How can organisations cure a toxic workplace culture?

Toxic workplace culture has been a prominent feature in the news recently

How can organisations cure a toxic workplace culture?

Toxic workplace culture has been a prominent feature in the news recently with the Fire and Rescue Service, Metropolitan Police and Brighton and Hove City Council all mired in allegations of violent, racist, sexist and homophobic abuse.

One in five Americans have left a job in the past five years due to bad company culture. The cost of that turnover is an estimated $223 billion, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). In APA’s 2023 Work in America workforce survey, 19% of respondents labelled their workplace as toxic. More than one in five respondents (22%) said their work environment has harmed their mental health. In the UK employees quitting their jobs because of poor company culture costs the economy £23.6 billion per year

So how do organisations prevent and deal with culture that is so toxic that it can lead to some employees making the ultimate sacrifice?

A toxic work environment is one where negative behaviours such as bullying, harassment, victimisation and manipulation are so intrinsic to the culture of the organisation that it leads to a lack of productivity, trust and higher stress levels, which can make an environment feel psychologically unsafe.

Most businesses believe culture is about changing individual behaviour but in reality it is more about the social contexts that influence the way people behave and the social norms that are accepted and expected. To change how things are done at the practice level, requires the organisation to make fundamental changes in mindsets and patterns of behaviour, starting with the leadership team which can then influence and stretch out to the rest of the organisation through a more humanistic approach to management.

As organisations ultimately consist of individuals, it is pointless to contemplate management of organisations without giving proper consideration to their human aspects such as emotions, moods, relationships and well-being. Culture influences the way in which individuals experience, express and respond to emotions at work and a healthy emotional culture can be built in an organisation by ensuring the function of a positive emotional learning cycle

How does workplace culture turn toxic?

Before solving a problem, you must first understand it, with many organisations struggling to identify their workplace as toxic because they assume that such environments are normal and, over time, may even learn to navigate them well. Individuals can also have the assumption that the overriding issues lie with themselves as everyone else seems to be tolerating the behaviours around the workplace.

Recognising a toxic culture can be difficult and it is therefore important to constantly look out for the warning signs such as there being no boundaries around work, people not trusting each other, staff not being able to make mistakes and therefore being reprimanded too quickly, unhealthy interpersonal relationships, no support for employee growth, role confusion, high levels of stress related illness and a high turnover of staff.

Preventing a toxic workplace culture from manifesting can be difficult and it is sometimes inevitable due a perfect storm of elements within the business. The CityClean case is a clear example of this where a mixture of powerful trade unions, historic recruitment practices, managers not being able to manage and an interfering political establishment led to the department being aligned to ‘Animal Farm’.  

Managing toxic personalities and their systems of power 

A study byTalentSmart found that 90% of leaders are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. 

One of their most significant skills is the ability to neutralise toxic people by establishing boundaries, relishing or surviving conflict, rising above the petty insinuations, staying aware of their emotions, focusing on solutions and not the problems, squashing negative talk and using their support systems.

It is also good to understand why seeing what these toxic people see in others to understand why they are seeing what they see in themselves as they will always see in others what they don’t want to acknowledge about themselves. Labelled ‘projection’, leaders could be the kindest, most generous, hardest working person in the organisation and toxic people will go that extra mile to convince everyone otherwise by projecting their shortcomings onto others. 

Leaders believe that changing toxic personalities can be far easier than changing the whole culture of a team, division or organisation but in reality without changing the system it merely gets ignored or transferred onto another entity. According to a study by Kusy and Holloway having an intervention that has a combination of organisational, team and one-on-one methods has the highest probability of success. If it is not possible to implement strategies for change at all three levels, the study advises to start with the organisational first and the team second rather than the one-on-one level. Also, the person in the organisation who has sufficient organisational authority to enact clear consequences is the one to address the one-on-one strategies with the toxic person.

A vibrant organisational culture is about more than just recruiting the right people or coming up with popularist core values, it is a concerted effort by everyone, not just the senior managers, to show up, engage, and work with each other to make those values real.

Undertaking a cultural diagnostic may reveal that the values are too abstract, broad, or detached to shape how employees act on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, it is imperative to constantly evaluate core values to make sure they capture the distinctive essence of the organisation, provide solid behavioural guidelines, and clearly link to outcomes that matter to staff.

Dr Jonathan Lord
Dr Jonathan Lord

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