Turning Around A Toxic Work Culture
By Rhiannon Robinson
Phase One: Realise and React
The first step in turning around a toxic work culture is realising that you have one. Maybe you’ve been made aware of this by HR or employees, or you’ve just felt it happening and it’s reached a point where you need to act. It’s unlikely that you are blissfully unaware, otherwise, you wouldn’t have clicked this article, but you may be very early in the ‘realising’ phase- and the problem could be bigger than you think.
Toxic Work Culture (TWC) is an infection- it spreads quickly and it takes a strong dose of medicine to cure it. Just like an infection, there are some symptoms that can alert you to the fact Toxic Work Culture is happening. Our pandemic era hybrid work patterns have made it more complicated to gauge the symptoms of TWC in employees who you see less in person, and team dynamics are harder to pick up over Zoom. But the pandemic has caused lots of stress, uncertainty and extra workload for many organisations, a perfect breeding ground for a Toxic Work Culture to take hold.
There are some very strong signals of a Toxic Work Culture you can look out for, and analyse data on- staff turnover and absenteeism. Our audience also voted tolerance of bad behaviour as the number one symptom in a recent poll. These symptoms are often present when TWC is already embedded in the organisation and causing damage. Hopefully, you’re not at that stage and can look out for earlier signs; like office gossip, low trust of employees by managers, public criticism of colleagues, lack of creativity and innovation, inability to make decisions, and ambiguity and confusion around role responsibilities.
Forbes sets out the 5 types of toxic work culture that ‘infect’ organisations, and these can help you diagnose the Toxic Work Culture at your organisation;
In Hustle Culture long hours and late-night emails are glamorised, work-life balance is way out of whack, and employees are coerced into taking on additional work and responsibilities. Employees with healthy boundaries are left out of key projects and exciting work as they’re seen as not ‘committed’ or ‘passionate’ enough. Merit is measured by hours at desk, not output of work.
Blame culture is often categorised by a lack of accountability, and phrases like ‘that’s not my responsibility’ are common. Mistakes are not permitted, so employees are scared to admit they’ve made one and try to cover it up. People stop taking risks and trying to develop new ideas. Blame is shifted from leaders onto junior employees, praise is rare.
A workplace with a clique culture will feel a bit like high school, and not in a good way! People are afraid to be their authentic selves, in-groups and out-groups form, and people fear being judged or mocked. Workplace bullying happens in this environment, and time is wasted on office politics.
Micromanaging is at epidemic levels in control culture. Strict hierarchies govern every aspect of work and people are told to ‘stay in their lane’. Employees are monitored and need to account for every minute of their time, trust is low and suspicion is high.
The most extreme form of Toxic Work Culture where aggressive and abusive behaviour is able to happen, employees fear punishment and harassment. Employment law not adhered to.
Once you’ve diagnosed your organisation as suffering from Toxic Work Culture, and realised how it’s manifesting itself, you need to react. Reacting is the next step toward turning TWC around. You’re aware of the issue now, so acknowledge that to employees. A company-wide communication or meeting is needed- to make it clear that the problem has been identified and that leadership will work with employees of all levels to start fixing things immediately.
Phase Two: Reflect, Rebuild, Reboot
You need to reflect on how Toxic Work Culture took hold at your organisation, and for this, you’ll need to talk to employees. If these conversations are going to be candid and constructive you need to create a safe space for your employees to be open with you. A safe space should be an environment where experiences are empathised with and not explained away, where past wrongs are acknowledged and owned, where the voices of those with the least power are amplified and advocated for, and where deep listening is practised by leaders.
You’ll need to assemble a leadership and HR group to lead the ‘Turn Around of Toxic Culture’ mahi. Or, for smaller organisations, a project lead or an external contractor. When choosing the people or person to do this, think carefully. It’s important that they weren’t ‘part of the problem’ in causing the TWC and ideally they will be trusted and well-liked by employees of all levels.
The first task for this person or group is to build and ensure a safe space is in place. Then they can begin communicating with employees and reflecting on what happened. Depending on your organisation this could be done by one on one interviews, anonymous surveys or via a collaborative tool like Miro. Choose a tool that you think will allow for the most honest and constructive feedback. Some important questions to ask could include;
How do you feel when you’re at work and engaged in your everyday tasks?
What one thing would you change about the way things are run at this organisation?
Have you thought about leaving your role in the last six months, and if so, why?
Once you’ve gathered this data, spend time with it. Look for patterns and themes and issues that are highlighted again and again. These common themes are likely to be the main contributors to your Toxic Work Culture problem.
Meet with your project group or lead and workshop on the initial takeaways of the data. Once you have a clear picture of what happened it’s time to start the work of rebuilding. Before you do that, if any individual leader or employee was identified as an issue, you need to involve HR and begin the process of dealing with that immediately, especially if bullying and discrimination have occurred.
Now it’s time to rebuild your company culture, a task that needs to be done as a collective. All employees should have a say and a stake in building the organisation’s future. Creative co-design with employees is key, in fact 51% of our audience voted it to be the best way to turn culture around. You are re-building and re-designing the living culture of your workplace. Collaborative workshops, focus groups and strategy sessions are great tools for this, but your most important data for this mahi is how people want to feel at work. The Emotional Culture Deck by Elephants and Riders is a fantastic tool to use for this. It helps you have face to face conversations with team members about what matters to them in the workplace, in a way that fosters trust and connection. Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code is also a great place to go for the building blocks of great culture and Robert Gibson’s Bridge The Culture Gaps adds an important diversity lens. The task of rebuilding culture may take a long time, but it is a vital defence against a future infection of Toxic Work Culture.
Once you’ve rebuilt a healthy and thriving culture it’s time to reboot your organisation. Marking the beginning of a new era helps the whole team moves forward from the hurts and negativity of the Toxic Work Culture. You could reboot with a celebratory event, like a team outing or with a reward like attending an inspiring conference or having a pamper pack delivered to all employees. Rebooting signals a new era of thriving work culture, but it’s going to take constant work- just like keeping a body healthy. As you reboot, ensure there are clear systems going forward to keep the work culture on track, and your organisation detoxed.
About Rhiannon Robinson
Rhiannon Robinson is Do Good Jobs’ Business Development Manager and looks after our community of employers. She is a labour market and organisational culture nerd and is currently doing research on the use of personality traits in job ads. Read her 2022 labour market predictions here.
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