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What are the top signs that show your workplace culture to be toxic?

Written by Ian Feaver on Monday, 29 July 2019. Posted in Leadership, People

Criticism, controlling leaders and general distrust are among the top seven things which point to a toxic working environment

What are the top signs that show your workplace culture to be toxic?

Few workplaces are stress-free but some have more toxic cultures than others, leading to disengaged staff with poor physical and mental health. The impacts of stress are considerable, leading to 50% more voluntary turnover and being attributed to 80% of doctors’ visits. In fact, according to the HSE, over half of all UK sick days are due to stress. 

Toxic cultures can even lead to people compromising their own ethics and values, acting in ways that would normally be out of character. Morally questionable and illegal behaviours could even result, with the notorious destruction of documents relating to the Enron scandal proving how far people can sink when toxic cultures take hold. But how do you spot a culture that is toxic? Perhaps you don't realise that your organisation is sucking the life out of its employees and leaving them demotivated and miserable. 

Here are the top seven signs which indicate your workplace culture is poisonous and destructive:

(1) A survival of the fittest mentality

This mindset is instilled into its staff rather than encouraging teamwork. Consequently, this leads to unhealthy competition, including staff withholding information and knowledge, especially if it could mean them getting ahead. Leaders will permit and even encourage this behaviour, leading to individuals vying for attention and promotion rather than staff working together towards a common goal.

(2) Criticism of others

This will be evident in a culture in which individuals push their needs above what’s best for the team. Leaders will allow the bad mouthing of others and may even nurture it by asking staff their honest views of their peers. Those staff who don’t involve themselves will simply be viewed as weak and lacking ambition. 

(3) Leaders are controlling 

Power-hungry and manipulative staff members will inevitably be the ones promoted to leadership roles. In order to retain their positions, they will be keen to maintain control over their teams, perhaps micro-managing them and ensuring they bathe in their team’s achievements rather than giving credit. Any form of collaborative approach to how the team is managed will be avoided. This will ensure that any shining stars who could threaten the leader’s position remain unnoticed.

(4) Staff are terrified of failure

When criticism and blame are so embedded into an organisation’s culture, staff will be fearful of suggesting new ways of working in case they fail ultimately stifling innovation and creativity. As such, the organisation will be stuck in its ways and slow to change. Any innovations will be few and far between and most likely brought about by the current favourites in the leadership team.

(5) There is an overriding feeling of distrust

Perhaps unsurprisingly, suspicion and distrust will be felt across the organisation. Leaders won’t be trusted to be open, honest and supportive and peers won’t be trusted to have each other’s backs. Staff will become introverted and morale will be low.

(6) Staff are feel unappreciated 

With staff constantly vying for attention and leaders terrified of losing their power, the show of appreciation will be rare. Recognition moments may come in the form of awards for top performing sales people or when so-called favourites are called out. With appreciation few and far between for the majority of staff, there will be an overriding feeling of being unappreciated and under valued. 

(7) People's working lives encroach on their personal lives

In a toxic culture, the expectation will be that staff’s working lives come first, and if they aren’t constantly on call, then they aren’t committed to the company. Emails will be sent all times of the day and night and staff will be expected to reply quickly. And if staff aren’t working late every evening then they simply aren’t showing ambition. Staff who leave work on time and try to maintain a healthy work life balance, will be frowned upon and are unlikely to experience career progression.

Unfortunately, toxic organisational cultures are all too common, infiltrating all types and size of company. The impacts can be catastrophic, resulting in disengagement, high staff turnover, escalating levels of sickness, stifled growth and perhaps even the collapse of the company, as demonstrated by the liquidation of ethically-questionable construction company, Carillion. When such an industry giant can fall foul of a destructive company culture, it’s clear that no organisation should rest on their laurels. And so if your company might be suffering from toxic culture syndrome, isn’t it time to act? 

About the Author

Ian Feaver

Ian Feaver

Ian is a Director at workplace culture specialist, O.C. Tanner Europe. His valuable background has cultivated an empowering leadership style, which inspires O.C. In his spare time, Ian enjoys spending time with his wife and five children.

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