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What Is Toxic Culture in the Workplace and How to Put It Right?

We live in a world in which people bandy around words and phrases which they sort of know what they mean, but maybe others take them to mean something else. Toxic Culture is one such phrase and, of course, even agreeing a broad understanding doesn’t in itself lead to resolution of the problem or to the affected individuals being helped.

It is fair to say that society and, perhaps business specifically, does have an issue.

Why would it matter to any organisation? It matters because a Toxic Culture harms the organisation, carves apart any semblance of teamwork, undermines management, slashes productivity and can be detrimental to the mental and physical health of the people within it. In extreme cases, lives are lost, and companies are sued or prosecuted.

This is a subject of great importance, so how do we identify it and how do we put it right?

What is Toxic Workplace Culture?

Define culture

“The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time”


A simpler and easier example to grasp is, “It is the way we do things around here”.

Define toxic

“containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”


As we saw in the brief introduction, in society or our work, there does not have to be actual illness for us to know there are a range of negative effects. Too often we observe management unconsciously accepting the norm, even promoting it, when they know it must be different. Very few managers are immoral, but some suspend their principles in the workplace. If the staff see bills being left unpaid, clients being given shoddy quality work or colleagues being diminished, their own behaviour will reflect these examples.

Company culture and its sub-cultures

Photo by Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka on Unsplash

Walk into the reception of most businesses and you will see a neatly laminated version of the values and vision displayed on the wall. The good news is somebody has spent time describing and agreeing them; the bad news is this is frequently as far as it goes. There has been little or no effort to cascade them to staff, and other stakeholders see no evidence of their application. Ask anyone in the organisation to tell you what the vision is, or even how many values there are, and there will be blank looks.

It can be argued forcing a top-down culture is not the correct approach as it limits the staff buy-in. It is certainly the case that the imposed version, whilst giving some guidance, cannot reflect the sub-cultures which exist, especially in larger concerns. For example, Sales and Marketing is a different operation to Maintenance and must be acknowledged as such. Creative people need a different environment to one in which more process focussed people work.

Managers have been heard to say that people in the Company should know the vision and values because they have been told them. This is an assumption the people were listening, understanding, and retaining the information. It is true that what they say it is, or at least should be, and the reality are very often quite different.

How do we identify the toxic version of workplace culture?

Management do not have to look to far to see the clues:

  • Poor retention of staff rate, and this can cost over £100K per leaver. Reasons include:
    • Burnout
    • Stress
    • People do not have to accept their treatment
    • Money cannot compensate
    • Staff know a more civilised approach is available elsewhere
  • Whistleblowing and the way the whistle-blower is treated. There are numerous examples of disciplinary action being taken against the person who highlighted a problem, not the person causing it. This is a desperate attempt to dismiss the accusation. At a very high level, here are two examples:

    Li Wenliang told the world about Covid-19 in December 2019 and was promptly arrested for “making false comments on the internet” and then, sadly he contracted the disease himself and died in February 2020.

    Chelsea Manning released classified documents to WikiLeaks and received a prison sentence of 35 years, probably because the content was true.

  • There will always be people off work with very genuine health issues. Absence levels would typically be around 2% of available shifts. In smaller operations there can be statistical anomalies but more generally, consistent excess non-attendance identifies an area for investigation. A not untypical reaction is to discipline even more often, rather than look for the root causes.
    High numbers of grievance and disciplinary instances may be cries for help. Not all disciplinaries are due to a horrid environment but because people make mistakes or behave badly without any external pressures. However, frustration does boil over and emanates in formal settings.

    For example, the manager screams abuse, the employee reacts in a similar manner and it is the junior person who finds themselves in the proverbial hot water.

  • Adverse PR can be calamitous. If the media get a sense of a problem, they may become remorseless. This breach of trust and confidence is very hard to recover.

    Rather than blow the whistle, sometimes employees ‘whisper’ to a journalist and there may be no way to limit its distribution. This is exacerbated by the use of social media and the ease of maintaining anonymity.

  • Even court cases under the laws of Health and Safety, Environmental, Employment and Consumer Protection occur, for example. The time, effort, and money to fight these can be considerable, combined with the danger of bad PR.

Do any of these examples resonate with you?

Can you see them in your organisation?

Which behaviours cause a toxic culture?

Whilst poor behaviour can emanate from anyone, it is most virulent if it is from the person who should be doing the most to create a great culture, releasing the potential of the team members and ensuring they are safe; the manager.

Direct Management behaviour which affects people include:

  • Bullying and Harassment; of course, there are degrees of this. Some is subtle and undermining, some is blatant and aggressive. It may be a very inappropriate way to move people on or just an outcome from an insecure supervisor. The Employment Courts are full of cases relating to this from Constructive Dismissal to claims under Health and Safety at Work Act.

    Managers rationalise their attitude with old adages like, “If it is too hot in the kitchen, get out”. It isn’t their fault; it is the weakness of the other person. Thankfully, to a large degree, we have moved on, but it does still exist.

  • Some managers set out to induce fear. It is both a controlling technique and a suppression of anyone who may be seen as a threat. Physical violence and intimidation is pretty obvious but often not reported. “Who would believe me?”, “It is easier if I leave”, “I need this job, so I am not going to rock the boat”. Many years ago, a manager in a manufacturing business literally would take guys behind stacked pallets and punch them, which was never reported, again out of fear.
  • Intense micro-management and ultra-controlling behaviour, which shows the level of insecurity the manager feels. In extreme cases this will be applied to everyone, even those with whom the manager has worked for years and actually trusts. Hours and hours are wasted reviewing and justifying actions taken.
  • Crazy targets, measures which are unattainable create stress. They may come from a distorted view that stretch targets stimulate great performance, but it goes too far, or it may be a way of keeping subordinates in ‘their place’.

    It is true that ‘what gets measured gets done’, so irrelevant targets are demoralising but do get the attention, again wasting time and energy.

  • Badly structured bonus systems encourage immoral activity. Getting the results matters more than the way it is done. Relationships are, almost by definition, short-term as customers won’t return when they realise it is an unhealthy connection.

    The link between money and targets can even drive illegal and immoral actions, hardly a reason to inspire the team helping the boss deliver.

  • Repressive working practices, especially long working hours, pile on the pressure. It is more than anecdotal that some professions see ridiculously long hours for junior staff as being a required passage, mainly because ‘they’ had to do it and they survived, forgetting the many who failed. Is a required capability to stay awake a sound criterion by which to be judged?
  • Favouritism, or perceived preferences. A leader is not only fair but seen to be fair. Yet, we all like some people more than others and, therefore, we need to work at ensuring we display equity. Seeing there is a “Teacher’s pet” can be very divisive amongst the team.
  • Nepotism, especially in smaller organisations can cause trouble. Similarly, if promotions are based on Length of Service, the talented will walk away. Working in a family business can be very suppressive.
  • Gossiping is story telling without evidence, the malice of jealousy, and with the sensitivity of a bull elephant in musth. It is Eastenders played at in real life to offset boredom and establish control over colleagues.
  • Politics is the other side of the gossip coin. This time with the clear aim of fulfilling ambition and progression when others are seen to fail.
  • Cliques usually accompany gossiping. It is as much about who isn’t in the vicious group, as who is in it. If the boss is in, everyone outside of the clique feels threatened and vulnerable.
  • Lack of trust, and displaying it, makes life at work extremely hard. If the boss shows by checking everything, asking others to review work, or only delegating menial tasks, the recipient of these behaviours can only be nervous and frustrated.
  • Preening and ostentatiousness do not rule, they split the team away from the boss. Narcissism is a highly invasive behaviour into the spirit of the team. Everything needs to be for the benefit of the boss or else…!
  • Elitism, whether it is snobbery, intellectual snobbery, status and power, or self-aggrandisement, it demeans the rest of the team and peers. Personal prestige is the paramount target.
  • Machismo or bitchiness; the posture of strength, the cynicism of authority, the “Devil take the hindmost” air, all create an atmosphere in which the lesser mortals keep their head down.
  • Mickey-taking and demeaning. Belittling because they can, because it amuses the perpetrator, or they believe the object of the banter enjoys it in a self-deprecating way., turn even strong characters into ‘quiet mice’. It is easier and safer to say nothing. Excessive demeaning humour becomes harassment.
  • Blaming everyone but themselves. It is more difficult to hit a moving target, so lead from behind.
  • Poor communication and then reacting to people’s actions not being aligned. The assumption is that if something is said it is comprehended accurately, which is very frequently not the case. This is compounded if other traits listed here such as bullying are also involved.
  • Secrecy from above and outside of the group; a siege mentality. The less others know, the less hassle there will be, and less accountability imposed on the manager. The team members are scared to speak in case they inadvertently let something out of the bag.
  • Impatience, which is seen as frustration and criticism. This is particularly irksome if an agreed deadline hasn’t even arrived.
  • Dismissing without consideration the ideas and suggestions from anyone else and even subsequently making the same point and accepting the plaudits.
  • Defensiveness and unwilling to accept and acknowledge personal errors. They may even look to apportion the blame elsewhere.
  • Demanding yes or no answers to complex and subtle situations, and problems.
  • Exclusions such as in a heavy drinking culture. This is another example of wanting to be with people like us.
  • Sexual advances, primarily men towards women, which are unwelcome.
  • Fear of difference and, therefore, discrimination such as:
    (This may be unintentional, perhaps because of a lack of understanding.)
    • Race or creed
    • Gender
    • Weight
    • Sexuality
    • Religion

Indirect Management behaviours:

Whilst it is clear that allowing team members to replicate any of the poor behaviour described for the manager is unacceptable, some are more prevalent, indeed the manager may also be an active participant:

  • Allowing Bullying and Harassment
  • Mickey-taking, especially of more vulnerable people
  • Inciting unhealthy competition
  • Ill-defined competitive approaches
  • Promotion of money at all costs thinking
  • Being seen to ignore values and morality
  • Seeing overt resilience as a Badge of Honour, rather than exploring how staff really feel
  • Recognising but not stopping gossip and politicking, possibly being the instigator

These lists are not exhaustive. Reality may be there are hybrids, overlaps, repetition and merging of several of them.

If there is one word to encapsulate the problem, it would be “Excess”:

  • Too much harassment; arguably any harassment is too much.
  • Too much mickey-taking; humour can easily go too far. Anyone who has spent time in the dressing room of a team knows the banter. Everyone laughs, possibly some for whom it is hurtful and uncomfortable. Comedy becomes brutal.
  • Too little management oversight as the boss is pre-occupied with the issues being dumped from on-high, or it may require an embarrassing and difficult conversation.
  • Too much gossip and politics, the backstabbing, the undermining and the exclusion of those not in the clique.

Is any of this ringing bells? Can it be ignored?

How do we change a Toxic Culture?

As already said, it is easy to see the negative effects of a Toxic Culture but more problematic to do something about it. Even when new approaches are described in concept, they are difficult to implement. We are talking about changing behaviour across the board, starting with the Board. This requires self-introspection and personal honesty. We may accept there are issues, but few people are adequately self-aware, and many are in denial; it is usually someone else.

One aspect needs discussing, even though it may be contentious. I believe in increasing people’s personal resilience and emotional strength, and its promotion has become an industry in itself. However, one-dimensional managers will assume that this higher level of resilience means staff can deal with inappropriate behaviour and not complain. Clearly, we need people to work in a great environment and be adequately resilient to allow them to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life, to brush off disappointments and to accept rejection, and yet still be energetic, creative, and productive.

The overview of the way forward might include:

  • Describe and implement the new culture, including taking inputs from all areas of the operation and not just from management.
  • Properly communicate and ensure the values do permeate through the organisation. This is not just an exercise in transmission to be completed as quickly as possible.
  • Remove absolute blockers even if they are skilled. It may be some people need to change or be changed. If they are too toxic or unable to understand the new approaches, then difficult decisions may be necessary.
  • Leadership is key. Without a willingness to succeed, combined with the lack of talent to deliver it, there will be little impact. Leadership means behaving well, releasing the talents of the team, and optimising the effects of cross-functional working.
  • Team Development, which includes excellent leadership, would be the biggest positive impactor if thoroughly developed. Our primary model is Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team”
  • Recognising the potential Social Impact has as a conveyor of the principles and values of the business, and the personal contribution the staff are encouraged to make.

A Toxic Culture will ultimately be terminal for the organisation. It may be a slow and painful death, but by energetically addressing the causes of the problem, there can be the satisfaction of making the necessary radical changes and seeing the impact on the bottom line.

By Rob Ball, BSc (Hons).

Rob has extensive experience in leading change in organizations of all sizes. People are at the core of all improvements, and, as a career strategist, Rob’s belief is that a motivated workforce is the single most impactful aspect.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash
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