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Toxic work environments: How to stop your toxic culture problems at their source(s)

If 10,000 Google searches this month is any indicator, then toxic work environments are on a lot of people’s minds. 

That doesn’t surprise us. With more than a decade spent researching the impact of organizational culture—including DEIA, return to work, employee burnout, employee engagement, and more—Eagle Hill has learned that organizations that don’t invest in workplace culture soon find themselves facing challenges with morale, productivity, and a flood of other business impacts. 

The conditions for creating healthy work environments have never seemed so challenging. Culture naturally gets diluted when people are not together; with remote and hybrid work now the norm, many employees find that they don’t really know how to work alongside or collaborate in-person with their colleagues. Moreover, younger generations now entering the workforce start off at a disadvantage: they grew up in an age of decreasingly meaningful in-person interactions, with limited in-person work experience.

Finally, instant information means scandals that demoralize employees and erode trust in leaders and organizations can spread toxicity at dizzying speed. Our experience has also found that while just one such event can destroy a healthy work environment, it typically takes three to five years to rebuild from a toxic work environment.

What is a toxic work environment?

A toxic work environment is one where people mistrust each other, and so operate in self-promoting or self-protecting ways that harm the greater good of the organization. Cliques or factions, gossip, undermining of others, disengagement from colleagues, skepticism of leadership, fear of speaking up, and a palpable lack of enthusiasm all herald a toxic culture that needs serious attention. The symptoms of a toxic work environment are impossible to miss—and dangerous to ignore. In fact, Eagle Hill Consulting’s corporate culture research found that 72% of C-suite executives say company culture directly impacts financial performance.

If you find yourself needing to remedy a toxic culture, remember first that your people have not caused your issue. A toxic work environment is not like a kraken with a problematic workforce at its core, grabbing and sinking an organization with their tentacles of bad behavior. Instead, it more often resembles a hydra, with many heads that can bite your business aims off at the knees. Your mission is to find and mitigate all sources of work culture toxicity.

How to fix a toxic work environment

1

Don’t take toxic work environment problems at face value

Before you can make any improvement to a toxic culture, you must fully understand what you are dealing with. That will often require digging down to systemic root causes. What drives your culture challenges might surprise you. For example, excessive employee sick days is less likely to represent a plague of sloth and much more likely to signal that employees feel undervalued or disconnected from the organizational mission. Eagle Hill recognizes that toxicity is not just about how people behave; it’s about root causes that can lie in leadership, talent strategy, governance structures, and organizational policies and practices.

2

Use a data-based approach to identify sources of toxicity

A data-based approach to feedback at all levels of the organizations will help combat a lack of self-awareness that often co-exists with toxic cultures. For example, we once helped a client survey a dozen leaders on how well they demonstrated organizational core values. The results were universal across the group: individuals rated themselves with the highest marks and their peers with the lowest. Everyone saw the good in themselves and the troubles in others. For the client, our data-based insights flooded their murky culture situation with light. Moreover, enlisting the help of a third party to conduct the assessment allowed the group to get an honest picture of their leadership issues much quicker.

3

Engage your people

You cannot mandate a healthy culture. Healthy cultures are co-created by employees who feel united by their belief in the organizational mission and see the relevance of their work to its strategy and goals. Employees need to feel psychologically safe providing their input and suggestions for workplace improvements. When an organization creates “safe” mechanisms for them to do so (anonymous surveys and business community groups), employees will readily engage in shaping the organization’s culture and environment.

4

Make leaders accountable for culture change

One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch—unless the apple in question is a top leader. Leadership both sets the example for good behavior and drives culture change. In other words, the leader not only has to model the organizational values, they must also hold individuals accountable when they behave in culture-damaging ways. Letting bad behaviors slide will split morale in two ways. First, through the bad behavior itself. And second, by showing other employees that leadership tolerates behaviors that run counter to culture. 

5

Examine how organizational constructs contribute to your culture

To build and maintain a healthy work culture, make sure all the elements of the organization support the culture. Your organization’s policies, processes, and practices provide the infrastructure and accountability measures for targeted cultural behaviors. For example, if you have a culture of innovation, make sure your performance measures reward innovation, encourage collaboration, and flatten hierarchies. Even your talent strategy needs a look through the culture lens. After all, it drives who you bring into your work environment (along with their personalities, motivations, and values) in the first place. 

6

Invest in change management

This point may seem obvious, yet Eagle Hill sees it overlooked regularly. Transforming a toxic culture involves major, thoughtful change. There is no sense in investing in culture change if you don’t invest in strong change management at the same time.

7

Keep an eye on your culture over time

Whether you have set your culture back on the right path or are already enjoying a thriving workplace environment, don’t assume it will progress in a healthy direction without continual guidance. Culture needs to be talked about with new hires, regularly surveyed, monitored with quantifiable business metrics, and part of your performance rewards and career promotion strategies.