior colleagues. Toxic culture can very often go undiagnosed if management aren’t involved in day-to-day operations. In many cases the CEO’s description of the culture is at odds with the reality. 

How to diagnose your culture
In creating a true picture of your cultural landscape, it is important to get an understanding of the culture from different perspectives and at different levels of the organisation. If there is a feel of toxicity about things, the goal is to identify where the toxicity is coming from. It is likely that it won’t just be from one source, and for no good reason. It may well be that there are influential employees (not necessarily holding positional influence) that perpetuate the toxicity, but it is also entirely likely that management and communication failings have contributed to some ill feeling and remain in the collective memory of some employees. Furthermore, from an employee perspective, the values and attitudes of the senior leadership team as evidenced in their behaviours will give a clear indication to them as to whether an organisation and its culture is worth getting behind. So, it’s clear that there are many contributing factors to organisational culture and many things to collate in diagnosing it. The key, therefore, is to manage the process. Here are a few simple steps to a sound diagnosis…

Set the scene

As consultants, we would look to get a picture of an organisation’s culture through surveys, interviews, observation, and the use of analytical tools and frameworks. We would then collate this information to paint a picture of the culture, identify areas that need addressing, and to ultimately use as the basis for a culture change project. However, from experience, how this investigative piece is communicated to staff by senior management is critical to its success. If it is sprung upon employees without context, many responses with be tempered with caution, as an employee won’t feel comfortable telling the truth. They may feel that the consultant has been charged with reporting back to management on anything going on! If you’re not using a consultant, the risk of carefully constructed responses to your questions remains. It is critical therefore, to set the scene for what is about to go on.

Inform employees (in your own style of language of course) that as an organisation, you want to be constantly improving and a key part of that is developing a positive culture.  As such, you need to know where the organisation is now and where it needs to be. Emphasise that this is the opportunity to be brutally honest without fear of follow up or recrimination. Let them know that any surveys will be anonymous, and any interviews will take place with a neutral party and will be confidential. Make it clear that any consultant involvement is to help give as objective a picture as possible to the leadership. Hopefully, these steps will give employees the freedom to express themselves and give you the best chance of obtaining rich information.

The importance of authenticity

At this stage, it is important to mention that any cultural change must come from the top and must come from a genuine desire to make positive change. If senior management aren’t fully engaged with the process, the end result can often be worse than the current set of circumstances. For example, if the general feeling about the organisation among employees is one of senior management not caring about them, then a cursory attempt at culture change in order to tick a box and without taking it seriously, will only serve to reinforce negative beliefs and strengthen the fabric of the toxic culture. In this case, senior management may want to address their own cohesion as a team before undertaking a cultural change.

As we’ve mentioned, interviewing and surveying employees at all levels is their opportunity to be open and honest with you. But perhaps even more crucially, it is your opportunity to truly understand what is going on in the organisation! As such, do your utmost to ask honest questions that you really want to know and that will give you a genuine sense of the issues. Humility may well be needed alongside authenticity. However, leaders don’t undertake culture change projects unless they are willing to learn and improve.

Sensemaking: bringing the information together

Ideally, having gone through an intelligence gathering exercise, you will have lots of data from many different sources. Now it’s about identifying the overarching themes that appear from the information collected. This is where a consultant would use analytical tools such as Johnson & Scholes’ Cultural Web, or Cameron & Quinn’s Competing Values Framework to put the information in context and to validate any initial conclusions (these tools would have also formed the basis for many of the questions in the information gathering process). 

There will no doubt be some obvious themes that can be easily addressed. But there may be others that are more complex and need additional context to figure out. For example, if an employee is particularly vocal about certain issues, and demonstrates frustration and resistance, you may think that they are a problem employee. However, with additional context, their frustration may be borne out of a genuine desire for things to go well, and their resistance may actually be a sign of engagement – a far better sign than silent apathy! So, if channelled in the right direction, their frustration could turn to advocacy, and a potentially problem employee could become a very valuable one. Alternatively, you might identify a fundamental difference in values between a popular influential employee and the leadership, which may lead to resistance of a new direction and subsequent careful planning from an HR perspective. This emphasises the importance of multiple data sets in diagnosing culture and the construction of a holistic view of the organisation from a cultural standpoint.

Treating a toxic culture

You’ll be glad to know that the biggest step to treating a toxic culture is in diagnosing it in the first place. Cultural diagnosis can bring real clarity on where you as an organisation want to get to culturally. It can elicit short term positive actions, a revisiting of values, a greater understanding of stakeholder priorities and uncover how people respond to different behaviours. 

However, no lasting change will take place unless you evidence a reason for change that resonates with everyone in the organisation, ensure psychological safety during the change process, and deliberately role model and reward new behaviours, to name but a few aspects of embedding a new culture. A culture change project can bring about quick improvements, but it is ultimately a long game that requires a detailed implementation plan, clear evidence of stakeholder buy in, consistent delivery on promises, constant awareness of the cultural temperature, and regular review. But having involved the organisation in the process from the start – setting the scene, coming from an authentic desire for positive change, giving opportunity for honest feedback, showing that you’ve listened and role modelling new behaviours, you may find that the positive feeling in the organisation remains. This will lead to new shared experiences and new beliefs within the organisation, which in turn will lead to new values and new ideals as to “the way we do things around here…”, which in essence, epitomises your culture.

A toxic culture can be a draining environment to work in for all concerned. But taking the time to carefully diagnose it, make necessary changes, and model new behaviours can lead to significant positive change, and a lifting of the inevitable heavy weight that a toxic environment brings.

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