How to Tackle a Toxic Organisational Culture

You know that moment when everything seems to click? You’re in sync with your teammates and working toward a common goal. Team meetings are productive, and you trust one another to get the job done. You see each other as allies, not adversaries. And everyone agrees on what success looks like for your department or team. This is a great moment to own up to this assessment of your organisational culture – whether it’s toxic or not.

A toxic culture doesn’t necessarily mean that your office is filled with venomous people who want to tear you down at every opportunity. Even a healthy organisational culture has its ups and downs, with tensions bubbling beneath the surface at times. A toxic culture means that some conditions are so negative that they drag workers down rather than pushing them forward.

What does a healthy Organisational Culture look like?

Organisational cultures can vary widely, depending on the company and its priorities. For example, a culture that’s focused on collaboration and teamwork will look very different from one that prizes individual achievement and status. Likewise, cultures that value long hours and face time will look very different from cultures that value work-life balance and schedule flexibility. A healthy organisational culture has five key elements:

Teamwork – Successful organisations are built on collaboration. A culture that encourages teamwork and collaboration will have tools in place to support collaboration and bring out the best in employees, rather than having them focus on individual achievements.

Respect – In a healthy organisational culture, people feel valued, respected and empowered. They are given opportunities to challenge themselves and contribute to the organisation’s success.

Transparency – A healthy culture is transparent, meaning that information is open to all employees, decisions are shared and people know how things work.

Growth and development – There are opportunities to learn and develop, and people are encouraged to see those opportunities and take advantage of them.

Common purpose – The organisation’s mission and values guide the employees’ work, and people feel a sense of purpose by helping the organisation succeed.

Those who work for a healthy company culture stand more chance of enjoying a healthy lifestyle. A positive working environment is not just about making employees feel valued and appreciated, but also about offering the right kind of workplace environment: one that encourages engagement, collaboration, creativity and wellbeing.

The statistics back this up: Employees in high-quality cultures are more engaged, have less absenteeism and turnover, and have higher morale levels than those working in low-quality environments. And when it comes to health benefits as well as employee retention, high-quality cultures outperform low-quality ones by 14%.

What is a Toxic Culture?

The exact definition of a toxic organisational culture varies depending on who you talk to, but at its core, a toxic culture is one where the conditions are so negative that they drag workers down rather than push them forward. Toxic organisational cultures are often slow moving, with employees spending a lot of time managing their relationships with each other, making sure no one has a reason to get upset at them. This leads to a lot of time being spent on gossip and drama instead of productive work.

Depending on the level of toxicity, many employees may be able to recognise that something is off and have an idea of what needs to be done to make things better. Other times, people might feel stuck in the middle of a toxic environment and not know how to get out of it. If you see signs of a toxic culture or feel that things don’t feel right, take some time to reflect on what might be causing it.

A toxic culture can have a detrimental effect on a business as a whole. When employees are working together in an environment where they feel uncomfortable and unsafe, productivity will suffer. Toxic environments also lead to increased employee turnover, which can be costly for both the business and its employees.

An organization’s culture is created by the people who work there. A positive culture fosters creativity, innovation, and collaboration, while a negative one will lead to employee disengagement and low morale. When employees feel valued and supported, they are more likely to be engaged, productive, and loyal. By contrast, when employees feel ignored or disrespected, they are more likely to leave or become cynical about their role in the organization – creating major issues with recruitment and retention.

In fact, a new phenomenon arising is the idea of “Quiet Quitting”. Despite the name, it doesn’t actually imply that the person has quit, but that they are actually doing the minimum possible in which they can get away with. Gallup project that 50% of workers in the US can be regarded as “quiet quitters” and engaged workers only make up a third of the workforce. This can have huge implications on productivity – something which a toxic culture could be driving.

Recognising a Toxic Culture

Communication is about projecting power – Communication in a toxic culture often feels one-sided, with people trying to get their own point across as strongly as possible. The goal may be to intimidate others and project power, rather than truly communicate.

Gossip is the primary form of communication – If communication is primarily gossip, full of rumours and miscommunication, this could be a sign of a toxic culture.

People are overly concerned with their image – If people are more concerned with their own status and image than getting work done, this could be a sign of a toxic culture.

People jump to conclusions – If people are quick to judge and jump to conclusions, this could be a sign of a toxic culture.

People are overly concerned with who gets credit – If people are overly concerned with who gets credit, this could be a sign of a toxic culture.

People consistently get away with bad or disrespectful behaviour – If people consistently get away with bad or disrespectful behaviour, this could be a sign of a toxic culture.

Why Does a Toxic Culture Happen?

A toxic organisational culture may be the result of a single negative event, but more often, it’s a slow build, with issues festering for months or years. A toxic culture is often a response to a major event, such as an acquisition, a merger, a layoff or an executive change. In these situations, people often feel threatened and employee engagement is low, so they naturally focus on self-protection and defending their power.

It’s human nature, but in a toxic culture, these impulses create more problems than they solve. Sometimes, toxic cultures happen due to bad leadership. Executives may reward certain behaviours and punish other, but those values don’t line up with what the organisation’s teams need. For example, a highly competitive culture may be great if you’re in sports, but it may not fit an engineering team that needs to collaborate with each other.

Steps to Tackling a Toxic Culture

Listen to others – If you see toxicity around you, listen to others and ask them what they think is causing it and how it’s affecting them.

Be mindful of your own thoughts and behaviours. – Be mindful of your own thoughts and behaviours. If you find yourself feeling defensive or wanting to push back against an idea, consider what could be causing it. Is it fear or something else?

Keep objectives aligned – Keep the mission and values of your organisation in mind. This should be mapped back to purpose and create a combined sense of belonging

Make time to reflect – Work to create open communication and transparent decision-making.

Hold yourself and others accountable – Learn from mistakes and be mindful of your own thoughts and behaviours.

Speak up when you see toxicity – When you see people acting in a way that’s unhealthy for the organisation, speak up and challenge them.

As a leader, incessantly focus on culture – Culture is a set of values, beliefs, behaviors and norms that permeates an organization. It’s the organization’s collective way of doing things. Culture is established by leaders and leaders often spend more time thinking about culture than they do about strategy or product. Strong cultures are built on trust, openness, collaboration and inclusion. As a result, people are more likely to trust each other and work together to create successful products and services. With a healthy culture, employees feel empowered to make a difference within the company and are able to operate effectively without feeling micromanaged or controlled. Healthy cultures also cultivate innovation as employees feel free to suggest new ideas and solutions without worrying about being chastised or criticized for their ideas.

In today’s technology-centric world, it’s critical that organizations focus on building a culture where employees are engaged, valued and empowered to contribute their best work each day.


A toxic organisational culture can cause a lot of problems for your team and the organisation as a whole, but with awareness and action, you can tackle it and help maintain a healthy culture. There’s no guaranteed timeline for when you’ll see change, but you can ensure that you’re doing your part to help things improve.

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